Our First Year in the Battle for Digital Inclusion
This month, Connecting for Good marks its first year as a recognized nonprofit organization. Just last week, Jim Lynch of TechSoup spoke at the luncheon where the Kansas City Digital Inclusion Fund was announced. He made one statement that particularly stood out. Mr. Lynch said, “The Digital Divide is a tough nut to crack and I’m not sure anyone has figured out how to do that yet.”
There’s a lot of truth in his statement. After fighting a year’s worth of battles on the front lines of digital inclusion, we’ve learned that there are a few things that can be done to make some real progress in closing the Digital Divide.
1) Low income and under resourced people want to get online! Some surveys suggest that most people who aren’t online simply don’t see the value in doing so. Our experience since we set up shop in one of Kansas City’s toughest neighborhoods does not seem to bear this out. To the contrary, we have experienced a flood of people wanting to learn how to use the Internet. Honestly, we don’t have enough staff and volunteers to keep up with the demand, though we are conducting as many as eight basic introductory classes a week. Think about it, where does a low income 50 year old black male go to learn how to use the Internet? He may know perfectly well that he should “go digital” but where can he find such help? Free neighborhood-based training is the only solution.
2) We can’t close the Digital Divide digitally. No matter how much money is spent on trying to close the Digital Divide online, in the end it may prove to be the most expensive and least productive way to go about it. Google Fiber found that out last year when a big chunk of Kansas City’s urban core nearly missed qualifying for installation of their gigabit fiber service. This company is among the most elite in online advertising and promotions. But in the end, in order to avoid leaving out the most needy neighborhoods, they had to send out foot soldiers to recruit subscribers in person.
3) The Digital Divide is not going to be closed though a high level marketing campaign. The reason is simple, all the things that have excluded people from the digital revolution are the same cultural, economic and racial barriers that have kept them in isolation and poverty for generations. But, we sincerely believe that we possess tools in the Internet that can tear these down and unite communities and overcome prejudice and injustice. Through basic connectivity people are enabled to communicate with one another and access never before available resources. Digital citizenship is real and we have in our hands the power to get people empowered and engaged to become more active in bringing about positive change in their communities.
4) It needs to be “up close and personal.” If we want to bridge the Digital Divide we can’t help people we don’t understand. It’s important to know the cultures of the people we hope to reach. We can’t go into an under served neighborhood and say “Here we are with the answer to your need!” The message we share at Connecting for Good is one of empowerment; more Internet access and knowledge of the technology means people can take their futures into their own hands. We provide them with the resources to make better lives for themselves. The Digital Divide will be closed when we can take a handful of eager learners into the digital age one step at a time. For our digital life skills introductory classes, we limit the class size to ten and try to get other volunteers to help whenever we can. Though the waiting list for these classes is nearly 100, we know we can’t give them a decent learning experience with more people. At a recent training session, one of our trainers could be heard saying, “Keyboard? That’s the big thing in front of you with all the buttons!”
5) We need to overcome the cost factor. The entry points to becoming a productive user of the Internet are simply too expensive for low income people. The cost of connecting includes having an Internet service provider, the necessary hardware and the education to really benefit from being online. We thought long and hard about a price point for our refurbished computers. We know that people value something more if they have some personal investment in it. Plus, we don’t want to see our devices ending up in a pawn shop in a week. Our basic price is actually $100 for our refurbished PCs. But we give a $50 voucher to qualified low income people who complete our basic introduction to the Internet classes. Some people are now paying $5.00 a month on a “layaway plan.” On the connectivity side, even $10.00 a month can be too much for families that have incomes of less than $25,000 a year. So, we are promoting Google Fiber’s $300 for 7 years of 5 MB of Internet plan. And for those for whom it is out-of-reach, we are working to find other extremely affordable ways to help the “poorest of the poor” get online. Wireless networks have emerged as the most cost effective approach, especially in complexes where multiple families live.
6) If we had a million dollars to spend.. Our focus would be creating something similar to AmeriCorps that is dedicated to digital inclusion. We would train an army of fired up young people, provide them support for a year, and set them up in the neighborhoods with low Internet adoption. There, we would work on setting up Wi-Fi hotspots and public access computer centers where one-on-one, face-to-face relationships could be built with the neighborhood. By building trust and compassionate hand holding, they would lead residents into the digital mainstream. It’s going to take “getting up close and personal” to bring the people who need the Internet most into a place where they can take advantage of all the benefits they can find online.
At Connecting for Good, we are driven every day in the pursuit of this work because of our three core values:
- Internet connectivity equals opportunity. It is an absolute necessity in order to fully participate as a productive citizen in a digital society.
- Education is the number one thing that lifts people from poverty. In a digital society it is impossible to pursue a quality education without access to the Internet.
- In-home Internet access must be viewed as an essential modern utility; like phone service, electricity and running water.
And, using our three-pronged strategy of Connectivity, Hardware and Digital Literacy we are closing the Digital Divide every day in a lasting and significant way.