February 13, 2019

From St. Louis to San Francisco, what cities are doing to bridge the digital divide

Communities are connecting people to the resources they need.

Inside one of Byte Back's classes. Here, students are taking an IT certification course.

What would you do without a smartphone or computer? You might struggle to keep up at work or miss out on the latest news. It might seem like a bad dream, but it’s a reality for many Americans.

It’s called the digital divide, and it affects more people than you may think.

“I think that the digital divide has become a more significant driver of inequality than ever before. Twenty years ago, if you didn’t have access to a computer, you could still participate in society fully,” said Elizabeth Lindsey, executive director of Byte Back, a nonprofit that focuses on tech training as a pathway to careers.

“Our lives have shifted to becoming entirely based in technology. Millions of jobs have changed. Microsoft Word is something we take for granted; it’s a crucial tool to having a resume in order to get a job.”

Access to technology also impacts everything from homework to health care. Children from low-income families are unable to do their homework without a laptop, while senior citizens might not be able to access their doctors like they once did.

Purchasing devices as well as repairing or replacing old ones are expensive options. But even with a device, people have to know how to use it.

Enter: free tech support and training.

You can't take a coding class if you don’t know how to use Google or even save a document. It's important we keep trying to think of solutions. — Elizabeth Lindsey of Byte Back

It’s happening in cities and towns across the country. And it’s being offered by local government and nonprofits alike.

In Washington, D.C., it’s being called the All Hands on Tech program. Run by the District’s Office of the Chief Technology Officer. The office hosted special repair events, where the city government’s own technicians as well as volunteers from Byte Back were on site to help.

Similar programs are tackling the issue in their own way.

San Francisco Public Library has a weekly Digital Device Drop-In event, where residents come for repairs and to ask questions about how to use their devices.

The library also hosts an annual Tech Week, which is a series of events designed to get residents and library members excited about using technology.

“You can barely get a job without having some sort of phone,” San Francisco Library’s program manager, Katherine Eppler, told CityLab. “The problem is, we’re really pushing a lot of our community toward cell phone use before they have any idea how to use a [smartphone].”

St. Louis Missouri’s Oasis program hosts Ask a Techie nights and focuses on giving residents confidence in their tech abilities.

Kansas City’s Connecting for Good program is located in a social services shelter, making it easier for them to support the people who need their services the most.

OATS, or Older Adults Technology Services, in New York City has a specialized space called the Senior Planet Exploration Center. It is for people ages 60 and up to learn and use state-of-the-art technology that’s just for them.

So if you want to help close the digital divide, here’s what you can do.

First, look for opportunities to volunteer at organizations that provide tutoring and tech training. Or you can donate money to organizations that do this work.

Another helpful step you could take is to find places that accept donations of gently used devices. Smartphones, tablets, and especially laptops are all needed, but they can’t be too old and must be able to work at a decent speed.

“You can’t take a coding class if you don’t know how to use Google or even save a document,” said Lindsey. “It’s important we keep trying to think of solutions.”

Caitlin Fairchild

Caitlin Fairchild is the associate editor of The Renewal Project.