There are many barriers in the digital world when it comes to basic and essential needs such as employment, health insurance, and housing. In today’s job market, for instance, most opportunities are posted on the Internet. It’s also become common practice for applications to be accepted online only. For people who are not familiar with using online tools and who are English language learners, navigating these barriers can be a tremendous challenge.
Michael Mattmiller, Chief Technology Officer for the City of Seattle, said that although many aspects of our lives are becoming more digital, there is still not parity in digital literacy. He said that it’s a challenge for our community when people lack the most basic online skills to interact with potential employers and service providers.
“Examples of things we have found that community members are not able to do, and wish to, are creating an email account or attaching a file,” Mattmiller said.
These barriers have created a digital divide for low-income families who may not have access to the Internet, elderly who have not had opportunities to improve their digital literacy, and immigrants who face technological and language barriers. Fortunately, there are several efforts in Seattle aimed at closing the gap.
Earlier this year, Seattle Goodwill launched a digital literacy initiative program in partnership with Comcast. The program, created by Goodwill and funded by Comcast, utilizes mobile devices to teach people technology skills necessary for finding jobs and participating in other essential needs in the 21st Century.
“Even in a city like Seattle, known for its tech savviness, too many people in this city live on the wrong side of the digital divide,” Comcast spokesperson Steve Kipp said during the program’s launch.
Comcast also runs an Internet Essentials broadband adoption initiative, which provides low cost broadband service and computers to families with children enrolled in the National Free and Reduced lunch program. The service costs $9.95 per month, there are no activation fees, debt forgiveness is available for eligible families, and a computer can be purchased by enrolled families for $149.99. Internet Essentials has resulted in more than 1.4 million people, including 17,000 families in Washington State, having access to the Internet from their homes, according to Comcast.
The City of Seattle also made a commitment to promote “digital inclusion for all.” It achieves much of this through its community technology program. The program, part of the city’s Department of Information Technology, offers funding for community projects through Technology Matching Funds. The city provides matching grants up to $20,000 for projects that provide access to the Internet, digital literacy, and civic engagement. Since 1998, the fund has provided 3.1 million in grants to 247 projects.
The grant cycle opens up annually. Grants are awarded within a one- to two-year window. The Citizens’ Telecommunications and Technology Advisory Board reviews all applications and makes preliminary recommendations.
Vietnamese Friendship Association (VFA) is a re-applicant for the Technology Matching fund. VFA is currently creating a digital media lab at Seattle World School to empower Vietnamese youth to use technology and digital media to explore and express their personal narrative and identity.
“Two years ago we applied for funds to purchase tablets to record stories,” said James Hong, director of operations for VFA. “The tablets were useful because students could take them home and record their stories.”
Hong said the project was well received by students, all of whom were refugees and immigrants, because it was hands-on use of technology, which also allowed them to practice English.
He said many students are also interested in learning more about digital media but they don’t have access to all the technology to make it possible. VFA hopes to purchase equipment for a classroom of about 30 students with its latest grant.
Recently, VFA had a meeting with their partners, the Jack Straw Cultural Foundation and the Seattle World School, to create a shared vision. Their goal is to figure out how to bring new resources to the school and decide what specific technologies will be most effective. The Seattle World School donated a computer room, which the project hopes to complement with video recorders.
The Filipino Community of Seattle plans to extend the STEM-based delivery model for its Robotics and Computer Literacy program to other sites serving low income, at-risk youth of color.
The LWA’s Lao Women Civic Engagement Project plans to purchase translation software and provide 100 hours of computer training for 15 new Lao immigrant women to engage in civic and community discussions around topics impacting their community.
In order to truly bridge the digital divide in Seattle, the city and our communities must remain committed to promoting digital inclusion in a way that reaches out to all cultures, economic backgrounds, and languages, Mattmiller said.
Correction: The print edition version of this story incorrectly said that in the Comcast Internet Essentials program, a “computer is given to enrolled families for $149.99.” It is more accurate to say that a computer can be purchased by enrolled families for $149.99. The correction has been made in this online version.