Photo by Robert Scoble
Photo by Robert Scoble

While the majority of Seattle’s population own at least one mobile device and enjoy the benefits of being online at all times, the digital divide remains—minority communities are the ones with the most limited access to online information and 15 percent of the city’s population still do not have Internet access at home.

However, the good news is that community leaders and the city government are making an active effort to ensure digital equity across Seattle’s growing population.

“Digital equity refers to a state under which everyone in a community has opportunities to get the online access and skills they need to obtain information and services, to perform critical life tasks, and to improve their quality of life,” said Jim Loter, the director of information technology at the Seattle Public Library.

Loter is one of the action committee members of the City of Seattle’s Digital Equity Initiative that was launched in the beginning of 2015. According to the action plan of the initiative, the framework for digital equity encompasses access, digital literacy, and content and services.

Access is the fundamental component of digital equity, Loter said. But the more pressing need is to ensure everyone in the community has the opportunities and resources to develop the skills and competencies in order to take full advantage of technology services.

“In other words, to become digitally literate,” Loter said. “The ability to be proficient in using computers and the Internet has become a basic pre-requisite to obtaining education, employment, and economic stability.”

Kendee Yamaguchi, the Director of Digital Engagement for the City of Seattle said: “Our neighborhoods prosper when they have the information technology capacity needed for civic and cultural participation, employment, lifelong learning and access to essential services.”

However, such information technology capacity is certainly not equal for everyone. Barbara Nabors-Glass, vice president of job training and education at Seattle Goodwill, said that while digital access is commonly found in wealthy communities, low-income people of color as well as immigrants and refugees simply do not have the same kind of access.

“We find that those populations get left further and further behind because of [the digital divide],” Nabors-Glass said. “Entry-level jobs and career-ladder jobs require the ability to use technology and if low-income people of color, immigrants, and refugees aren’t able to access technology or have the opportunity to learn, this affects their future economically and socially.”

The findings of the City of Seattle’s Technology Access and Adoption report suggests that 85 percent of the city’s population had Internet access at home while 66 percent owned at least one mobile devices in 2014. In contrast, among the under-represented groups, only 38 percent owned a smart phone, 14 percent owned a tablet, and half owned a laptop.

“The problem of digital inequity most definitely disproportionately affects minorities and people of color,” Loter said. “Asian Pacific Islanders and African Americans are 20 percent less likely to go online to look for health and medical information than are Caucasians.”

Joneil Sampana, a business program manager at Microsoft, said that the company is exploring new and innovative ways for government agencies and elected officials to improve citizen experience, including digital government, education, health, public safety, and national defense. “Common themes in many of these conversations include digital access and equity, privacy, and security,” Sampana said.

In addition, as one of the board members of the city’s Technology Advisory Board, Sampana said he has witnessed the challenges faced by minority communities first hand.

“The issue that’s closest to my heart as the son of an immigrant, single mother is the far too common challenges immigrant parents experience when searching for resources for their children or navigating the Seattle Public Schools website,” he said.

Carmen Rahm, the chief information officer of Seattle Public Schools and also a committee member of the city’s initiative said that the school district is actively working with the city and local partners to achieve digital equity. “Our goal is to provide an equal environment for students of all the school districts,” Rahm said.

Rahm said that Seattle Public Schools does not have written guidelines to restrict the use of online resources in school projects or assignments but teachers are encouraged to minimize such assignments because they all know that the school district is trying to maximize digital equity.

“There is still inequity that exceeds in the community,” Rahm said. “I have had students come up to me to tell me they don’t have a computer at home. They only have Internet access through their smart phones. Some students said they have to stay at Starbucks or other places to use their Internet. That’s one of the reasons why I’m so adamant about being on the action committee.”

Nabors-Glass said: “Digital literacy needs to be a part of every curriculum and every learning environment of schools, non-profit and community based organizations, mutual aid societies.”

Seattle Goodwill partners with Comcast and their Internet Essentials Program to provide low-cost Internet plans for students.

The Seattle Public Library provides free Internet access and free digital skills education programs to anyone in the community.

“We also now provide expanded services on our public computers,” Loter said, “including free access to the Adobe Creative Suite software and free access to the Microsoft IT Academy and online software skills development courses.”

While the Digital Equity Initiative is still in its planning stage, leaders are certain about the changes the initiative will make—and optimism often makes all the differences.

“I really believe what the city and the school district are doing will eliminate the barriers,” Rahm said.

Loter said that the initiative process has already been successful at bringing private sector companies, Internet service providers, social organizations, and government together.

“I’ve witnessed a high degree of engagement and commitment from the representatives of all those sectors,” he said. “I do remain optimistic that the initiative will result in solutions that will greatly reduce the inequity that exists today.”

The ultimate goal is to connect everyone on the digital level.

“I have faith in the servant leadership and empathetic mindset of so many Seattleites,” Sampana said. “We have such a unique individualistic, yet collective culture. There’s a growing connectedness that binds Seattle citizens closer together.”

More STEM and digital access stories here:

STEMing the Tide—Why STEM and digital access matters

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