Digital inclusion is an important topic in the public sector, particularly as we emerge from the pandemic with a unique opportunity for transformation for the better.
Simply put, digital inclusion is the ability of individuals and groups to access and use information and communication technologies. As jurisdictions invest more heavily in modern digital infrastructures, now is the time to make sure digital inclusion is a purposeful part of any public sector tech strategy.
The National League of Cities (NLC) has discussed digital inclusion in an infrastructure and training context. In an NLC guest blog, Chike Aguh, chief executive officer of EveryoneOn, describes a “three-legged stool of digital inclusion: affordable internet access, a device on which to access the internet and training on how to use both.”
The National Association of Counties (NACo) is similarly aligned in the importance of helping individuals from minority or low-income populations to gain access to broadband as well as devices. With workers and students alike at home during the pandemic, the dynamic around broadband access changed and increased in urgency.
As noted in NACo County News, “when the majority of schools shut down in March , it was not as easy for many students as simply turning on a computer and joining a virtual classroom with a click of the mouse.” In Illinois, Cook County’s Bureau of Economic Development and Council on Digital Equality data “found a quarter of the county residents lacked high-speed internet while 17% of Black and Latinx families throughout the county lacked computers.”
Wi-Fi and Transportation
Rick Usher, assistant city manager of Kansas City, Missouri, has an instructive and inspirational take on digital inclusion — one that includes technology’s part in making cities livable for all residents.
“I feel like more of us are finding our humanity and recognizing that the pandemic adversely impacted residents who were already negatively impacted by the economy, systemic racism and improper health care benefits,” Usher noted.
Kansas City has a number of initiatives underway to help close equity and access gaps. In 2020, the city made public transit zero-fare for residents. Along with free Kansas City bus service, the Kansas City streetcar is extending its free route from two miles to six miles to aid in downtown revitalization, access to services and access to the University of Missouri-Kansas City.
The city’s Wi-Fi network that is built throughout the downtown area also serves the streetcar corridor. All Kansas City transit buses have Wi-Fi, and even along a new rapid transit line. With a Wi-Fi antenna at each stop, riders can be online while en route.
In Temecula, California, the city instituted a Race, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (REDI) commission to address issues of access and inclusion. A unique initiative of this group is the deployment of Wi-Fi gardens in partnership with the school district to address the digital divide that became even more apparent during remote learning.
“The school district had done a great job leveraging equipment and Mi-Fis, but there were still needs not being met, so the city took on the initiative of building out Wi-Fi gardens at three public park spaces,” explained Michael Heslin, Director of Information Technology and Support Services for the city. “We took existing infrastructure and leveraged it outside, so that the students could come and do their learning.” In a period of just three months, the parks saw over 750 visitors — mostly students — which illustrated the need.
To aid in discussion and strategy around digital inclusion for jurisdictions of all sizes, the National Digital Inclusion Network offers a variety of resources including a webinar series, resources on defining digital equity offices and regular open community calls. GovLoop’s article “Relief Funds and Equitable Service” explores how the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 opens a window for governments to invest in technology that can help close the equity and access gap.
Providing the technology needed for fair access to essential government information and services can increase equity and better serve those in need. At the next level, online access to local government can enhance empowerment and transparency for all residents, for example, through self-service portals. Beginning with the foundational elements of digital inclusion, modern technology can truly move the needle in creating fair, equitable and thriving communities.
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Meredith Trimble is a former municipal official and Town Council Acting Chair, who focused on strategic planning, annual budgeting and bonded infrastructure projects. Her government experience also includes posts in both federal and state-level executive branch agencies; Associate Editor of the Federal Election Commission’s FEC Record; and Director of Education for the CT Office of State Ethics. In her current role as a Content Manager, Editorial with Tyler Technologies, Inc., she writes content to help empower those who serve the public. Her current focus is to help facilitate data-enabled organizations and create connections between governments and those they serve.