(Photo by Zari Tarazona)
This story is part of "Digital Divide" month of the Generocity Editorial Calendar. It is underwritten by Comcast NBCUniversal. It was not reviewed by Comcast NBCUniversal before publication.
When it comes to digital literacy, the issues of access, adoption, inclusion and equity need to be a part of the conversation.
The digital divide — the gap between those who have access to technology and those who don’t — is often the hot topic within discussions about digital literacy.
Throughout this month, Generocity has covered the digital divide in Philadelphia through stories like the nonprofits and city initiatives helping residents access the internet for job searches and how the 2020 Census will affect the LGBTQ community.
But what happens when the people whose job it is to think about digital literacy have different definitions for what that means?
Generocity facilitated a conversation between Liana Dragoman, director of the City’s Office of Open Data and Digital Transformation, who who focuses on design and usability; Andrew Buss, deputy chief information officer of the City’s Office of Innovation and Technology, who focuses on digital access and tech adoption; and Juliet Fink Yates, Philadelphia FIGHT’s chief learning officer, whose concern is digital inclusion for clients and community. The three met at Generocity’s offices for a wide-ranging discussion on the topic May 29.
Defining the language
For Dragoman, the definition of the digital divide is similar to the Office of Open Data and Digital Transformation’s mission. “We’re the team that helps the city improve access to city information and programs and services,” she said.
Her multidisciplinary team, which redesigned the city’s website (www.phila.gov) is made up of service designers, design researchers, user experience designers, content strategists and developers focused on accessibility, she said.
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Buss said he’s traditionally viewed the digital divide or digital inclusion through access to technology, and then the use or adoption of it. “[It means] whether people have the means to have the technology and then the internet, but also whether they are experienced enough to use it meaningfully for whatever purpose they want to use it for,” he explained.
"Everybody actually has the right, or should have the right, to have a certain level of access and ability to use that technology."
Yates said the language is shifting — people are talking more about digital inclusion than the digital divide. Digital equity has been on her mind. “Everybody actually has the right, or should have the right, to have a certain level of access and ability to use that technology,” she said. “So it frames it more as a right rather than the haves and have nots.”
Yates added that we have to consider how to get everybody access to technology, like phones and the internet, so they can function in today’s society.
Buss agreed that the definition for the digital divide has become more multifaceted and extends beyond access and adoption. “I think it’s important to have these conversations because we’re learning all these different perspectives of how people view the issue, and also sort of driving how they can impact the issue,” he said.
What’s happening in the city and on the ground
To carry out her work with the city, Dragoman thinks about how residents can better access life’s essential information or programs by mitigating any barriers. “I feel like the way that we tackle these issues is first really understanding the digital barriers, but also the non-digital barriers,” she said.
The barriers can include a person having difficulty filling out a form that was written at a higher reading level or not being able to take off work to come into a municipal building to meet someone, she added.
Buss said his work is almost like a lead up to Dragoman’s. This year, he has been working with the Digital Literacy Alliance, a coalition of public and private organizations, to award thousands of dollars in grants for digital literacy initiatives to help Philadelphians complete the mostly-digital 2020 Census.
"I feel like the way that we tackle these issues is first really understanding the digital barriers, but also the non-digital barriers."
The Digital Literacy Alliance, the KEYSPOT program, a network of public computer labs throughout the city, and the Technology Learning Collaborative, a professional development organization dedicated to digital literacy folks, are all a part of the city’s three-prong approach to this issue.
“It’s a pretty effective series of initiatives, I think, for the city,” he said.
Dragoman added that her team used the KEYSPOT centers to test the redesigned city website.
For its part, Philadelphia FIGHT offers a variety of services, including digital literacy classes, in their Critical Path Learning Center and receive critical feedback on their efforts from the community advisory board and community members.
“When we redesigned our space and opened our new center, people were really blown away. It felt like an Apple store,” Yates said. “They couldn’t believe that this was for them and that there was so much opportunity for them to take advantage of in that space.”
“But before folks are even ready for that, we’re providing supportive services … to make sure that they can take advantage of these other opportunities,” she added. The services include a café where people can come in for a cup of coffee and charge their phones, or more involved support like assessing needs or barriers to acquiring an ID.
‘Mobile is not the panacea’
“Mobile is not the panacea for digital literacy that many people think it is”, Buss said. “I hope people don’t stop focusing on this issue because they assume we’ve figured it out since most people are walking around with a mobile device.”
Dragoman said that mobile is good for getting quick access to basic information but it still poses a problem for people who want to apply to a city program and don’t have access to a desktop and printer.
“I think what we’re doing as a city is trying to start to digitize forms and processes so that you can [fill them out] from a mobile device [and] have that equal experience as someone who has access to more tools,” Dragoman. “I feel like that, right now, is a big problem.”
Looking toward the future
Dragoman thinks the city is ahead of the curve and moving in a good direction with a multitude of programs and the government invested and interested in the work.
“We just need to coordinate the work better,” Buss said. “I don’t think there’s ever been kind of a role or a process for coordinating the various initiatives out there.”
"We just need to coordinate the work better."
When it comes to the bigger picture, Yates said that every time there’s new technology, we’re going to create new divides — and not everybody has a device that works or any device at all.
Well, she has a vision, she said: a government distribution program for laptops and phones.
“The only way we’ve solved big structural issues is through government, and we do it through subsidies,” Yates added. “People get LIHEAP, they get subsidized support … I think we need to think of it as a utility.”-30-
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