(Photo from Pixabay)
In March 2021, writing in Generocity about the disparity in COVID vaccination rates in the Philadelphia region, reporter Lynette Hazelton noted that “sign-up procedures were designed for those with working cellphones, strong bandwidth, fast internet, good English skills and digital literacy.”
A year earlier, when the School District of Philadelphia first closed down its brick-and-mortar schools and took education online as a consequence of COVID, it scrambled to connect low-income students in grades K-12 with free internet services.
And beyond the realm of education, the emergence of telehealth and emergency relief services during the pandemic that were dependent on reliable internet access underscored just how great the digital divide in the city really was.
It’s no surprise then that one of the key findings of our recent report, “Until Next Time: Lessons from a Year of Crisis, Reckoning and Disruption,” is that inequitable digital access actually undercut the effectiveness of many emergency measures. It points to the need for nonprofit, philanthropic, community and civic orgs to consider digital access as foundational to the services and work they fund and/or provide.
Last week, when we published a story about Coded by Kids, The Welcoming Center for New Pennsylvanians and Philadelphia FIGHT receiving grants to help boost the digital literacy skills of the people those nonprofits serve, we asked our community — via our daily newsletter — to tell us what they and/or their organizations are doing to help improve digital access.
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“Temple Small Business Development Center was just awarded $1.2M from [Economic Development Administration] and $300K from [PA Department of Community and Economic Development] to create the PA Digital Transformation & eCommerce Program (PADTEP),” said Maura Shenker, the director of Temple SBDC. “We’ll be supporting small businesses with all kinds of digital literacy initiatives, website creation, social media marketing, SEO, etc.”
Kate Rivera, a consultant at Technology Learning Collaborative emailed Generocity about that organization’s training efforts.
“The Technology Learning Collaborative is a professional development organization in Philly made of digital inclusion practitioners and advocates,” Rivera said. “We are cultivating a community of practice in Philadelphia, have monthly webinars, and are launching additional training and capacity building supports.”
One of the Collaborative’s webinars is on the topic of digital inclusion and is being held this afternoon from 2 to 3 p.m., as part of national Digital Inclusion Week. (Register here.)
Chosen 300 Ministries, meanwhile, offers digital access for people experiencing homelessness.
“Chosen 300 Computer Literacy Center is open every Monday, Wednesday and Friday from 12 to 3 p.m. to give individuals experiencing homelessness digital access,” said Program Manager Sherica Douglas. “During those productive hours, individuals can apply for jobs, apply for benefits, create an email address, get assistance with their resume, connect with love ones, read, etc.”
“Also, we offer a five-week computer course in the spring for men and women in transition who are interested in moving forward with information technology,” Douglas added. “These courses will provide individuals with the basic computer concepts needed to enhance their resume as well as help them stay up to date on technology.”
One of the Generocity community members who responded felt our question about what nonprofits were doing to provide digital access was too narrowly focused.
“In addition to asking what people and their organizations are doing to improve digital access, I think it is even more important for you to ask Comcast what they are doing here,” said the nonprofit pro, who asked that their name be withheld. “As the HQ city for this business with net profits of more than $11 billion in 2019, Philadelphia should be the model for equitable connectivity, not the city where thousands of kids still can’t do remote learning from their crowded homes and thousands of elderly and poor people have no reliable Internet access. (And don’t fall for Comcast’s claims about Internet Essentials, which has been so slow that everyone who could afford an alternative dropped it.)”
“The Roberts family may be great benefactors of Penn Medicine, Children’s Hospital and the Barnes Foundation, but their wealth comes from a company that has largely ignored the aspirations of Philadelphia’s poor people to become first-class citizens in the Internet Age,” the respondent added via email. “All the efforts of all Philadelphia’s nonprofits to improve equitable digital access pale in comparison to what Comcast could do without blinking if its values so ordained.”
According to a Comcast spokesperson, concerns about Internet Essentials speeds are outdated since those “have been doubled to 50/5, a robust speed tier that many of our non-discounted customers choose.”
“We have been committed to creating and supporting digital equity within the communities we serve through Internet Essentials for more than 10 years,” said Jennifer Bilotta, VP of communications at Comcast. “Internet Essentials has connected a cumulative total of more than 10 million people across the country — more than 520,000 in Philadelphia to the Internet at home — most for the very first time. We also stepped up as the largest donors to PHLConnectED which has enabled more than 18,000 free internet connections — through Internet Essentials or WiFi hotspots — since it launched a little more than a year ago.”
Bilotta also noted that Comcast has installed 71 Lift Zones in Philadelphia, and has supported the work of many local organizations that address the digital divide — including Coded by Kids, the Welcoming Center and Philadelphia FIGHT, which were mentioned earlier in the story.
What is clear from these community responses is also clear in the key finding about digital access in Generocity’s report: digital access is not one issue but relevant to all of the issues our city confronts.
So we want to continue to hear from you. Join us at the #generocity channel on Technical.ly‘s Slack, and let us know there what you are doing to improve digital access in your neighborhood, community, city and region.-30-
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