In this episode of The Intelligent Community, ICF Co-Founder Robert Bell continues his conversation with Anne Schweiger, Boston's Broadband & Digital Equity Advocate. Anne works with people across Boston to figure out how they can make broadband work better for everyone. She believes Boston needs to be a place where everyone has options for affordable and fast broadband.
In this episode of The Intelligent Community, ICF Co-Founder Robert Bell speaks with Anne Schweiger, Boston's Broadband & Digital Equity Advocate. Anne works with people across Boston to figure out how they can make broadband work better for everyone. She believes Boston needs to be a place where everyone has options for affordable and fast broadband.
Digital equality is a simple principle: that everyone in the community deserves access to broadband technologies and the skills to use them. Like most principles, it is easier to understand than it is to live.
The explosive advance of the broadband economy has worsened the exclusion of people who already play a peripheral role in the economy and society, whether due to poverty, lack of education, prejudice, age, disability, or simply where they live. It has disrupted industries from manufacturing to retail services, enlarging the number of people for whom the digital revolution is a burden rather than a blessing.
Intelligent Communities promote digital equity because it is the moral thing to do. They also do it for eminently practical reasons. People who are excluded from the economy and society cost enormous amounts of money for social services, criminal justice and acute healthcare. Like equality itself, digital equality is an ideal that will never be reached. But every should be interested in policies and programs that make the excluded population as small as humanly possible.
Promoting Digital Equality
In surveys, the digitally excluded cite cost as their most common reason for being offline, and the lack of anything relevant as their second. Intelligent Communities work to reduce cost barriers and acquaint residents with the knowledge, opportunity and entertainment available online.
- Access. Without a computer, laptop or tablet, access is impossible. Intelligent Communities work on access by refurbishing used computers and providing them to households in need, as well as providing free computers and broadband access at public facilities like libraries, schools and government offices.
- Affordability. For households with their own computers, the cost of broadband can represent a challenge in many parts of the world. Intelligent Communities introduce subsidy programs for digital equipment and broadband connections to ease adoption.
- Skills. A computer and broadband connection are useless without the right skills, ranging from basic literacy to keyboarding, PC literacy and facility with the Web. Communities respond to a skills gap with training programs for every age group in schools, libraries, community centers and special purpose facilities.
Challenges to Digital Equality
Every community that has addressed digital equality promotes the same set of achievements. So many public-access computers installed at libraries, municipal buildings, community centers and convenience stores. New classes on technology in primary and secondary schools. But successful Intelligent Communities go deeper. In crafting digital equality programs, they go beyond the basics to focus on fundamental change in the dynamics of digital exclusion:
- Literacy and Numeracy. The tools of the digital age require reasonable literacy and numeracy, or workarounds that allow illiterate segments of the population to access online services. In industrialized nations, illiterate adults typically deny their inability for fear of humiliation and often develop elaborate strategies to avoid exposure. Digital inclusion programs must make literacy and numeracy training readily available in ways that preserve the dignity of users. Web sites designed to provide essential information to citizens can also be written on a low reading level and make use of colors and images to guide users. In developing nations where literacy rates are far lower, communities have developed interesting workarounds to help reach the excluded.
- Relevance. Not surprisingly, people who have never used a computer or accessed the Web may think they have nothing of value to offer. (Older adults are more likely than young people to feel this way.) Fortunately, local government and institutions are in a perfect position to change their minds. Community Web sites can offer information and services on schools, careers, taxes, recreation, transit, health, and other topics important to people in their daily lives. Where segments of a community have strong religious, ethnic or cultural identity, government can work with institutions from houses of worship to social clubs to bring them online.
- Capacity-Building. The long-term solution to digital exclusion is to have members of offline groups – whether the working poor, the homeless, the elderly, an ethnic minority or caste – involved in providing access, delivering content and developing services. Because they are members of the group, they understand the group's needs and interests better than any outsider can. They also, it is to be hoped, have a deeper and more long-lasting commitment to moving their group from the digital periphery to the center.
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