Within a few weeks, COVID-19 has completely changed our daily way of life. For many, the Internet is now our only channel for news, communication, education, and access to crucial services. So what happens when you don’t have access to the Internet?
For 30 million Americans1 stranded on the other side of the digital divide, this means a very bleak reality in which students are left behind2, families are disconnected, and crucial services become inaccessible.
At the same time, we’ve seen a number of creative organizations step up to the plate to meet the needs of those who lack the connectivity or devices required to participate in the new societal norm. Here are some innovative ways that governments and other civic organizations are tackling this digital divide.
1. Sharing Internet access through community partnerships and traveling hotspots
One of the main challenges facing under-resourced households is lack of Internet access. Even in Silicon Valley, the heart of the tech world, 29% of urban families3 do not have access to broadband Internet. In Albuquerque, NM, a new program, “WiFi on Wheels”4, aims to tackle this problem by placing mobile WiFi units at 21 locations throughout the city, including public schools and libraries. Users must remain in their cars during use, but may drive up to 100 feet of the units. In South Carolina, local governments are trying a similar approach, equipping WiFi on over 3,000 school buses to provide Internet to students in need5.
With over 16,500 libraries across the US, public libraries have stepped up as critical collaborators due to their trusted role in communities. American Library Association, for example, has recently encouraged their libraries to leave their WiFi on6 to support broadband capacity in their neighboring communities.
2. Enabling distance learning through laptop loans
Even with Internet connection, many still lack access to devices. According to the Pew Research Center, “roughly 3 out of 10 Americans adults with household incomes below $30,000 a year don’t own a smartphone.” Roughly 1 out of 2 adults in this group don’t own a desktop or laptop computer. “By comparison, each of these technologies are nearly ubiquitous among adults in households earning $100,000 or more a year.”7
An estimated 17% of US students do not have access to a computer at home.8 In the San Francisco Unified School District, up to 10,000 students are estimated to need internet or device access at home. Over 5,400 devices have been distributed so far to students within a single week, with more to come. Similarly, Jefferson County Public Schools in Louisville, KY have committed to providing 25,000 Chromebooks to students9 and similar initiatives are underway in Boston10, New York11, Portland12 and others.
3. Shifting government services online
With government offices closed, many cities are now facing the challenge of paring back government services or shifting their services online to maintain access for members of their community.
In several communities in New Hampshire, vehicle registrations, animal registration, building permits and land-use application have moved online, with staff reporting to offices in order to support residents having difficulty navigating online services13.
In San Francisco, where the access to affordable housing is especially impacted, Exygy worked with the Mayor’s Office of Housing and Community Development (MOHCD) to bring the City’s affordable housing search, application, and lottery process fully online in 2017. DAHLIA, the product Exygy built with MOHCD, is now managed by San Francisco Digital Services and MOHCD. It continues to provide housing listings and eligibility information to residents who need it and each application only takes 15 to 20 minutes!
The City of Boston’s website is another great example of how civic governments can use online channels to both inform and support their community during our current pandemic in a professional and human way. Since the outbreak, Boston.gov’s homepage has transformed to acknowledge the scale and urgency of the pandemic, providing users a clear and easy path to COVID-19 resources. At the same time, icons and simple language clearly inform residents which government services have been adjusted, scaled back, or interrupted due to COVID.
4. Expanding access to non-English language resources
Another challenge facing underserved populations is the lack of non-English digital resources, particularly in near real-time channels often used for sharing information or alerting residents. In the US, more than 67.3 million residents14 speak a non-English language at home, a population equal to the entire country of France! Yet, these digital resources often remain English-only or English-dominant.
In the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD), where 43.9% of city residents speak a language other than English15, it was crucial all families and students, regardless of language spoken at home, could have easy access to the same online information. When designing the 100+ new SFUSD school websites, which launched last September, we worked closely with SFUSD to make sure that the site could support the most commonly spoken languages in San Francisco, including Spanish, Vietnamese, Mandarin, Tagalog, Arabic and more. Today, these sites have become helpful channels for the school district to inform students and families about COVID-19 resources, regardless of language.
Other governments have begun similar work in creating non-English language resources. In New York, one of the cities hardest hit by the pandemic, the COVID-19 Engagement Portal was recently launched – a project focused on collecting self-reported information from people who have experienced COVID-19 symptoms or recently come into contact with a potentially sick person. Available in many different languages, including Arabic, Bengali, French, Polish, and more, this tool allows all New Yorkers to participate, regardless of native language.
In Massachusetts, the state’s COVID-19 text alerts service has recently been expanded to include Spanish, though the state’s website also provides information about COVID in 13 languages16.
5. Shifting from paper-only to paper-and-digital
For many government agencies, paper is still king. From applications to court notices, paper and mail-in forms are often the sole or primary channel of operation. While paper-driven processes are still important to allow access to households without reliable internet service, using a mix of paper and digital channels (e.g. mobile apps, SMS, web apps), opens access to those who may not own printers, access postal services, or have a permanent mailing address.
In the US, paper has been a helpful supplement to digital systems, especially for households with limited connectivity. In Florida, for example, unemployment paper applications were recently made available when the state’s online system was unable to handle the volume of incoming traffic due to shelter-in-place17. In contrast, the IRS was recently reported to be experiencing extreme delays in handling paper correspondence, including individual tax returns and business tax returns, due to an over-reliance on paper processes and legacy systems18.
Exygy has supported a number of government teams who have recently shifted their paper-first processes online, including the San Francisco Mayor’s Office of Housing and Community Development and the Judicial Council of California (JCC) – the chief policy-making agency of the largest court system in the world.
Elsewhere around the world, countries are turning to more future-leaning approaches to expanding paper-driven channels. In Dubai, the UAE Pass, allows citizens to sign up for the first “national digital identity,” which allows people access to over 5,000 government services digitally, including the ability to verify and sign government documents electronically. Meanwhile in India, most government activities have shifted into online channels, such as E-Office and WhatsApp19. Similarly, in the Philippines, enhanced community quarantine (ECQ) passes have gone virtual, allowing citizens to download virtual IDs which provide proof of essential travel20.
COVID-19 has provided immense challenges and opportunities for communities to rethink the way they provide services to all members in their area, whether digitally-limited or -savvy.
Across the US and around the world, we are excited to see communities embrace this challenge in innovative ways, including:
Sharing Internet access through community partnerships and traveling hotspots
Enabling distance learning through laptop loans
Shifting government services online
Expanding access to non-English language resources
Shifting from paper-only to paper-and-digital
If you know of other interesting and innovative ways your community is tackling the digital divide, please share with us! We are always excited to connect and collaborate with fellow changemakers.
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