April 29, 2016

Addressing Access So We Can Move Towards Inclusion

Diversity is not a new topic for the nonprofit sector. When it comes to the internet, diversity plays a complicated role. If we aren’t all online—creating content, creating tools, creating the internet itself—it shouldn’t be a surprise when the online world doesn’t reflect many of our experiences or communities, let alone offer services or tools that add value to many of our lives.

Bottom line: diversity is missing in our digital world; and one of our biggest hurdles is a misconception around access, which is the foundation of a concept called “digital equity.”

What does digital equity even mean? The National Digital Inclusion Alliance defines digital equity as a universal “daily access to the internet, at speeds, quality, and capacity necessary to accomplish common tasks, with digital skills necessary to fully participate online, and whenever possible on a personal device and home network.”

What Do We Mean By Access?

“Daily access.” I want to focus on that first. When it comes to digital inclusion efforts, access generally means connectivity and service. Unfortunately, it is often used to mean access points, like libraries or schools. This is where we start to distance ourselves from reaching equity. Yes, libraries, schools, and other public access points serve as incredibly valuable resources for those who otherwise would not have internet connectivity in their home or through a personal device, like a smartphone. And while these institutions are valuable, they do not provide the same connectivity as a home network or personal device. Internet service, coming through to a computer sitting on a desk inside of a library, does nothing to move thousands of community members online to apply for jobs, enroll in health care or other services, communicate with their family or friends, or stay on top of the news when the library is closed and those community members are available.

When we think about access, we need to consider instead if it is a realized resource. For example, the Multnomah County Library here in Portland, OR provided over 1 million public computing sessions (on their provided computers, this number does not reflect public wifi sessions used in libraries) last year. That is a way of understanding the realized resource—there were 1 million instances of community members coming into a branch and getting online using a library computer. This is great news and an important offering for the community! However, we can not point to this success and say that all of Portland is connected, or even that all of Portland’s community members had access to the internet. If their work schedules, travel constraints, and other time pressures do not allow them to visit a branch during operating hours to get online (that is even with the assumption that there is an available computer when they get there), it doesn’t become a realized resource.

Let’s Just Admit It

In order to start to work towards equity, we have to first admit that not everyone in our community is online. Then we can start to reach out to those who aren’t online with pathways to realizing the resources necessary for being on the other side of the digital divide: internet service, a device to go online with, and the skills and knowledge to engage.

We can then also identify other structural inequities—services, platforms, and processes that neither include nor welcome new communities. What are the digital services you use each day, either on your phone or computer? Do they feel like a perfect fit for you or your goals? For most of us, the answer is probably no. Someone like you may not have been part of the entire process identifying that concept, creating a prototype, testing it and improving it, releasing it to the market, and making investments to influence development all along the way. But if there is only a small number of privileged people designing and creating the technology surrounding and impacting much of our world, it will never reflect all of our goals, lifestyles, preferences, or modalities.

Lest you think this is a rant on the technology sector, let’s remember that nonprofit organizations fall into this cycle, too. Who isn’t online in your community to take your survey, register for your programs, benefit from your services, or give you feedback? How are you engaging a diversity of community members in your program design and evaluation? What does it mean to create an organization that reflects the needs and goals of the community it serves?

It starts with access. Who is not here? Now, those of us who are, it is our responsibility to build those bridges.

Photo credit: Artwork from OSU’s 4th Annual Diversity Leadership Symposium

Amy Sample Ward
Driven by a belief that the nonprofit technology community can be a movement-based force for positive change, Amy is NTEN’s CEO and former membership director. Her prior experience in direct service, policy, philanthropy, and capacity-building organizations has also fueled her aspirations to create meaningful, inclusive, and compassionate community engagement and educational opportunities for all organizations. Amy inspires the NTEN team and partners around the world to believe in community-generated change. She believes technology can help nonprofits reach their missions more effectively, efficiently, and inclusively, and she’s interested in everything from digital equity to social innovation.