Tech Volunteers with the San Antonio Public Library work with patrons at a recent job fair.

Building digital inclusion from the ground up

Being part of NTEN’s Digital Inclusion Fellowship has led me to do some really cool stuff. I support digital inclusion efforts from the ground up: from recruiting and training skilled technology volunteers to finding innovative ways of connecting adult learners to San Antonio’s changing digital landscape. Best of all, I’ve counted on some great local support from my City Host, the San Antonio Public Library (SAPL), and our national network of Fellows.

So what exactly have I been up to?

During my Fellowship year I’ve coordinated the launch of a pilot hotspot check out program, developed a technology volunteer training, integrated digital literacy into multiple workforce development programs, planned San Antonio’s first Digital Inclusion Summit and even taught seniors the ins and outs of online dating. But we’re not done yet! To celebrate Digital Inclusion Month, we kicked off a new program in May 2017 which will allow San Antonio Housing Authority residents to earn a device by taking computer classes.

I’m very proud of the concerted effort SAPL staff, partners, and volunteers have made to expand our digital literacy offerings and am eager to share our insights into digital inclusion.

Working together to address inequity

San Antonio, as big cities go, is pretty average when it comes to prosperity and distress according to the “Distressed Communities Index from the Washington D.C.-based Economic Innovation Group. Where we stand out, however, is our segregation and inequality. San Antonio leads the nation when it comes to extreme differences between our most prosperous neighborhoods and our most distressed.

This inequality and segregation marginalizes low-income San Antonians in all aspects of life and reflects the nation’s broadband divide: more than 80% of households in higher-income areas north of downtown and in northern suburbs have broadband, while in areas west of Interstate 10 and within the urban core, fewer than 20% of households have access. San Antonio’s more affluent residents are four times more likely to have access than lower-income residents.

The digital divide is just one of many hurdles our city’s population is facing, and a multifaceted issue requires multifaceted approaches.

Bringing digital inclusion to the least equal city in the United States is no small feat, especially in a city where low-income residents are also more likely to be hampered by lack of basic literacy, including text literacy, numeracy and financial literacy, and digital literacy. Estimates of illiteracy among San Antonio’s adult population range from 11% to 25%, meaning that up to one in every four San Antonians is functionally illiterate.

In San Antonio, the digital divide is just one of many hurdles our city’s population is facing, and a multifaceted issue requires multifaceted approaches. Digital inclusion is often depicted as a three-legged stool with training, broadband access, and devices as its interdependent legs. During my Fellowship year I have aimed to keep this model in mind, understanding that no single entity can resolve this issue alone.

Any concerted effort to close the economic divide that impacts our city must have digital inclusion as an integral part of that plan. 78% of middle-skill jobs now require digital skills. Digital literacy must be included in our capacity-building efforts in order for all residents of San Antonio to be included in this “city on the rise.”

Transforming digital inclusion in San Antonio

In the last year I have seen San Antonio bring digital inclusion to the forefront of its concerns as it begins implementing smart city approaches that promise more efficient, effective, and responsive governments. We as a city understand that without digital inclusion, smart cities could ultimately result in a perpetuation of existing inequities.

As a proactive measure, in 2015 San Antonio Mayor Ivy R. Taylor created and allocated funding to the Digital Inclusion Initiative (Di2) whose overall goal is to provide opportunity to San Antonians in communities that struggle to have access to affordable broadband, devices, and training. Rather than duplicate efforts, Di2 has focused heavily on building on work already being done and engaging both internal (City of San Antonio) and external partners.

We should view digital inclusion not as a new undertaking, but rather an opportunity to double down where our organizations excel and seek partnerships where we don’t.

Through this effort, the San Antonio Public Library benefited from partnerships in multiple sectors as we hosted the city’s first Digital Inclusion Summit in March 2017. Partners included local and national entities such as the Office of the Mayor, the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, Google Fiber, EveryoneOn, and ConnectHome. This symposium versed attendees on best practices from cities across the nation and provided networking opportunities for internet service providers, funders, and local organizations working to bridge the digital divide.

As a result of these conversations, starting in May 2017 San Antonio Housing Authority residents will be able to earn Windows devices refurbished by Goodwill Industries at no cost to them by attending digital literacy classes at any San Antonio Public Library location.

These are the types of approaches that signal our city’s vested interest in digital inclusion and a dedication to strategically partnering to maximize our efforts. The biggest lesson here is that we should view digital inclusion not as a new undertaking, but rather an opportunity to double down where our organizations excel and seek partnerships where we don’t.

Integrating digital inclusion

The most successful element of my project with the San Antonio Public Library has been our integration of digital inclusion into other staff, volunteer, and community programs.

First, I launched a new technology volunteer position and training program focused on empowering SAPL volunteers to lead informal interactions with new computer users. The Technology Volunteer Program has created an additional pool of trained individuals who can assist patrons in SAPL public computer labs.

By having these volunteers available at SAPL job fairs, we have been able to assist 198 patrons register online with the Texas Workforce Commission, start job applications, and take assessment tests. In February 2017 a job fair attendee met recruiters in person, was assisted in filling out the online job application by our volunteers, and was hired on the spot. He started a full-time position the next day.

We also piloted a hotspot checkout program at six locations, which allowed adult learners the opportunity to connect to the internet from home for up to three months. Though we are still collecting survey data, initial feedback from participants has been positive. One patron was able to continue his online job search outside of library hours and successfully found a position. Another patron remarked: “The hotspot program made it evident the resources my local area is lacking. Since we are not within range of a decent internet provider, we do not have access to basic services necessary for everyday tasks.”

Be an advocate for digital literacy and work to increase staff buy-in by aligning your programmatic goals with theirs.

Most importantly, craft digital literacy programs around the crucial life moments where your audience may need assistance. Adult learners often realize that they are lacking digital literacy skills once they have an immediate need like job searches and online forms. By offering dedicated computer areas and technology volunteers at our job fairs, we are allowing low digital literacy patrons to start their job hunt on equal footing and maximize their time in our branches. In one day you can meet a recruiter, complete assessment tests and fill out a job application. As job applications move almost entirely online, a job fair with integrated digital literacy elements is a more modern approach.

The biggest lesson here is to meet your audience where they’re at and make digital literacy programs relevant; this goes for staff, volunteers and community members alike. Be an advocate for digital literacy and work to increase staff buy-in by aligning your programmatic goals with theirs. Inform volunteers of the digital inclusion climate and how their volunteerism can make a difference.

Emma Hernandez
Emma Hernandez has spent the last 5 years serving as a communications coordinator on integrated campaigns for non-profit organizations, small businesses and social justice groups. She has a background in bilingual family program development & facilitation with San Antonio's DoSeum, the Children's Museum of Indianapolis, and the Indiana State Museum. Emma holds a B.A. from Indiana University in Communication Studies. She is passionate about social media, social change and social computing. Originally from the Bay Area and after a long stay in Indianapolis, she is happy to now call San Antonio home. Her hobbies include traveling, art making and producing her weekly foodcast.