The coronavirus is putting unprecedented strain on our communities to move everything online, including college classes, our jobs, social dates with friends, and medical appointments. And while this is the go-to solution for many institutions, the reality is that around 60 million Americans continue to lack access to the internet. As many of our nonprofit programs and events move online, we need to be mindful of the effect of these transitions on our most vulnerable communities. For many of us, the most marginalized communities that we seek to serve are also those who are disproportionately affected by the digital divide. For rural Americans, communities of color, individuals with disabilities, senior citizens, and many others, internet access, the devices to use it, and basic digital literacy training continue to be unattainable.
Before you move your programming online, there are several questions you should ask to ensure your approach is equitable and thoughtful:
- What does internet access look like for the communities we serve? Who are we including or leaving out? Ideally, as part of your intake process, you’ve surveyed your community and understand what kind of access and skills folks have if you were to move programs online. If you don’t have this data available, a great tool to understand the level of connectivity in your community is the Digital Divide Index, produced by NTEN instructor Roberto Gallardo. The FCC also provides a mapping tool, but with a slightly bigger learning curve. This can help you visualize who you may be including or leaving out by offering your programs online.
- How can we make sure everyone has an opportunity to participate? If this question makes you realize that some of your community members won’t be able to access your online offers, it’s time to think of additional ways to include them. In this case, newer and more cutting edge isn’t always better! One option is to communicate with clients through a mass text message. This can be very cost-effective for organizations, easy to set up, accessible to those without smartphones, and avoids data cap issues. More traditional options to get out the word include flyers and snail mail. Find opportunities for people to respond using pen and paper to provide their information. You may also consider conference calls to share program information. They tend to be more accessible since they don’t require an internet connection. And this is a great time to lean on partnerships: collaborate with organizations that do lots of on-the-ground work, and can help you spread the word locally.
- Does our staff have the resources and training to move our programs online in an effective manner? Your staff is also part of your community, and it’s critical to know whether they have the internet access and training needed to run online programs. And resources, capacity, and training are only part of the puzzle. Many programs are built on personal relationships and the trust that comes with being face to face. Are you in a position to recreate that same experience in an online setting? Do you have enough of a trust reservoir to effectively bring these relationships and connections online?
- What are our community’s current priorities, and how do we support them? None of us are immune from getting wrapped up in plans and timelines. Perhaps you were going to launch a program right now or celebrate the wrap up of another one. But does that REALLY need to happen now, or are you just trying to cling to some normalcy? This is the time to be more adaptive and responsive to your community than ever and to evaluate what is actually an urgent need. It’s challenging to have equitable processes when you are rushing, your communication is limited to online, and folks are already feeling stressed and strapped for resources. If you can wait to enroll folks in your new program, do. If you can hold on your grant reporting, do. Prioritize what is urgent and necessary right now for the people you’re serving. Access is going to be a significant priority for many individuals and families in the coming months. See below for tips on how you can provide some resources.
If you decide to move some of your programs online, it’s likely your community will need support in identifying ways to get internet access, devices, and the skills to use them. We’ve put together a short list of resources you can use to help your communities gain access to the necessary tools to engage online.
Earlier this week, FCC Chair Ajit Pai asked internet service providers (ISPs) to take the Keep Americans Connected Pledge for the next 60 days. The pledge includes not terminating service customers because of their inability to pay their bills due to the disruptions caused by the coronavirus pandemic, waiving late fees that are a result of the pandemic, and opening their Wi-Fi hotspots to any American who needs them. Many ISPs (185 as of March 16) have signed on to the pledge and extended the parameters of their existing low-cost internet offers as well.
Digital Charlotte created an open-source spreadsheet to help track and collect offers extended by these ISPs, as well as which of them have signed on. As a crowdsourced document, it is full of information and constantly changing. Individuals aware of local offers that are not yet in the spreadsheet are encouraged to support the effort by adding them.
EveryoneOn is a great online tool that helps individuals find low-cost internet offers as well as devices in their zip code. The resource allows individuals to specify their own eligibility criteria and has been updated with special offers provided by ISPs in the face of the COVID-19 crisis.
PCs for People provides refurbished computers and hotspots to both individuals and nonprofits, along with training classes in limited cities across the US. Devices are available for purchase both in-person and online. They also offer 4G LTE service for their hotspot program.
AFTRR (Alliance for Technology Refurbishing and Reuse), a network of refurbishers across the United States, offers a map locator of their partners. The map provides contact information of local organizations that may offer low-cost devices to individuals and families.
While there’s no national database of digital literacy training, the National Digital Inclusion Alliance list of local affiliates provides a great starting place for identifying organizations offering training locally. Keep in mind that while libraries tend to be on the front lines of this work, many have closed due to health concerns.
Benton provides an excellent Weekly Digest of information related to broadband access and policy. Last week’s update covers top headlines around the intersection of digital inclusion and the ongoing pandemic.
Digidivide has put together a list of COVID-19 news stories and its implications on the digital divide.