In May 2015, NTEN and Google Fiber launched the Digital Inclusion Fellowship, a new national program investing in local communities and nonprofit organizations to address the digital divide. Sixteen Fellows are working this year on projects that include setting up basic computer skills courses, increasing home Internet usage, and volunteer recruitment and training. Daniel Lucio shares his recent work as a Fellow in Austin, working for Austin Free-Net.
Disclaimer: When I started writing this post, I did not intend for it to be a pitch to join NTEN as a Member. Nor did I mean to gush about how Austin Free-Net and Google Fiber are doing great work in the digital inclusion space. But somehow that is what this turned into.
You probably wouldn’t know it from reading about the amazing work produced by Members of NTEN, but innovation in the public sector is hard—really hard. In my experience, this is especially true for well-established small- and mid-sized nonprofits whose lifeblood is often funding that is tethered to specific programs. There is measured risk in trying new things in the nonprofit world; and it’s often beyond the capacity of already overworked, do-whatever-it-takes staff members who keep the wheels turning. However, if there’s one thing I am taking away from my experience with the Digital Inclusion Fellowship, it’s that innovation—or at least trying some new things—is absolutely necessary in the public space and especially in digital inclusion. Here is my case of why innovation is necessary, with an example of one project we are trying here at Austin Free-Net to combat the digital divide.
Now, before I get an email from my Executive Director, let me start off by saying that Austin Free-Net (AFN) is not new to innovation. Twenty years ago, AFN was one of the first organizations in the country to dedicate itself completely to ending the digital divide on a local level. It was not a byproduct of a workforce development program; it was the mission. And then, like many organizations around the country, when Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP) grant program became available, AFN expanded their services like wildfire—creating innovative training programs and opening up public computer labs by leveraging partnerships across the city. So they’ve been innovating for a while and have been nice enough to allow me to have some space as a Digital Inclusion Fellow to try out a few things.
Let’s get to the problem we are facing here in Austin. You might say that Austin is a pretty tech-savvy town. While that may be true, it’s only part of the story. A recent study by the City of Austin and University of Texas found that 55,000 households (8% of the population) are without a broadband connection, 42% of which have no access to Internet connection help. As with many cities, this portion of the population tends to be a bit older and over-represented in communities of color. These are our potential clients—people who need the digital literacy training resources that Austin Free-Net has to offer. The challenge is how to efficiently get to these folks with the resources we provide. It’s an outreach challenge, and that’s where innovation—or in my case, borrowing from other industries—may help!
If you live in a swing state, you may be especially familiar with our “innovative strategy:” good old-fashioned door-to-door contact. You know the routine: Someone comes to your door, starts a conversation, and tries to pitch you a candidate. Except instead of a candidate, our volunteers are letting folks know about the importance of the Internet and the services we (and our partners, like Austin Libraries) provide. An outreach manager might scoff at the idea of going door-to-door, but when you know where your target population is, you know how they communicate, you don’t have a budget for advertising, but you have some very dedicated volunteers, this is a pretty good option.
The UT study helped us understand where people are and how they talk to each other. Folks without home computers and without Internet connections tended to be from the same parts of town—South and Southeast Austin. This helped us identify areas with the most need, as opposed to relying on generalizations based on demographic data in order to plan outreach efforts. Also, people in these communities tended to hear about services like Austin Free-Net from friends, family, and (most importantly) word of mouth. So there you have a time-tested method.
With these things in mind, we started piloting a door-to-door effort this fall. I was pleasantly surprised that we had a 30% contact rate on our first run. That’s more than double what you might get hitting the doors for your favorite primary candidate, seriously. On top of that, the conversations that volunteers were having at the door were qualitatively better than canvassing at a traditional community outreach event. Nothing was rushed, folks talked about personal experiences and real connections were made. I could go on about the benefits we are already seeing with this program, but here is the short version of our takeaways so far: solid numbers to report on outreach progress; client referrals for our programs; happy volunteers; and great feedback on how to further develop our service program for the community.
Did I mention happy volunteers?
So far, things have gone quite well with our pilot program, which was not necessarily expected. As long as it continues to go smoothly, we’ll be rolling out a larger program in the spring. This will enable us to engage more partners in this process as well as leverage community assets to expand our reach. For example, we’ll be working with students from the University of Texas who are part of Google’s Community Leadership Program (CLP) to try some faith-based outreach efforts, utilizing lessons learned from our door-to-door program. Take a look at these young innovators from the program and tell me you don’t think they’ll get the job done.
So there you have it. One small case of innovation in a public space for an organization that seems to be going well. And none of this would be possible without a little bit of risk taken by Austin Free-Net and a lot of support from organizations supporting the Digital Inclusion Fellowship—NTEN and Google Fiber. I really can’t say enough about how these organizations are pushing the envelope in the digital inclusion space by letting folks like myself have some room to try out new ideas and programs.
The best part about innovating is that you don’t need a Digital Inclusion Fellow to start innovating today (although it helps). There are a number of ways to structure pilot programs, recycle old programs, and start building for your needs without a ton of overhead. NTEN has been providing space for these kinds of ideas to flourish for their Members with programs like the Leading Change Summit and weekly webinars on things like piloting programs! So if you aren’t already a Member, you should definitely consider joining. And if you are, well then you know!