November 25, 2015

Thinking Beyond the One-Time Grant for a Successful Digital Adoption Program

Digital Divide Case Study

The Youth Policy Institute (YPI) is a nonprofit organization transforming Los Angeles neighborhoods through a holistic approach to reducing poverty. By ensuring families have access to high quality schools, wrap-around education, and technology services, they enable them to make successful transitions from cradle to college and career.

With technology services solidly a part of their mission, it is no surprise they are a role model relative to digital adoption programs.

Diana Rodriguez, YPI’s director of digital learning and technology, explained how their digital adoption program started, evolved, grew, and evolved some more since 2010, when they became a Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP) grant recipient.

For those who don’t know, BTOP was a grant program associated with the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) a few years ago. The grant program was created to promote the development and adoption of broadband throughout the United States, particularly in unserved and underserved areas.

With BTOP funding, YPI was able to equip 83 public computer centers in areas where people were already congregated: schools, community centers, and libraries. Together, these centers served more than 100,000 Los Angeles residents annually. When the funding ended in 2013, YPI worked with many of these centers to develop sustainability programs. Twenty-five of those centers are still operated by YPI today. They provide access to equipment, the Internet, and support, much like a library would, just without the wait or the time limits. YPI has since received additional funding from the California Public Utilities Commission to continue their broadband access, adoption, and deployment efforts.

To better understand what was keeping people from adopting broadband, they conducted grassroots research, putting people in the field to survey residents. They learned that the primary obstacles to increasing digital adoption included:

  1. Infrastructure
  2. Relevance
  3. Pricing

YPI knew there wasn’t much they could do about infrastructure concerns aside from bringing the issue to light, so they sought out to address the others.

Relevance

Many of those surveyed didn’t have broadband access at home because they didn’t understand why they needed it. YPI’s programs help educate community members about the benefits of Internet access. In YPI computer centers, residents learn about why and how to use computers and the Internet at home.

Pricing

The research uncovered a lack of affordable options for Internet access at home. Some of the larger providers offer reduced rates, but not at the speeds needed to support use for education or entertainment purposes, which are often the main hooks for new adopters and the functions that people have come to expect from Internet service. They also found that, with taxes and hidden fees, the reduced rates ended up being not so low-cost at all.

The good news is that more recent research shows that adoption rates are improving and the demand for digital literacy training remains constant. To meet the demand, YPI, in collaboration with the Mayor’s office, continues to lead training efforts in the Los Angeles area. Through a refurbished computer program called OurCycle LA, YPI brings people in for digital literacy training, and then sends them home with low-cost Internet service and a computer. Program participants include families with school-aged youth, older adults, and other adults who are first-time computer owners. YPI noted two memorable program clients who benefited from their program.

A young man, formerly a food service worker, came into a center to improve the digital skills he needed in order to advance in today’s workforce. The certification process in his desired field was entirely online. Basic Word skills were a condition for employment. A center helped him with both. Today, this young man has been successful in moving out of the food service industry and is in a job where he is earning more than minimum wage.

In 2011-12, a man who had lost his home as a result of the economic downtown came into a center. He had operated a home-based business that he needed to continue in order to dig out of his situation. He was able to take advantage of the resources provided by the computer center, and has now successfully transitioned to a life of increased independence.

YPI is proud of what they have accomplished in closing the digital divide in Los Angeles, and they have learned a lot along the way. Diana offered this advice for organizations wishing to implement their own digital adoption program.

Make technology services a part of your mission. If it is a priority, you need to write it in or it won’t be perceived as important enough.

You can’t do it all in a one-time grant. You need to make sustainability a part of your plan. Even YPI, with a BTOP grant, wouldn’t have been successful if they hadn’t planned for what would happen after the grant ended. They were successful because they established a department, a team, someone to take charge, and a strategic plan.

YPI’s Wish List

YPI’s program continues to evolve. As they look to the future, they plan to continue to develop the logic model behind their program. They wish to gather more rich data to tell their full story and to inform an education technology plan. By continuing to understand their clients’ needs, they will have more success in meeting them.

Additionally, YPI wishes for more affordable offers. Internet access is an issue of social justice. Industry cannot overlook the needs of low-income families. Policies must

Cassie Bair
Cassie Bair is the Chief Business Development Executive of Voqal’s Mobile Citizen initiative, which advances social equity through access by providing low-cost wireless 4G internet exclusively to nonprofits, educational entities and social welfare agencies. She firmly believes technology should be used for social good and has a unique professional mix of nonprofit and start-up experience. Her passion is to unite nonprofits and social enterprises with the opportunities mobile technology presents.