As I was submitting talks to nonprofit marketing and technology conferences last year, I was struck by how often I kept coming across a specific term on the conferences’ websites and event content. It was something I had heard and seen in passing before, but the frequency with which I was now seeing it made me pay attention. The term was Digital Equity.
Now, I understood what digital equity implied, but I never fully appreciated how far-reaching it was, or how deeply the lack of it affected our communities. And it dawned on me that if I – someone who makes a living in the digital world growing mission-based organizations – am at a loss when it comes to understanding digital equity, certainly there are others out there who are too.
So I thought it would be helpful to educate myself, and then share my understanding of digital equity, what digital inequity entails, and what we might do about it. Turns out that solving this single problem will have repercussions in empowering our citizens, supporting democracy, even bridging the wealth gap. It’s worth getting your arms around.
The term “digital divide” first appeared in the mid-1990s to describe those who had access to the Internet and computers, and those who did not.
But as technology exploded in reach over the next ten years, it was no longer just about who had access to a computer. As innovation surged forward, there developed a distinct division of haves and have nots, usually drawn down socio-economic, age and educational lines.
The updated term digital equity came to describe “a condition in which all individuals and communities have the information technology capacity needed for full participation in our society, democracy and economy. Digital Equity is necessary for civic and cultural participation, employment, lifelong learning, and access to essential services.”
Although our language may have become more nuanced in describing the digital gap, unfortunately, it’s done little to close it.
There isn’t a single aspect of modern life that’s remained untouched by technological innovation. But technology benefits most those who have access to it, can afford it, and are knowledgeable in how to use it. Despite the incredible technological advances of the last two decades, significant numbers of Americans are impeded from “full participation in our society, democracy and economy”, because they’re on the wrong side of the digital divide.
Populations most likely to be “digitally excluded” are low income people, people with limited education, rural populations, minorities, the elderly and older workers.
Consider these statistics:
7% of U.S. adults say they do not use the internet, with 25% of adults aged 65 or older reporting they never go online.
COVID-19 only served to shine a national spotlight on pre-existing digital inequities. Millions of students pivoted to remote learning, but 14% of U.S. households with school-aged children lack a wireless subscription, leaving those students struggling to keep up with their peers.
When early vaccinations became available, senior adults with limited technology skills grappled with complicated, time-consuming reservation portals. Disproportionately, some Black and Hispanic families simply did not have the resources available to spend hours navigating the systems.
Areas with poor infrastructure, where access to the internet through broadband, WiFi or mobile is limited or unreliable, struggle economically and educationally.
Affordability is yet another barrier. The cost of personal devices and monthly broadband fees are a financial burden for many, including the 15% of broadband users who said they have had trouble paying for high-speed internet during the pandemic. Statistics show lower income households may have a smartphone, but the device might be the primary means of accessing the internet and used for tasks typically reserved for larger screens like homework or job searching.
If digital equity is the goal, we’ll get there through digital inclusion.
Digital inclusion refers to five elements that ensure all individuals and communities have access and the ability to use Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs). These include:
As technology continues to evolve, so must our policies for digital inclusion, with intentional strategies to remove the structural and institutional barriers to digital access and use.
Municipal and state governments around the U.S. are exploring the role of digital equity offices and developing plans to address equity gaps, promote affordable wireless subscriptions and devices, and coordinate digital skills training. Programs in Seattle, New Orleans, Louisville, San Francisco, Boston and North Carolina are already underway.
Other efforts to consider include:
Researchers, reform advocates, and social scientists have spent decades studying digital equity and seeking ways to close the gap. I, for one now know a little more about this issue than I did several months ago, and yet my learning has just begun. I’m going to commit to an on-going effort to deepen my understanding of this issue with the hope of becoming part of the solution. Closing the digital equity gap ensures no community is left behind in our tech-driven world and that means great things for our fellow citizens, our economy and our country.
The Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis
National Digital Inclusion Alliance
The Brookings Institute
The New School Digital Equity Laboratory
2 Green Village Road, #204 Madison, New Jersey 07940
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