Digital literacy, the whisper seldom heard beneath the yell of digital access issues in Philadelphia, might be getting a megaphone.
A report issued last month by a partnership between IBM and the City of Philadelphia says that by 2030, an estimated 600,000 Philadelphians will lack basic skills needed to work in a technology-inclusive, if not then exclusive, economy.
That is the battle cry for Lisa Nutter, who is leading the new Digital On-Ramps initiative, a city-wide collaboration to use technology to improve workforce development, which was announced alongside the report.
“We have history in the city through programs like Wireless Philadelphia, where we’ve worked hard to get people hooked up around an inclusion agenda,” says the mayor’s active and public wife.
“But, inclusion to do what? Education to do what? What we’re really trying to do is allow employment and increasing skills to help define a learning plan. That becomes the carrot. ”
With the backing of federal stimulus funding, Philadelphia has been aggressive in its fight against the digital divide: recently having rebranded its Freedom Rings Partnership — which has plans to open or improve 70 computer centers in Philadelphia — as KEYSPOTS.
Some city officials tell us that they suspect that since the launch of its access programming in 2010, Freedom Rings has seen improvements to a 2008 report that said that 40 percent of citizens lack Internet access in the home. Comprehensive updated data is not available.
Now, it seems, leaders like Lisa Nutter are beginning to look to next steps: using access as a tool to improve basic literacy — and thus digital literacy — achievement.
It’s a solution that’s been posed before: Can Philadelphia’s poverty problem be solved with technology?
Nutter has fought literacy issues as President of Philadelphia Academies, Inc., a nonprofit dedicated to providing college readiness and career-based learning experiences for public high school students.
“We started thinking about our role in helping schools use digital technology as a better way to reach and support young people,” she says of the origins of On-Ramps.
The drive, though, of the On-Ramps initiative has been helped significantly by philanthropy.
Last March, IBM donated a half-million dollars in consulting services to explore workforce development issues in Philadelphia. In October, a half-dozen consultants spent three weeks in Philadelphia, working closely with Nutter and her husband Mayor Michael Nutter’s administration, exploring the issue.
The result is a 120-page report, the foundation and framework of On-Ramps, which envisions an online portal that can provide education and workforce training, as well as online community and collaboration tools, and extensive listings of education opportunities to citizens.
The report is exhaustive. Even OpenDataPhilly is recognized as a possible entry point, where workforce development stakeholders could submit and share data, like the locations of services.
For now, the report — which can be read in full by clicking its picture above — and its broad series of recommendations offer a testing ground of possibilities, but with funding now being sought, it will remain a waiting game.
“If we want to seriously scale up effective practices, digital technology had to be a part of that strategy. There was no way we could replicate ourselves across this large community without looking at digital to deliver,” Nutter says.
“It is another tool in the arsenal.”