As it remains clear that thousands of adults — and possibly thousands of children — will remain home for the next few months amid the COVID-19 pandemic, top of mind for many Philadelphians and public servants is the status of internet access across the city and the ability to use it for work and school.
The Office of Innovation and Technology (OIT) rolled out its IT Strategic Plan, a public-facing plan and set of strategies to drive innovation and change within city government, in October. Its intent is to address how OIT and other City departments can solves challenges in response to public needs, and one of its six main pillars stated at the time was to strive for digital access and equity.
As the pandemic swept the region in March, the office has had to look at the topic with renewed focus. It became clear that there are many households, especially with school-aged children, that are not connected to internet or don’t have devices to do online schooling or work, as was discussed during a recent City Council budget hearing.
This week, City officials spoke exclusively with Technical.ly about how it would be addressing digital equity in the months going forward. A policy initiative, put forth by the Mayor’s Office and called the Digital Equity Coordinating Committee, will aim to connect community stakeholders to ensure Philadelphians who need access to internet and technology will be able to get it.
“COVID has deeply impacted us,” Maari Porter, the deputy chief of staff for policy and strategic initiatives, told Technical.ly. “We knew the digital divide was important before, but the pandemic amplified it.”
The committee will be made up of existing offices OIT, the Mayor’s Office, the Office of Children and Families and the Office of Diversity and Inclusion, among others. City officials also said it will lean on organizations with similar goals, such as the Digital Literacy Alliance, which recently rolled out its digital navigator program to help low-income residents access and use technology during the pandemic.
The committee will use three key strategies to create “affordable, simple and reliable digital solutions” for residents. It’s part of what Porter called a “long-term play” toward digital equity in the city.
Giving students in grades kindergarten through 12 consistent access to technology, internet and technical support is a top priority. Other priorities are reimagining how the City’s free KEYSPOTS computer labs can help residents gain access, and providing sustainable digital solutions so residents can participate in workforce education, healthcare, public benefits and the like.
According to Deputy Chief Information Officer for Innovation Management Andrew Buss, 10% of students in Philadelphia’s school district have transient home lives and move between multiple households. Wi-Fi hotspots, for instance, could address that and would allow more students to practice virtual learning wherever they are; Buss said that the Mayor’s Office has had discussions with “incumbent telecom” companies and cell phone providers about possible solutions moving forward.
The Digital Equity Coordinating Committee’s goal is to begin executing on its priorities by the end of the summer. With the School District of Philadelphia expected to release its own plan this week around reopening, the City’s plan will also shift once the school district’s is officially in place.
While the Mayor’s Office has a great deal of optimism about its new digital equity work, Chief Education Officer Otis Hackney was clear about the scale of work ahead that’s needed to get one-to-one devices to students.
“That’s going to take some time and a lot of data sharing,” he said.
Michael Butler is a 2020-2022 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of The Groundtruth Project that pairs young journalists with local newsrooms. This position is supported by the Lenfest Institute for Journalism.