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How 3 Philly nonprofits are using Digital Literacy Alliance grants to increase census participation

The city’s Office of Innovation and Technology awarded its 2019 grants to organizations using tech get hard-to-reach Philadelphians to fill out the online questionnaire.

"Ask me! I'm a census champion." (Photo by Hector Davila Jr.) is one of 20+ news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push toward economic justice.

The third round of Digital Literacy Alliance (DLA) grants were awarded in November in support of Philly’s census initiative, Philly Counts.

This year’s grant cycle focused entirely on the 2020 census, which will be the first to take place almost entirely online. Although the U.S. Census Bureau says households will still be able to complete the census over the phone or through the paper questionnaire, the digital form is being prioritized.

In 2017, the national broadband rate was 83.5%, but Philly’s rate was 71.6%, the second lowest among the 25 largest cities. The DLA — a 19-organization collective born out of the Mayor’s Fund for Philadelphia — provides financial support to digital literacy and inclusion programs in Philly and works to ease the city’s digital divide. It’s awarded a total of $534,000 to community orgs and schools since its launch in 2017, including this latest round of grants.

Out of the 38 submissions, eight groups working to improve census participation through technology were awarded grants ranging from $13,000 to $40,000. Andrew Buss, Deputy CIO for the city’s Office of Innovation and Technology, which administers DLA grants, told the DLA considers applicants’ location, diversity and organizational capacity during the selection process. He said this year’s poll of grantees represents Philly’s diverse population.

“This grant cycle is a good illustration of the direction a lot of this work is going,” Buss said. “I think it’s a good way to show how you can incorporate tech and digital literacy in a way that is really important to the things people do on a daily basis.” Each grantee will be asked to provide a mid-year update and a final report to the DLA on how they connected digital equity to census 2020 work.

(Quick reminder about why the census matters: Not only does this year’s have the potential for getting the digital ball rolling for many impoverished Philadelphians, but it’s also important for the city as a whole, funding-wise.  There’s about $675 billion that gets allocated nationally based on census data. Philadelphia gets about $3.3 billion of that pot annually. Accurate counts = accurate funding allotment for social services.) checked in with leaders from three of the recipient orgs about how they’re using the grant; responses have been edited for length:


Renee Cunningham, executive director at Center in the Park

Center in the Park is a Germantown-based community center focused on the needs of older people. Why is it challenging for Philly’s older population to participate in the census?

Cunningham: This year there is the added online component, with a huge push for people to complete the 2020 census online. While this makes completing the census faster and easier in many ways, it is also a barrier for older adults who may not have internet access, or who are uncomfortable with the technology.

What tech initiatives have been done so far? 

We have computer classes and workshops on how to use certain apps and websites, free Wi-Fi, tablets for general use, and classes that familiarize people with how to use tablet technology. One class in particular, the Sip and Swipe Café, is offered through a partnership with Generations on Line.

Generations on Line has developed a special program designed to help older adults gain the skills they need to complete the census online. Volunteers who conduct the Sip and Swipe Café at Center in the Park are taking people through the program so that they can build confidence. Beginning in March, CIP staff and volunteers will be hosting weekly workshops using the program so that people can practice. We demystify tablet use, help people get experience, and experience builds confidence.

Progress so far?

We will be purchasing more tablets, and will have tech savvy volunteers on hand at CIP to answer any technology questions people may have, encouraging them to complete their census form online and in person with us. We want everyone to come to CIP for Senior Center Census Week beginning with our Census Rally on March 23. Our theme is “Count me In!” and we hope to help older adults avoid that knock at the door by submitting their forms early.


Liam Dougherty, policy and project coordinator at Liberty Resources, Inc., and K. Eva Weiss, research associate at Temple University Institute on Disabilities

Temple’s Institute on Disabilities partnered with Liberty Resources, an independent living center in Center City that advocates for people with disabilities. Why is it challenging for people with disabilities to participate in the census?

Dougherty and Weiss: People with disabilities may be hard to locate, persuade to participate, and interview. Individuals may be unable to read the Bureau’s mailed postcard due to visual impairment, literacy level, or problems with support personnel. They may be unable to complete the online form due to lack of accessible device, internet access, or digital literacy. Philadelphians with disabilities and in-field census enumerators may be unprepared to complete the questionnaire due to learning or communication differences, such as people who use American Sign Language.

What tech initiatives have been done so far?

Our project focuses on bridging the gap between the low-tech status quo to a point of sufficient digital literacy. This means, first and foremost, starting with the participant’s current barriers and building project activities around them.

Through the use of personalized trainings and one-on-one sessions held in accessible spaces, diverse communities formerly isolated by the digital divide will be given a simple and straightforward path to census participation and a means to develop digital literacy.

Progress so far?

Our one-on-one support sessions and workshops will begin once census postcards are mailed and enumerators are trained. In the meantime, we are designing and disseminating accessible informational materials, which alert individuals to our available support as well as census participation more broadly. Because many among our target audience are not yet digitally literate, we are making efforts not to rely on the conventional channels of promotion — through the internet and social media.


Iris Bercovitz, civic engagement manager at SEAMAAC

This South Philly-based org supports immigrants, refugees and other marginalized communities. Why is it challenging for immigrants and refugees in Philly to participate in the census?

Bercovitz: Immigrants and refugees in Philadelphia face acute challenges in regards to participation in the census. A key factor that contributes to the potential for an undercount in immigrant and refugee communities is the spread of misinformation about the census. For immigrants, government forms invoke fear and mistrust. Therefore, there is a lack of trust census information will be kept private. There is also an increase in scammers posing to be census-takers and asking for information that is not asked on a census form.

What tech initiatives have been done so far?

The census and civic engagement teams at SEAMAAC have been collecting digital census pledge cards from community members and clients. The information on the pledge card allows staff to text and call community members that have completed a pledge card about the census. Beginning in March, SEAMAAC’s outreach office digital literacy lab will be open daily with our census team available to provide information about the census to SEAMAAC community members. This will also be space where community members can fill out the census on SEAMAAC’s computers.

SEAMAAC also provides translated materials in 10 languages in the form of fliers and pledge cards. SEAMAAC is also engaging in publicity campaigns in up to 10 languages.

Progress so far?

The SEAMAAC census and civic engagement team has effectively integrated census digital pledge cards and educational materials into every aspect of SEAMAAC’s work, from ESL classes to Truancy Case Management sessions. This has enabled a broad cross section of community members to see SEAMAAC as a census resource and assistance hub.


Other grantees are PhillyCAM; Asian Americans United; Cambodian Association of Greater Philadelphia partnering with Laos in the House and VietLead; AFRICOM; and Ceiba.

Companies: Office of Innovation and Technology / PhillyCAM / Temple University

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