Diversity & Inclusion
Digital access

Corporations learn about China before expanding, but not Oakland [EVENT]

More than 26 U.S. mayors and scores more city officials from around the country met in Philadelphia on Thursday and Friday last week for the 7th Mayors’ Innovation Summit to discuss a range of issues. Among the hottest topics was the issue of access and the digital divide and how there seems to be a lack of movement and understanding to make a bridge.

Textizen CEO Michelle Lee giving her lightning talk before a panel on civic innovation, which also discussed digital access issues. Photo by Aaron Ogle.

From Mesa, Ariz. to Bridgeport, Conn., city government is striving to engage its constituents using new technology, and Philadelphia can be held up as a microcosm of the multi-tiered challenges facing mayors nationwide.

More than 26 U.S. mayors and scores more city officials from around the country met in Philadelphia on Thursday and Friday last week for the 7th Mayors’ Innovation Summit to discuss a range of issues. While mayors like Mesa, Arizona’s Scott Smith were eager to showcase sparkling new civic applications, many in attendance, like Bridgeport’s Bill Finch, were equally concerned with coaxing citizens to use the city website.

City government’s job, when dealing with civic innovation, is largely to catalyze excitement toward using technology, but just as in Philadelphia, the same mayors working to engage the digitally literate through civic hacking are struggling to properly frame the basic benefits of computing in underserved communities.

“There are kids who just think Google is a website. They don’t know it’s a company you can work for,” said Laura Weidman Powers, Executive Director of CODE2040, an organization that connects black and Latino software engineering students with internships and mentorships.

Nearly a third of American households lacking broadband, said Navarrow Wright, CTO of Interactive One, and 46 percent don’t see it as necessary. Wright advocated an incremental approach toward “demystifying” perception to technology in these communities.

“Start small and scale what works,” he said, while describing a program created by his organization, “Close the Divide”, which taught 600 unemployed Chicagoans to code and launched high achieving pupils into $85,000 per year jobs.

By understanding cultural values, namely the desire for a “sense of control” shared by many underserved youths that a high tech job can provide, we can more productively sell the benefits of technological literacy, Wright said. He also stressed the importance of framing mentorship programs as “economic opportunities” that add value to the community, rather than as charity.

“We go into Asian [countries] to understand the culture when big companies move there, but we don’t do it in Oakland,” he said.

Furthermore, mayors can change the perception that a high tech career is unattainable for underprivileged youths by taking actionable steps to make city infrastructure more accessible to the installation of broadband.

Kansas City was chosen as the pilot location for the deployment of ultra-high-speed internet Google Fiber thanks to accessible infrastructure.

“I’m a simple guy. I go to where it’s easy,” said Milo Medin, vice president for Fiber. For example, mayors should ensure conduits for broadband cables are placed when new buildings go up and telephone poles are prepared to host Wi-Fi nodes, as the cost of Wi-Fi hinges on the heavy lifting required to connect individuals to the rest of the network.

While it’s true municipalities can take steps to make themselves more appealing to private investment, local communities – including all of Pennsylvania – are banned from taking a controlling role in setting up their own broadband. In fact, the largest city in the country with publicly initiated broadband is 170,000 person Chattanooga, Tenn.

Whether the so-called digital divide is getting smaller — because of smartphones and broadening media literacy — or wider — because of the advancement of skills necessary to compete and a globalized workforce — is still getting pushed and pulled. But there is clearly agreement that access and understanding isn’t being bridged quickly enough for the United States to compete.

Philadelphia’s battle for impact is in that very conversation.

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