Temple University last week celebrated the opening of its new Digital Equity Center, a hub to provide access to technology, help desk support and digital literacy education to Philadelphians in the communities surrounding the university.
Jonathan Latko, executive director for business administration at the North Philadelphia-based university, said the center has been up and running for a while now. But the Temple team thought an event during Philly Tech Week 2022 presented by Comcast could be an opportunity to mark its opening and announce a commitment from Dell Technologies that will support digital navigation initiatives.
The center’s home is inside the Opportunities for Workforce Leadership (OWL) Hub at 1915 N. 11th St., near Berks Street just off Temple’s Main Campus. The building, once the former Norris Homes Community Center owned by Philadelphia Housing Authority, was repurposed last year into a center for workforce development. Latko said the org went with the space because they wanted a place that people in the community already felt comfortable.
The Digital Equity Center stems from Temple’s Computer Recycling Center, where for many years, Latko and student interns would refurbish surplus electronics and give them back to students, faculty and staff. When the COVID-19 pandemic started, Latko said he gathered and gave out about 300 laptops for students and faculty to use when the university went online. That left a bunch of desktop computers sitting at the school with no one to use them.
As the pandemic stretched on, Latko reached out to Shirley Moy, the executive director of the North Philadelphia Workforce Initiative, about helping residents in the area gain access to computers and the internet. They’ve been able to give out about 100 machines to community members, and began collecting funding from various tech and city organizations, like Comcast, the Mayor’s Office and local nonprofits in order to broaden that access for community members.
“And so the ultimate goal was, if we could support machines, get them into the community, give them a little bit of digital onboarding,” Latko said. “Now, these nonprofits sort of can plug into this digital equity conversation. We sort of offer a way for nonprofits in North Philadelphia … to plug into our model.”
The new Digital Equity Center keeps general business hours from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, and is a space to collaborate about different digital equity initiatives, run classes and offer workspace for its community partners. Currently, the center has a teaching lab, an office and a larger multipurpose space, where Temple Tech for Philly, a computer refurbishment space, operates. With the grant from Dell, the org is also developing a community help desk and digital navigator office for community members.
The services the org provides and its plan has morphed over time based on what resources are available what needs the community may have, Latko said. The Digital Equity Center is currently run by one full-time employee and a handful of interns from various community programs. The org is slated to hire a second full-time employee with the grant from Dell that will run the community help desk and digital navigator program.
In attendance last Wednesday during Temple’s Digital Equity Day were partners of the new Digital Equity Center, including Comcast, Dell, nonprofit group Philly Community Wireless, the Charles Library and PHLConnectED. Some of the center’s partners help provide funding, but others are nonprofits that already have connections and insight into the needs of the community. The Digital Equity Hub helps them get tech resources into the hands of people who need it, and last Wednesday’s event was the chance to publicize it.
“It was as much for them to network with tables and tents and music,” Latko said. “We want to partner, have strategic partnerships in the community to bridge this digital divide.’”
So far the center has given out 200 machines to members of the community and hopes to get 600 more out over the course of this year. For Latko, digital equity doesn’t mean one specific thing — it looks different for each person and each nonprofit.
Latko gave local partner Philly Community Wireless as an example. He’s one of PCW’s advisors as the nonprofit works to build out a free mesh internet network available to people in the Norris Square neighborhood. When PCW comes across a household that does not have a computer, they may refer them to the Digital Equity Center for a device, onboarding class and digital education.
“We’re building the plane as we’re flying it. We’re hacking away at it. And we’re going to make mistakes. It’s not perfect,” the director said. “We’re going to keep hacking away if people’ve got good concepts and ideas. We’re trying to figure that out. We’re going to experiment. We’re going to fail. We’re going to learn from that failure. We’re going to keep growing.”
Sarah Huffman is a 2022-2023 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. -30-