Digital literacy needs to follow digital access, which followed digital awareness.
If that’s the pipeline for ensuring that the web ensnares each Philadelphian into its powerful grasp, we’re somewhere in step two, but it’s important to keep an eye on step three.
“We need to make sure that we’re making Philadelphians not just digital aware but digital savvy,” said Bret Perkins, vice president for external and government affairs for Comcast, at the launch event for Connect Philly, a tool built by Technically Philly to map and access free wireless Internet hotspots.
See it at ph.ly/connect too.
Following a demo, Perkins was part of a panel discussion that also featured Siobhan Reardon, President and Director of the Free Library of Philadelphia; Brigitte Daniel, Executive Vice President, at Wilco Electronic Systems, Charles Kaylor, visiting Assistant Professor at Temple University and Bryan Mercer of the Media Mobilizing Project.
Broadly, the group acknowledged work left to be done on broadband and mobile adoption — Kaylor revisited the numbers that show somewhere between 40 percent and 55 percent of Philadelphia households aren’t connected — but already there is a sense of urgency to not lose focus on that while access to the web is good, understanding how to use it is better.
Put another way, getting online is an important hurdle — and Connect Philly can be a small help in that — but what Philadelphians do when they get online is the ultimate challenge. (The Connect Philly project was led by Technically Philly’s Brian James Kirk and the tool was built by local developer Jim Smiley.)
“We run the risk of entrenching a digital underclass,” said Kaylor, whose research focuses on web adoption.
The Knight Foundation, which helped support the event and project, was represented by Philadelphia Program Director Donna Frisby-Greenwood, who spoke of her interest in technology impact on community. Also at the event, held in the beautifully adorned Conservation Hall in City Hall, Mayor Nutter spoke about his administration’s interest in the topic.
“As technology becomes more critical in our lives, our city will be held back by those without access,” said Nutter in brief remarks near the close of the event, which drew more than 60 attendees.
During the panel discussion, moderated by this reporter, two recent questions on the scale of digital access efforts in Philadelphia were given some clarity.
Perkins of Comcast addressed the dismal early number of local Internet Essentials accounts — 500 here compared to 5,000 in Chicago, a total he called “okay to so-so” — by saying there were stronger school district partners elsewhere. He specifically named a suburban Atlanta superintendent who drummed up support, suggesting it wasn’t the case here during the ouster of former Philadelphia superintendent Arlene Ackerman.
Also, Reardon pushed back on a recent Pew report that suggested the Free Library system has fewer available web-enabled computers per resident than other cities by reminding attendees that when compared to other larger peer cities — New York, Los Angeles, Chicago — the numbers were more comparable than to newer systems, like Pittsburgh and Seattle. She said more workstations will be added but education and the adoption of mobile technology is more important.
“We have to solve this problem in a variety of ways,” she said.