The City of Austin has a vital responsibility to help bridge the digital divide. The challenges that come with not having access to the internet grow more critical as more information, platforms and services shift online. Access to the internet is akin to a basic utility like water or electricity. It is difficult to maintain a high quality of life without consistent, reliable, and affordable access to the internet and the ability to constructively use that access.
The City of Austin has already taken steps to help work towards this goal:
- The City of Austin has adopted a Digital Inclusion Strategic Plan, referenced above.
- The City of Austin convenes the Digital Empowerment Community of Austin (DECA), a network of non-profits, educational institutions, and other stakeholders working together to improve our community’s ability to participate in digital society, making a more digitally inclusive Austin.
- The City of Austin provides matching funding through the Grants for Technology Opportunities Program (GTOP’s) to Austin organizations to increase access to technology, provide digital/technology training, and to increase access to the internet, particularly in underserved segments of our community.
- The City of Austin provides funding to the Housing Authority of the City of Austin to employ computer lab apprentices to serve as technology lab assistants to address core needs at City community technology access labs.
- The City of Austin provides refurbished laptops to public housing residents who were awarded scholarships to continue their education and promote digital access in their communities.
Additional steps need to be taken to help further bridge the digital divide:
- Continue making digital inclusion a priority by reviewing and evaluating the City of Austin’s effort towards achieving the goals in the adopted Digital Inclusion Strategic Plan.
- Integrating provisions to highlight and include support for equitable digital access in the development and renovation of City of Austin facilities.
- Incorporating digital inclusion in strategic planning such as the Austin Strategic Housing Blueprint that has been incorporated into the Imagine Austin Comprehensive Plan.
- Ensure that digital inclusion is a fundamental component of all smart cities activities that are developed for the community understanding that without digital access many residents will not benefit from emerging smart cities technology.
- Advocating nationally for federal policies that promote a free and open internet.
- Make sure we are focusing on equitable accessibility to those with disabilities, language access issues, or lower levels of literacy
- Develop partnerships with other entities including outside philanthropy, governmental partners, and corporations to advance technology access and success. An example is the TechHire programs which was developed in partnership with the Mayor’s Office, the City of Austin, and the Obama administration. TechHire is designed to help create a local job training ecosystem to allow for those who have attained basic levels of technology proficiency to advance and received further training to be able to access the technology jobs in our community.
Finally, while it is incredibly important to work towards the goal of full and equitable digital connectivity in our community, we must, at the same time, maintain some forms of analog access (phone, in person engagement, services in community based sites like libraries and recreation centers, etc.) while we work towards that goal, to ensure we don’t leave people behind during this period of transition.