OCTO Does Digital Inclusion with Connect.DC

Connect.DC's Mobile Tech Lab parked outside of Arena Stage, where “Do Something Better: A Nonprofit Technology Summit” was held on March 25. Photo: Charnice A. Milton

On March 25, nonprofit executives, community leaders, and technologists convened at Arena Stage for “Do Something Better: A Nonprofit Technology Summit.” The summit, according to a press release, was “designed to help local nonprofits and community-based organizations leverage technology to improve their operations and productivity and support the District of Columbia's effort to provide affordable Internet access to unconnected DC residents and close the digital divide.” It was one of many ways that Connect.DC, an offshoot of the Office of the Chief Technology Officer (OCTO), is trying to address this problem.

DC's Digital Divide

“Digital divide” refers to the gap between those with access to broadband and other digital resources and those without. Usually those with limited or no access vary by income, education, and age. According to the Pew Internet and American Life Project, there are four main reasons why some adults do not use Internet resources. First, they believe that the Internet is not relevant to them. Second, they feel it is not easy to use. Third, the cost of owning a computer and paying for an Internet connection is too high. Last, there is a physical lack of availability or access to the Internet.

While almost 77.4 percent of DC residents have broadband access, the proportion is slightly lower in Wards 5, 7, and 8. In fact, only 65 percent of residents in those three wards have access, compared to the 85 percent in Wards 1, 2, 3, 4, and 6. “Some would say that 65 percent isn't too bad,” commented Delano Squires, executive director of Connect.DC. “However, that's the same rate as the whole city four years ago. Yes, the rate's over 50 percent. But what about the other 35?” In total, about 150,000 residents lack Internet access at home.

Connect.DC

Created in 2010 by OCTO and funded by a grant from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), Connect.DC is a digital inclusion initiative. It focuses on five areas: training, public technology access; affordable computers and Internet service; programs, partners, and tools; and public awareness. “We don't just focus on providing access, but how people use the Web to get informed and empowered,” said Squires. Examples of this include the Bridge, a text messaging service that updates users on upcoming events, products, and services, the Mobile Tech Lab (MTL), which provides free computer and Internet access to the general public, and the Tech Locator, a map that allows the user to find the nearest public tech center (such as a library, school, or recreation center). Almost 500 residents signed up for the Bridge in its first month, and the MTL held 60 events as of Feb. 7. Thanks to the Tech Locator residents can visit one of 82 public tech centers and use one of 963 computers.

According to its track record, Connect.DC helped train 7,982 residents, with each resident receiving an average of 34 training hours. Some residents who finished their training were rewarded with a new PC. Since the initiative began the training programs have awarded 1,201 PCs to their students. Finally, thanks to discounted offers, the city now has 5,220 new broadband subscribers.

Partnerships

“Bridging the digital divide isn't a job for just one program,” said Squires. That is why Connect.DC partners with government agencies, small businesses, corporations, and nonprofits to help its mission. For instance, Connect.DC and OCTO partnered with the Latino Economic Development Center (LEDC) for the Small Business Success Project, which established a series of classes teaching entrepreneurs how better to use technology tools for business. “Over 10 months we connected more than 200 DC entrepreneurs with the skills and tools to better integrate technology into their business operations,” said Gustavo Velasquez, executive director of LEDC, during his keynote address at the Nonprofit Tech Summit. “Through trainings on topics like basic computing, website development, and social media, many businesses created their digital toolbox. With LEDC's help, they familiarized themselves with these tech tools and started to vision their digital profiles.”

Another program partner is EveryoneOn, a national nonprofit that works with major Internet providers to provide affordable Web services and equipment. EveryoneOn co-sponsored the Nonprofit Tech Summit. “Our missions are very much aligned,” said Sheila Dugan, the marketing and communications manager for EveryoneOn. “We understand what a huge problem it is that there are pockets of the population that are still not able to have access to the Internet.” Thanks to this partnership residents can purchase discounted devices and Internet access for as little as $10 a month. EveryoneOn also plans to connect 1,000 households and set aside $25,000 worth of refurbished devices.

While providing quality devices and service is good, raising awareness is better. “I think it's important to talk about how the digital divide impacts the communities we work with everyday,” said Dugan. “Internet access is no longer a luxury good.... For us it's important to drive the issue home.”

Do Something Better

While “Do Something Better” was the sixth summit Connect.DC hosted, it was the first exclusively aimed at nonprofits. “Today we are showing how nonprofits can integrate technology into their work,” explained Jill Melnicki, media specialist for Connect.DC. “We're also putting out a call for partners as well.” Since nonprofits have direct contact with the community, Connect.DC hopes that the message would be better received coming from a trusted source. “It's not always about putting an event together,” said Melnicki. “Their audience is our audience.”

Chief Technology Officer Rob Mancini agreed in his lunchtime address. “Just as our friends in the nonprofit community do each and every day, OCTO is always looking for an opportunity to make things better and to make a difference,” he said. “We also seek to leave something better behind us. One day when we move on there's got to be something tangible, got to be something living. That's why we're doing things like this today. While we want to be able to help nonprofits understand how to use technology, we recognize you as important partners, because as technologists we want to reach residents who don't adopt broadband and other technologies. And nonprofits represent a relatively untapped opportunity for OCTO in the city to partner with folks who work closer to those residents and can help us make a tangible difference.”

The Need for Community Leaders

One of the largest barriers is convincing residents about the relevance of Internet access. That is why OCTO and Connect.DC promote the idea of digital citizenship, or the ability to use digital tools to reach goals. “We would like to align our activities with what's relevant, like searching for jobs,” said Squires. “That's how we can make the link.” For instance, last December's “Get Connected” campaign featured community leaders describing how digital tools and skills helped their organizations.

Ultimately it is up to community leaders, especially those working in the nonprofit sector, who can help bridge the digital divide. “Nonprofit leaders in the room, we are the feet on the ground,” said Velasquez. “We have the credibility to have conversations about technology with our constituents. We do the one-on-one work that helps our clients not only understand the benefits but realize their potential. You've got a great partner in DC OCTO to help bridge the digital divide.”

The Connect.DC office is located at 200 I St. SE, Washington, DC 20003. Call 202-CONNECT (266-6328) or visit www.connect.dc.gov. Connect.DC is also available on Facebook, Twitter (@connectdotdc), Instagram, Slidshare, and YouTube.


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