US cities home in on tech have-nots – from immigrants to seniors

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WASHINGTON: When Covid-19 first closed her youngsters’s colleges in Chicago, it was a painful wake-up name for mother-of-five Karina Aguilar. Not solely did the household have only one laptop for distant lessons – she didn’t understand how to use it.

“When they started talking about remote learning, it was very hard for many families, especially immigrants with various levels of language skills and digital literacy – including me,” Aguilar, 47, informed the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Until that time, she had solely ever used a cell phone to entry the Internet, and didn’t understand how to connect a doc to an e-mail – a lot much less get related for on-line physician’s appointments for her son with particular wants.

But two years on, thanks partly to a metropolis programme geared toward boosting digital inclusion, Aguilar has new expertise and a brand new profession – working with an area nonprofit to assist different folks get related.

The metropolis’s Chicago Connected programme gives free laptops, computer systems and WiFi hotspots in addition to lessons for folks with various ranges of information.

“I started from zero – how to turn on the computer,” mentioned Aguilar, whose expertise underscores a serious new digital fairness push in cities throughout the United States that’s about to obtain an unprecedented funding enhance.

A brand new US federal programme this yr gives steep reductions on Internet service, and the federal government is getting ready to put US$65bil (RM288.40bil) into increasing broadband entry, together with greater than US$42bil (RM186.35bil) to “close the availability gap”.

For officers in Chicago and past, the pandemic threw that hole into stark reduction.

“In the spring of 2020, we learned that one in five public school students didn’t have Internet at home,” mentioned Devon Braunstein, digital inclusion coverage fellow with the Chicago mayor’s workplace.

That prompted the launch of Chicago Connected – and likewise led to a recognition of the influence of digital inequality amongst residents of all ages.

“It wasn’t just the kids at home who needed Internet, but other members of the household,” Braunstein mentioned.

Now, the town is making a Digital Equity Council, which is holding neighbourhood-level conferences to plan additional motion.

Those conferences are discovering vital want, but in addition sturdy curiosity in studying, mentioned Dominque Smith, 32, a classroom assistant who’s on the council, together with Aguilar.

“The biggest surprise has been the willingness of the older generations to learn,” Smith mentioned.

“They’re interested and want to learn how to use devices, and be able to do things from home and not have to travel to get their needs met.”

‘Grandma and grandpa’

The pandemic made the Internet much more central to on a regular basis life for Americans, with 90% saying being on-line was necessary and even important, the Pew Research Center discovered in September.

Yet the survey additionally discovered practically half of low-income customers have been frightened about their Internet payments, and greater than 1 / 4 of all adults often wanted assist utilizing their units.

For years, small organisations akin to public libraries and senior facilities have labored to bridge the digital hole, however “prior to the pandemic, there was no recognition that this work was essential”, mentioned Angela Siefer, govt director of the nonprofit National Digital Inclusion Alliance.

Over the previous two years, recognition of that hole grew, significantly in cities, Siefer mentioned.

In Charlotte, North Carolina, officers used the pandemic to undertake a plan to make the encircling county essentially the most digitally equitable in the nation throughout the subsequent 5 years.

“We thought, let’s think about (responding) in an emergency context … but also how do we capitalise on this moment to set ourselves up for the future?” mentioned Bruce Clark, govt director of the brand new Center for Digital Equity, a public-private initiative at Queens University of Charlotte.

In Charlotte as in different cities, the impetus of on-line studying prompted recognition of broader wants.

“There’s the school system, but there’s also uncle and auntie, grandma and grandpa – all of these constituencies are impacted by Covid and the digital divide,” Clark mentioned.

A significant a part of the trouble so far has a objective of signing up 7,500 residents this yr for low-cost broadband, in addition to supplying units, digital literacy efforts and technical assist, he mentioned.

San Antonio, Texas, had simply begun to focus on digital fairness when the pandemic hit, however inside months officers had made the problem considered one of 5 priorities for pandemic restoration, mentioned Brian C. Dillard, the town’s chief innovation officer.

More than 38% of the town lacks Internet entry, and the colleges misplaced contact with practically that proportion of scholars in the change to distant lessons, he mentioned.

“We wanted to commit to solving that problem, but also wanted to make sure we don’t face that problem in the future.”

San Antonio is now getting ready to construct a collection of 60-foot (18-meter) telecommunications towers to deliver web to college students in two college districts by August, and has pledged that 100% of the inhabitants may have entry to inexpensive service.

“It wouldn’t be acceptable for anyone to be living here without water supply or electricity, and it shouldn’t be acceptable for this utility,” Dillard mentioned.

Saving lives

Nonprofits have been a spine of digital inclusion efforts for years and continued to play a serious position amid the pandemic, usually coming collectively or innovating on the fly.

In the Silicon Valley metropolis of San Jose, California, youths final yr began to accumulate and refurbish previous units for these in want.

The concept got here to teenager Ayush Agarwal when he thought again to meals drives throughout which residents had additionally supplied previous electronics.

“When the pandemic hit and I saw peers not be able to get online … I remembered this experience,” mentioned Agarwal, now 17.

Since early 2021, his ClosingTheDivide nonprofit has donated 889 units, whereas increasing to greater than a dozen states and internationally.

Other teams shortly rejiggered longstanding methods.

“It’s really hard to show someone how to use a tablet when you can’t sit next to them,” mentioned Kami Griffiths, govt director of the Community Tech Network in San Francisco.

But a brand new initiative to assist remoted seniors has now seen practically 900 folks get a pill or assist in signing up for Internet entry – in addition to printed booklets and classes by cellphone.

“They were so lonely and didn’t know where to turn,” mentioned Griffiths.

“Now they can do things that previously they only saw on movies and television,” she mentioned, pointing to the flexibility to speak to family overseas, order remedy and entry different life-changing providers.

“We’ve had several people say we saved their lives.” – Thomson Reuters Foundation



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