The U.S. Department of Commerce recently stated that digital inclusion is more than a social program that increases computer and internet access; it is now an “economic imperative in every community.”
The report noted that better-connected communities attract technologically based investments, support innovation, streamline supply chains and broaden opportunities for people and businesses. Veatrice Farrell, director of Digital Inclusion St. Pete, is leading the effort to increase local access – and quality of life.
Gadgets for Good, the initiative’s keystone annual event, is Saturday, July 15. People can bring their old electronic devices to the Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg, and eSmart Recycling will donate refurbished computers according to the amount collected.
Community Foundation Tampa Bay (CFTB) operates Gadgets for Good with assistance from several local organizations. The project falls under Digital Inclusion, a CFTB program with over 40 community partners focused on eliminating the digital equity gap through internet access, device distribution, technical support and training.
“The more computers, the more recyclable equipment we get, the more we can distribute to historically excluded and marginalized individuals in our community,” Farrell said. “All one has to do is drop off their device; they don’t even have to get out of their car.”
Digital Inclusion St. Pete launched in late February 2020 under the St. Petersburg Innovation District’s umbrella, and its leadership accelerated efforts as the pandemic highlighted how technology is an increasing aspect of daily lives.
Farrell is the former executive director of Deuces Live, a nonprofit dedicated to revitalizing the predominantly African American 22nd Street South (the Deuces) corridor. She and the organization helped implement the program alongside Alison Barlow, the Innovation District’s executive director.
The expansive CFTB began overseeing administration in late 2022. Its leadership hired Farrell as Digital Inclusion’s director in April, and she plans to increase the project’s impact.
“There’s always been talk of bridging the digital divide,” Farrell said. “They (national officials) realized that giving people devices doesn’t work if they don’t have access to the internet, and they don’t know how to use it.”
Most residents can now access high-speed internet service through a local provider. However, cost and digital literacy remain an impediment.
Data shows that 44.4% of South St. Petersburg Community Redevelopment Area (CRA) households make less than $20,000 annually. Another 27% earn $20,000 to $75,000 and lack an internet subscription.
Farrell is working to increase awareness of the federal Affordable Connectivity Program. Eligible households can receive up to $30 off monthly internet service and a $100 discount on devices.
Farrell distributes refurbished computers to local nonprofits, particularly those with after-school and summer camp programs. She noted that Bayfront Health St. Petersburg recently donated “a ton of equipment.”
She added that Digital Inclusion’s community partners help track data to fill service gaps. The project’s website is a repository for training and support resources.
“We believe if people get devices and learn how to use the internet, what that does is increase job opportunities,” Farrell said.
She also believes that remote work is here to stay. In addition, most employment seekers must apply and fill out a plethora of paperwork online.
Farrell explained how the affordable housing crisis often pushes people further away from their jobs. Increasing digital access and literacy also mitigates a lack of transportation.
She added that companies prefer relocating to areas with a digitally capable workforce. “I think Pinellas is fortunate that we’re a little bit ahead of the curve because we’re focusing on this issue, Farrell said. “And we’re putting systems in place to address it. We’re not there yet.”
In addition to economic impacts, medical experts now consider digital literacy and internet connectivity “super social determinants of health.” A recent study highlighted how patient portals, health trackers and remote monitoring devices can bolster patient engagement, offer support to outside clinics and improve health outcomes.
Farrell said the problem is even more pronounced for people with chronic illnesses and transportation challenges. She pointed to other studies highlighting how increased screen time and social separation affect mental health.
However, she explained that if people could utilize the internet for telehealth visits and work, that would create more time for social activities, or a trip to the park.
“We want to make it easier for people to engage with the things they have to do so that they have more time to do the things they want to do,” Farrell said. “And I think by becoming digitally literate – we’ll be able to do that.”
The goal is to ensure that about 90% of the local population becomes digitally literate. Farrell also plans to help connect historically marginalized communities with tech-focused jobs and entrepreneurial resources.
For more information on Saturday’s Gadgets for Good Drive, visit the website here.