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Waveney Ann Moore: Bridging the digital divide

Waveney Ann Moore

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The goal of Digital Inclusion St. Pete is to eliminate the digital inclusion gap in St. Petersburg and throughout Pinellas County. The initiative includes providing computer classes and computers. The group also has a recycling program that refurbishes donated computers. Photo provided.

It’s easy to take computers and internet access for granted, but for many, these essentials of the 21st century are inaccessible.

Digital Inclusion St. Pete is working to bridge that divide. The goal of the collaborative of volunteers is to make online resources, together with the skills necessary to use and benefit from them, available to all. 

“So much of our world is on the computer. I would say that most organizations, most projects, are going online. I think people forget how much they rely on computers to get things done,” Alison Barlow, executive director of the St. Petersburg Innovation District, said.

Smart phones, she added, are inadequate “to apply for a job, to write a resume, to fill out a form with more than three questions.”

As well, “The phone will start to use up data, which is a financial burden for people.”

A recent report from US Ignite, published by the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society, addresses the digital gap that affects a large segment of the population. At least 42 million people, it says, “do not have adequate internet access to learn and work remotely, or to effectively take advantage of telemedicine.”

Further, US Ignite, whose figures are based on research conducted by BroadbandNow, notes that Black, Hispanic and Native American households are disproportionately affected by lack of internet access.  

Veatrice Farrell views it as a quality-of-life issue. 

“It’s one of those hidden needs people don’t really talk about,” said Farrell, executive director of The Deuces Live, a nonprofit created to revitalize the city’s historic African-American 22nd Street S district.

“If we think about how important digital literacy is to our community, a significant number of jobs are remote. Not having a computer and internet service means people are shut out of opportunities like that.”

Digital Inclusion St. Pete held its first meeting on Valentine’s Day 2020. The group, which wants to replicate Chattanooga’s Tech Goes Home initiative, invited its program manager to speak.

The St. Pete group’s original plan had been to focus on digital training, but the pandemic and subsequent shutdown forced a change. They decided, Barlow said, that it was “more important that people have computers and they have internet access.” Training could follow.

The Pinellas County School District was taking care of students and teachers. Others, such as seniors, families with children younger than school age and young adults, needed attention.

The group launched a computer recycling program and partnered with Lynn Harrell-Johnson, founder of Community Tech House on 18th Avenue S, to get computers to individuals. Computers also were sent to key sites.

“The community resource centers, that’s where we left computers,” Farrell said. “Remember, the libraries were closed. You could go to the places that gave out food, that gave out clothing. Now they have computers that you could go on and file for unemployment.”

As the country limps toward a return to pre-pandemic mode, Digital Inclusion St. Pete is turning its sights to establishing a full-time program. 

“We’ve had amazing partners who have been volunteering their time,” Barlow said. But, to develop a program like the one in Tennessee, “We need to have something a little more structured.”

She spoke of hopes for the group. The first would be to become a 501(c)3 organization to be able to accept donations and apply for grants.

The initiative may be getting financial assistance from the city of St. Petersburg. Council Chair Gina Driscoll has asked the administration to give it $150,000.

“I’m told that city staff is working on this and they hope to find the money,” she said. “I really believe it’s an opportunity for us to stand up and say that we will be a city where everyone is digitally connected. And it’s an achievable goal.”

Driscoll said the group has identified three main barriers to digital connection – access, equipment and education – and has solutions for them all.

Farrell would be pleased if the city money came through. “The money is great, but it’s the acknowledgement that the city is concerned … that digital literacy is important in our community,” she said.

Financial help is definitely on the way from the Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg, Julie Rocco, director of strategic investments, confirmed Thursday.

“The foundation seeks to continue our partnership with the digital inclusion initiative and has committed funding,” she said.

“Digital inclusion supports our mission of health equity via race equity as we seek to close the digital divide that historically creates a barrier for Black, Indigenous and Persons of Color seeking access to job opportunities, educational opportunities and health care. The other part of digital inclusion is, I may give you access, but you also need to be equipped with the skills to optimize its use.”

The group is also getting support for its work from Pinellas Community Foundation and Community Foundation Tampa Bay. Barlow said the hope is that Community Foundation Tampa Bay will take a leadership role to help establish Digital Inclusion St. Pete as a nonprofit and accept donations on its behalf. 

The group aspires to have a two-year funding stream that would allow it to hire someone to pursue grants and other funds, she added.

There are other goals. “We want to support the classes that are already being taught and then perhaps start new classes in places that need it,” Barlow said. 

The group would like to provide a curriculum for organizations that want to offer classes and to offer discounted, new laptops to those completing the classes. There’s also the idea of putting free Wi-Fi in multifamily public housing, “like Wi-Fi at a hotel.”

The initiative will operate wherever it’s needed. Census data shows, Barlow said, that many people in the South St. Petersburg Community Redevelopment Area lack computers and internet access.

There will also be focus on people who are “housing insecure,” she said. “They have some unique challenges, such as mobility. They need to have internet that travels with them, maybe, or access to public internet and they need a laptop instead of a desktop.”

Newly arrived refugees are also in need of digital access. Additionally, the group wants to get word out about the federal government’s Affordable Connectivity Program that provides a discount for internet service to eligible households.

“We need to make sure people have everything that they need to be successful,” Farrell said.

 

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