NEW REPORT: Growing Healthy Digital Equity Ecosystems

We are excited to announce the publication of our new Benton Institute for Broadband & Society report, Growing Healthy Digital Equity Ecosystems During COVID-19 and Beyond. This report presents findings from a survey of individuals representing a diverse group of organizations across the United States that have self-identified as being part of either a formal, informal, or emerging digital inclusion coalition. The purpose of our study was to better understand the role these coalitions have played in supporting what we are calling “digital equity ecosystems” in their communities during the challenges of the pandemic.

We define “digital equity ecosystems” as the interactions between individuals, populations, and their larger socio-technical environments that all play a role in shaping the digital inclusion work in local communities to promote more equitable access to technology and social and racial justice.

We believe the next administration, led by President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, can benefit from understanding the community-based tactics, particularly in poor communities and communities of color, that have emerged in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. In our new report, we show how digital inclusion coalitions have leveraged their communities’ digital equity ecosystems to address their communities’ broadband-related needs while facing significant barriers due to limited personnel, technological, and financial support for digital equity.

You can find the report and the related Benton Digital Beat article here.

Here is a summary of our main findings:

Digital inclusion coalitions established before the pandemic have responded to COVID-19 by focusing their efforts on information and resource sharing, networking, data collection, raising awareness about digital inequality, and developing new tactics to promote digital equity. These coalitions have worked to coordinate investments and develop new funding opportunities to support their existing work such as providing access to computers, low-cost internet service, and Wi-Fi hotspots for more vulnerable members of their communities. In our survey, 29% of respondents indicated that they were part of digital equity coalitions that formed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. These new and emerging coalitions have organized others in their communities, focusing on ways to provide access to the internet, digital devices, and digital literacy training for low-income individuals and families. Respondents described several factors that made it possible to respond in these ways, including: their existing relationships and collaborations, awareness of existing policy constraints, capacity and knowledge about how to best engage with key stakeholders (both inside and outside local government), as well as years of existing digital inclusion experience. Others cite new funding opportunities as key support for their response, with 52% of respondents indicating that their organization or community used CARES Act funding for digital inclusion activities.

The pandemic has introduced several new challenges for digital inclusion coalitions and has magnified a number of existing challenges. These challenges include obstacles to getting sufficient buy-in from broadband internet service providers to support their efforts, as well as barriers to working with local elected officials to make free and/or low-cost internet access a policy priority. Some coalitions cite the lack of infrastructure in rural areas, as well as insufficient resources, staff time, and funding to address the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. Additionally, respondents described social distancing rules as a challenge when many of their digital inclusion activities rely on in-person instruction and devices. Several respondents highlighted the challenge of balancing responses to the urgent, short-term needs that the pandemic presents—such as hotspot and device distribution for K-12 digital learning—with long-term, sustained investment in broadband access, adoption, and literacy.

Digital inclusion coalitions are finding ways to creatively solve problems to address their communities’ digital needs. These solutions include developing new and expanded partnerships, including partnering with community members; piloting new initiatives; collaboratively seeking new sources of funding; pivoting to online training in digital skills training and virtual tech help; sharing information and resources with their communities; and offering socially distanced, masked, and outdoor events. In addition, there are more stakeholders interested in digital inclusion initiatives than ever before, especially K-12 schools, health care providers, and local nonprofits. Two of our respondents indicated the importance of making connections between the COVID-19 pandemic, digital inequality, and racial injustice when developing digital equity solutions. Respondents indicated that several new tactics will continue even when the health crisis ends, including: virtual learning services; development of digital equity plans, expanding broadband infrastructure, raising awareness of digital equity work, prioritizing device accessibility and training in digital literacy, and promoting data-collection efforts.

Cities, counties, states, and national organizations have also played key roles in supporting local digital equity ecosystems. Cities, counties, and states have played significant roles in addressing digital inequality during the pandemic, such as making funds available for internet and device access, including free community Wi-Fi access points and free or discounted in-home internet access. Cities and counties have also worked with their public libraries to expand Wi-Fi hotspot availability. Statewide and multi-state coalitions have focused their efforts on the following: providing maps of free internet locations, compiling lists of low-cost internet deals, providing recommendations for COVID-19 task forces, creating online-resource webpages, informing people about digital equity, offering information on funding opportunities and state actions, and collaborating to share knowledge and resources. National nonprofits have worked to address digital inequality in communities across the United States through their work with local digital inclusion coalitions to promote literacy training in digital literacy, as well as device refurbishing and reuse.

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