Your organization has a clear mission and vision, and solves a societal problem. So, you invest in accomplishing your organization’s mission by spending time, attention, and financial resources. Your organization structure is less relevant than the specific impact you have in mind to change the world. You track outcomes and impact, and know where you need to be in one year, two years, and even five years.
But you may have an organizational blind spot. It is found in the infrastructure that now surrounds us so completely we are almost as oblivious to its importance as we are to other utilities until we lose access temporarily. Organizations that strive to address any social issue, or simply want to reach more customers must consider digital equity. Too often, society leaves digital inclusion in siloed places, such as with government agencies, internet service providers, or non-profits with a specific focus on STEM or digital skills.
Since technology affects all our INPUTS, we need to consider how it influences all our OUTPUTS as well. After 2020, many organizations actually offer fewer services in person than just a few years ago. Although this may create efficiencies both for the organization and the end user it can create limitations that may not be immediately obvious.
Technology does a lot of good in this world, as well as a lot of harm. As a society, we are becoming increasingly aware of need for constraints on aspects of technology. Although an emerging topic, technology also has the potential to expand socioeconomic disparities in ways we can only address if we consider it in our work. Rather than give up because the topic feels too big, or because we don’t feel like we are tech experts we should be encouraged that we have already demonstrated how tech can be harnessed for good and build responsibly on its potential.
If your work touches people’s lives, here are four digital equity principles to understand.
1. A proper definition of digital equity must encompass more than computer hardware and internet. Broadband and computer hardware are necessary. An individual without broadband truly is facing a big disadvantage. However, digital equity extends far beyond access to broadband and computer hardware. These tools now barely begin to close the gap in digital equity. In the current environment where advancements are taking humans into a fast-paced, disconnected, and automated world, understand tech’s spectrum. At the top of digital equity hierarchy, digital intelligence and capacity exists. This means the ability to access physical hardware and infrastructure, but includes knowledge of evolving technologies, intelligent social media usage, the skill to code and develop, and opportunities to become experts and even owners of the capabilities of Big Data and Information and Community Technology Capabilities.
2. Technology accelerates the gap between those who have access and those who do not. Ownership has always been critical in economic advancement; this is no less true in a world where tech companies exist as near-monopolies and have the power to influence social relationships and political decisions. Work that is designed to advance people forward socioeconomically in any capacity cannot overlook digital equity components. You need technology to perform your job functions in the modern world. Your clients, constituents, and customers do too, even if they have managed with limited use until now. Research demonstrates that gaps exist in access in digital access by age, geography and race. If digital equity is not a consideration in your delivery model (not just your outreach strategy!) you might be overlooking the resources necessary to help the people you are serving advance. And it is no fault if you haven’t considered it yet — we don’t often think about our infrastructure unless it doesn’t work well.
3. Human thriving must remain at the center of digital equity conversations. Sometimes this means slow, relational, local and/or non-automated. In recent years, we have seen more attention on the harms of social media and the disconnection, depression, and polarization it can cause. We have learned more about algorithmic bias and have all been fascinated and maybe a little fearful of the potential of natural language processing and AI. Data ethics, data privacy and digital equity are inseparable conversations. The capacities of technology have created all kinds of new questions we haven’t adequately been prepared to address, and we must not play catch up with technology when it comes to ethics and leadership. Relationships matter, and they make a difference in socioeconomic mobility. Our work must intentionally prioritize authentic, in-person relationships. We must use technology rather than letting it use us. This may mean leaving space for non-technical outreach, programs, and delivery channels. The degree to which a non-technical solution should be applied will vary based on circumstance.
4. If you are an organizational leader, there is a very high chance that you are on the side of the equation that has had good access to technology throughout your life. Even if you personally went without good access to digital capabilities for a period of your life, and even if your organization feels underfunded and under resourced, you have achieved some level of expertise and competency simply by way of the process of accomplishing decision-making status. If you are thinking about remote services, you may have fallen into a digital blind spot. One of the top uses of public libraries is to access public services or search for a job on a computer. Just because a person has a smartphone does not mean they have full online access. Applications and forms can be difficult and time consuming to complete online, and sometimes websites are not as mobile-responsive as they need to be for tasks. Lower-income households with computer may be sharing it among multiple family members. Talk to actual people in your community before implementing a mobile or digital strategy. You may uncover unexpected barriers as well as an innovative solution.
Don’t have a digital equity strategy? Let’s talk.