Pilot program aims to narrow gaps in Austin’s digital divide
June 7 2023, via the Austin Monitor
A pilot opportunity from the Community Technology and Telecommunications Commission aims to support the city’s digital inclusion program by resourcing new computer labs around the community.
At the commission’s May 24 meeting, Chair Nehemiah Pitts described how he initially came across the partnership opportunity when he met contacts from the N50 Project, a coalition of companies and organizations working to close the global digital divide.
“This could be the beginning of a strategic partnership,” Pitts said. He pointed out that the program would be “one of the first public/private/philanthropic partnerships this commission has officially made.”
The city’s digital inclusion program focuses on providing computers and digital resources to community centers located in historically underserved areas of Austin.
Two of the N50 organizations – the nonprofit Geeks Without Frontiers and tech giant Intel – reached out to Jesse Rodriguez, the program manager who also serves as the commission’s backup liaison, about helping to jump-start their digital equity efforts.
Rodriguez said the first important step in the process was “resource mapping” – scoping out the specific areas of need and opportunity for computer labs around the city. The Parks and Recreation Department expressed a need for computer labs and offered available space at three of its facilities.
In the next couple of weeks, Rodriguez will start working with the locations’ site managers and city contractors to plan out what exactly will be provided at those centers.
“At the very least, we will have new computers available for public use,” Rodriguez said. “But we would also like to have additional resources, like people in the room to help with digital navigation and literacy.”
Rodriguez explained that the commission is in a “rebuild phase,” since nearly all of the community’s computer labs closed down during the Covid-19 pandemic.
“Before the pandemic, we had about 13 labs around the community. At the height of the pandemic, we only had one, and now we are back up to about six,” Rodriguez said.
While the support from N50 and the partnership with the parks department would add an additional three to that number, Rodriguez said the contract doesn’t have the financial capacity right now to have a more expansive footprint on the community.
“We definitely want to have these labs in all the locations that show a need – schools, libraries, etc. – and at some point in the next six months, we’ll be seeking support for additional funding from the commission to scale up this effort,” he said.
The project is still in its early stages, but Intel has been offered a proposal, and the parks department is ready to start on the technical planning once it is approved.
Pitts emphasized that this new support from the N50 partners is an important step forward in sourcing community funding and technology for current and future projects.
“My goal with this partnership opportunity is to form a success story that we could show other companies that might be interested in giving back to the community in a similar way,” Rodriguez said.
Commissioner Sumit DasGupta suggested that if companies like Dell or Apple notice Intel providing the computer labs with hardware, they too might be motivated to pitch in by contributing some of their human resources to the project.
“This gives us a chance to advance several of our goals, while also creating this partnership that can demonstrate to the local community of tech giants how they can throw their hat in the ring and really support the community,” Pitts said.
Read the full article here: https://www.austinmonitor.com/stories/2023/06/pilot-program-aims-to-narrow-gaps-in-austins-digital-divide/