I remember my dad asking what kind of job I could get with a Bachelor’s and a Master’s degree in Sociology. I listed off a variety of possibilities, none of which I really understood much about. Fortunately for me the professor I was assisting undertook a community-based project asking local non-profits how the university could best support them. The top item was technology, particularly providing technology access and training.
This was 1995. Our work with the local non-profits resulted in the creation of the Coalition to Access Technology and Networking in Toledo (CATNet). I helped set up labs, I coordinated resource sharing amongst community technology centers and I promoted their services. We referred to our work as bridging the digital divide.
Most of my career since then has been in the role of support of those on the ground providing technology access and guiding digital learning but it is my time spent in labs that has most influenced my dedication to digital inclusion. When Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005 I was the Executive Director of the Ohio Community Computing Network. I fought insistently to set up a computer lab at Rickenbacker Air National Guard Base where Hurricane Katrina survivors in Ohio were being housed. (Yes, it seemed just as ridiculous then as it does now that we had to fight to provide these folks with access to the Internet.) In a matter of days we had a fully functional and staffed computer lab ready for the survivors.
Just as technology is always changing, how we use technology is always changing. In 1995 we were concerned about folks knowing how to use a computer and word processing software. The Internet was a luxury rather than the necessity that it is today. We would even publicize the number of computers per lab that were connected to the Internet! The continual integration of technology into our daily lives means that not only is access to the Internet essential but we must also know how to use it.
I am now the Executive Director of the National Digital Inclusion Alliance, the perfect role for me after all these years of working on technology access and training. There are no quick fixes. There is no federal or state funding dedicated to increasing digital inclusion and only a handful of cities have a small pool of dedicated funding. The strength of the movement is in its grassroots base. As community leaders become more and more intrigued with high speed broadband and smart cities, we have opportunities to integrate digital equity into planning and infrastructure projects. And we are.