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April 6th, 2021
Cities • Innovation • Infrastructure
Megan Humes Manager, North America
Brian Zuluaga Associate, North America
Kevval Hanna Program Director, Inclusive Economies, North America
Carina Gormley Associate, North America

Learning from city leaders: closing the digital and data divide

Article highlights


How is @visitchatt managing to close its #DigitalDivide? Find out about HCS ED Connect, and how Chattanooga is creating a society that's #Built4All

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Portage, Michigan is famous as the production site for the first Pfizer vaccines. But did you know that it also is hard at work at closing the #DigitalDivide? Learn how Portage is helping to create a world that's #Built4All

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When #COVID19 hit, the @CityofDenver had to make changes to its long term plans - fast. See how the @CityofDenver moved mountains to kickstart its plans to create a world that's #Built4all

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This piece is part of the #Built4All Listening series. Read our other pieces on creating a dynamic market ecosystem and building public infrastructure, and check out our comprehensive overview.

The consequences of a data and digital divide during the COVID-19 pandemic

Amid the 2020-2021 COVID-19 pandemic, the world moved online. Already vital tools for work and leisure, computers, smartphones, and reliable access to the internet became an even greater necessity for all aspects of life. Going to a work meeting? Log in to Zoom. Heading to school? Open up your computer. Need safe socialization? Time to video chat. Want a test or vaccine? Book your appointment online (and do it in under a minute because thousands of others are vying for the same slot). 

Accurate and robust databases also took a new centrality in Americans’ lives during the pandemic. It was data about residents that drove state and local vaccine roll-out; data about small businesses that directed PPP loans; data about testing, infection, and mortality that highlighted the inequitable impact of COVID-19; and data that made evident the support residents needed to work, eat, learn, and survive during the pandemic.

As the pandemic continued, an irrefutable truth emerged: America faced a tremendous data and digital divide. On the digital side, 21.3-39.4 million Americans (6.5-12% of the population) lacked access to quality broadband (FCC, Broadband Now). Without access to reliable, high-speed internet, adults could not effectively work from home, children struggled to participate in virtual school, businesses could not understand or apply for PPP loans, and segments of the population, particularly the elderly and non-English speaking, lacked access to information about vaccine testing and vaccination distribution. On the data side, cities found their existing databases ill-equipped to assess or understand the complex problems their communities now faced or to evaluate how well initiatives were working. This lack of data led to flawed interventions that exacerbated the problems they aimed to address and often created an entirely new set of challenges (Urban).

It comes as no surprise that when we asked our fifteen participating cities which pillar and outcome of the Built for All framework their government was focused on, eleven of them chose Pillar One: Equitable access to resources & opportunities, with a focus on achieving the outcome of technology, data, and digital networks benefit everyone.

Solutions spotlight: Closing the digital and data divide

The consequences of the digital and data divide experienced by cities, particularly during COVID-19, are varied and unique. Each city must grapple with its own specific circumstances, resident needs, and community norms. Of the eleven city governments who spoke on their efforts to address challenges in data and digital, the experiences of Chattanooga, Portage, and Denver capture trends we saw to varying degrees across the country. Below, we detail the problems and solutions deployed in each city, which we believe can be tailored and replicated for other city contexts. 

Challenges

Chattanooga rolled out the nation’s first citywide gigabit network in 2010 - a notable achievement for any U.S. city. Despite that feat, not all communities in ‘Gig City’ have had reliable access to the internet - a place-based phenomenon that can be connected to the city’s history of redlining and segregation.

 “I’m proud that we are looking at communities throughout our city as a whole [when it comes to identifying digital needs], not only one at a time.” - Jermaine Freeman, Deputy Chief of Staff, Mayor's Office

Specific neighborhoods in the city have a high concentration of residents without access to the internet, resulting in vast digital inequities. While a partnership with Comcast helped some low-income residents get online during COVID-19, this issue of connectivity persisted. Ultimately, the city determined that addressing the digital disparities in residents’ ability to participate in the economy and access work, school, and telehealth services, needed to be a priority in their pandemic response.

Solutions

Over the course of 2020, Chattanooga worked with partners across sectors, including Hamilton County Schools and EPB, to launch HCS ED Connect, with funding from the city, Hamilton county, the school system, and several local foundations.

“The city is your laboratory - try new initiatives, if they don't work, you walk away, if they do, you can upscale them to help more people” - Jermaine Freeman, Deputy Chief of Staff, Mayor's Office

The initiative is designed to close the digital divide by:

  • Providing families whose children qualify for free and reduced school lunch with no-cost devices and access to high-speed internet, and

  • Establishing free, public access WIFI points across Chattanooga (locations selected in partnership with local nonprofit, The Enterprise Center).

Through HCS ED Connect, 28,500 students and their families will be supported with WIFI and device access for the next ten years. The City of Chattanooga is also committed to continued iteration and innovation on the initiative to ensure it is equitable and sustainable in the long term.

Challenges

The City of Portage, located in southwest Michigan, has recently entered the national spotlight as the U.S. manufacturing headquarters for Pfizer, where the company’s Covid-19 vaccine is being produced. In addition to Pfizer and Stryker, two of the city’s important  anchor employers, Portage is home to a constellation of light industrial small businesses that shape its business culture. While Portage has grown and diversified a strong private sector, the city has historically - in the spirit of removing barriers to business - not required business licenses. This leaves the city reliant on a variety of tax, assessment, and development databases to track businesses, but without a singular contact information database to proactively communicate and reach out to businesses. 

“People know inclusion when they see it, but they are not [always] looking for it or able to define it” - Kelly Peterson, Director of Community Development


This presents challenges to the city in connecting local businesses with Covid-19 pandemic relief support, such as PPP loans. Without established, direct communication channels, many businesses - particularly those with low social capital- can be left without information and support, even in cities with robust social and financial resources. While this has led to new challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic, it has also presented clear opportunities for growth and improved communication in this increasingly digital era.

Solutions

Portage is working to improve the two-way flow of information with businesses and residents through a mix of approaches, including: 

  • Onboarding a Community Outreach engagement specialist to serve as a liaison to the city’s business community and connect resources across a variety of initiatives.

  • Introducing broader, real-time outreach tools and technologies to encourage two-way communication between the city and businesses, residents, and stakeholders.

  • Increasing digital engagement for business outreach, resident outreach, and the city’s upcoming Comprehensive Plan and Zoning Code updates. These tools will include real-time dashboards and surveys, data visualizations, and 3D modeling to convey scenarios to residents and businesses, and engage in a dialogue that reflects diverse interests and voices from the community.

Ultimately, Portage aims to use the increased data to ensure economic investments across a wide range of sectors and businesses are data-driven and will improve communication with businesses and the wider community. In doing so, Portage will build a more forward-thinking, resilient, and diversified economy that is equipped for the future.

“Government is the space where you can be a change agent.” - Kelly Peterson, Director of Community Development

Challenges

Denver was thriving, until COVID made the focus reducing unemployment, not upskilling the underemployed.

 Before the COVID pandemic, the city of Denver, CO was experiencing an economic boom, with a population increase of 21% since 2010 (Denver Post). However, the economic shutdown and rapid shift in work have increased unemployment rates from 2.7% in January 2020 (well below the national average of 4.0%, to 7.0% in January 2021 (BLS), forcing residents into survival mode as they lack the resources to meet their basic needs. 

“How do we communicate 'this will be better in 5 years' when people are suffering now?”

As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the city had to transition to the ‘future of work’ overnight, rather than following the 2-year plan to adapt their workforce development services to the digital world. At the same time, the types of jobs available to residents are changing as specific sectors are heavily impacted by the pandemic and thriving firms increasingly adopt automation and AI technology. The Green Job initiative’s mission to “create career pathways and expand opportunities for workers (with a focus on people from under-resourced communities), and enable a just transition to support a climate-resilient and sustainable Denver,”  per Liz Babcock, Climate Action Team Manager, became an immediate imperative.

Solutions

Now, the city is using data and technology to tackle two of today’s most pressing problems - equipping the workforce of the future and shaping an economic development strategy to fight climate change - with a lens of equity and social justice.

“To identify community needs, we go into neighborhoods with two ears and one mouth, with the intention to listen more than to speak.” - Bret Walker, Manager, Employer Services, Office of Economic Development

Recognizing the disparate impact on historically underserved communities, Denver is embedding equity into its approach by requiring all city agencies to submit Equity Plans to The Mayor’s Office of Social Equity and Innovation for feedback, support and future training. Denver’s Office of Economic Development and Opportunity, in partnership with the Climate Action Sustainability & Resiliency team, is helping reduce barriers and increase access to career pathways and Green Jobs for the Denver community. These initiatives include:

  • Equipping residents with new skills via virtual workshops, trainings, and events,

  • Reducing barriers to career pathways for residents from under-resourced communities, people of color, and workers in industries in transition,

  • Building relationships with industry and communities to create a long-term, intersectional path quality, career-track green jobs, and

  • Connecting residents to immediate employment opportunities during virtual job fairs.

Across all of its departments, Denver believes there is “no bad idea” when it comes to connecting job seekers with positions and is committed to iterating and improving as feedback is received. Effective workforce development and a robust labor pool are essential to a healthy business environment.

Build inclusive economies in your community

Data and digital will continue to be of paramount importance both as we recover from COVID-19 and as we strive to build back stronger and more equitably. Our local governments must continue to collect and analyze data to understand the impact their work has on residents and identify areas where they can make improvements. Simultaneously, residents must be empowered to understand, access, and use digital technologies and robust public data. 

The Centre for Public Impact is committed to working with governments and their allies to create resident-centered solutions that harness the power of digital and data. Join us as we build a more equitable and inclusive future marked by human and environmental flourishing.

#Built4All Listening Series: Learning from City Leaders

The #Built4All Listening Series: Learning from City Leaders features lessons from thirty interviews with fifteen local governments across the U.S. and is part of an ongoing effort aimed at building truly inclusive economies that prioritize the flourishing of all people and the planet. Visit built4all.org to learn about the #Built4All framework, read related content, view upcoming events, and connect with our team.

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Written by:

Megan Humes Manager, North America
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Brian Zuluaga Associate, North America
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Kevval Hanna Program Director, Inclusive Economies, North America
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Carina Gormley Associate, North America
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