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How local governments can help bridge the digital divide

Bridging the digital divide seems daunting, but there are many ways for local governments to help. Anthea Foyer, Sector Development Officer, Interactive Digital Media Office at Toronto, ON, breaks down some ways local governments can be more involved in supplying hardware and access to the internet in underserved parts of their communities.

How local governments can help bridge the digital divide media 1

Summary

Imagine getting through the pandemic without technology. No Netflix. No Zoom birthday parties. No online yoga or bread making classes. Only one computer for your family of four to share for work and online school. No money to pay for internet service or you live in an area without consistent internet coverage. No access to medical information about the vaccines or other health concerns.

The pandemic has shone a light on the unequal digital divide that has existed for many years across the globe. The digital divide refers to the discrepancy that exists between people who have access to information and communication technologies, and the benefits they provide, compared to those who do not have access. In Mississauga, 51% of respondents to the Bridge study of library technology users stated that the only access to technology that they have is through the public access technology provided by the Library. There are many reasons for this including differences in the cost and availability of internet access and tools, digital literacy and income inequality. In Canada, due to our massive physical size and mainly congregating on our southern border, many remote and northern communities have either very little or very expensive broadband access. This is also true in Alaska.

With or without the pandemic, we live in a world where we socialize, learn, create, find work, research, shop, have medical and mental health appointments, pay our bills, watch the news and many other daily activities online. Without adequate access it leaves many behind.

A couple of years ago I was hosting a series of public workshops about developing human centred data governance for the City of Mississauga. The sessions attracted a wide demographic of people with people attending that were university students, business owners, and retirees (and many others). Even in that mix I was surprised to see a young girl who diligently attended every workshop. She was fully engaged, asked questions and made us consider the role of children within the governance structure we were developing. I spoke with her dad. He told me she was 12 and she chose to come each week. Like every good public engagement session of the 21st century, we captured input on sticky notes. During one session when we were discussing the digital divide she left a note I still think of today. It very simply said: “As a kid in middle school I’ve noticed that not everyone in my class has an equal access to the internet. I was wondering if we could do anything to fix that?”



So what role can local government play in helping to bridge this gap?

It can seem daunting to tackle this issue, but there are a variety of ways cities can support technological solutions to this problem. Let’s start small and work our way up.



Computer Equipment

Most employees at local governments have laptops and mobile phones that are cycled through every 3-5 years. At the end of this cycle the hardware is often still in good working condition. At the City of Mississauga, we donated our laptops to the school boards who have laptop refurbishment programs in place to fix up and prepare the laptops for student use. During the pandemic the schools were overwhelmed with remote learning and the need for equipment for the children.

The city’s mobile phones are donated to a local group working with people experiencing homelessness. Without a permanent place to stay, a phone can be a lifeline for keeping in touch with loved ones, care workers and staying connected to the internet. Most cities will have programs similar to these that they can support.

Laptop and Data Lending Programs

Many Public Libraries across North America are starting to implement laptop and data lending programs. In Mississauga, we have been lending data sticks for about two years. The data sticks have been in high demand since their launch. From a pilot program in 2018 the Library expanded its program to all 18 locations in 2020 to meet demand and they circulated over 1600 times in the second half of the year. Canada has the dubious honour of having some of the highest rates for data globally, creating even more of a divide for those that cannot afford data.

The laptop lending program is in the process of launching this spring and was modeled on Ottawa Public Library’s successful program. When launched, the public can borrow Chromebook laptops to take home like any other Library item. In developing this program the main issues we grappled with were concerns about risk, mainly theft. According to our peers in Ottawa this did not turn out to be much of an issue with very little theft of the devices. One factor that aided this was the internal controls enabled through the Chromebook devices enabled remote disabling of the devices when not returned on time. The Ottawa program has hundreds of laptops continually on loan and does not require more than one staff to run the entire program along with their other duties.

Jennifer Stirling, Manager Digital Library Services & Collections, and one of the key drivers in the implementation of this program says: “The Laptop Lending Program is an essential extension of the Library’s role in providing access to information. We look forward to equipping customers with the tools to access key government and other authoritative online resources from home through the laptop lending program.”

Innovation Hubs

Many Libraries and Community Centres have developed Innovation Hubs that provide access, and training, on a wide range of digital tools that would be expensive for many to have at home. This includes high end computers with programs such as the Adobe Creative Suite, Unity and other game engines, and a variety of other tools. They will often have 3D printers, audio and video production tools, and maker space tools such as Arduinos. These spaces range in scale from a small corner to entire floors of libraries. Mississauga Library currently has three makerspaces which allow access to digital creation software, a recording studio and creation technologies like 3D printers. The renovated Hazel McCallion Central library will have a floor dedicated to digital creation and design when it opens in 2023. They provide opportunities for everyone to learn and create using contemporary tools. Libraries will often offer free classes to support digital literacy as well.

Broadband and Wi-Fi Access

This is another area that many of us take for granted but is a lifeline for many. This does require more of an investment, particularly if you are looking for reliable access. For municipalities, city owned and operated buildings are the easiest places to start with free wifi access. This includes City Hall, Community Centres and Libraries. The wifi should be free, reliable and easy to access. There should also be places to sit and plug in your devices.

If you are looking for something more substantial, the Region of Peel, which is made up of three municipalities - Mississauga, Brampton and Caladon developed a publicly owned fibre optic network called the Public Sector Network. To put it more plainly, they have their own internet. Beyond being the place to escape to when the zombies shut down the other networks, the purpose of the PSN is to provide an instant flow of data communications between municipal facilities across Mississauga, Brampton and Caledon, as well offers connectivity for other public sector agencies operating within Peel. Established in 1996, it has been built as the municipalities have grown so while the overall cost was high to build it was spread out over many years and it saves millions of dollars a year as it hosts the local governments, hospitals and some post secondary institutions.

As well, it is the base for the extensive Wireless Mississauga Network. This network has hundreds of wifi hotspots throughout the city, including many city parks and public squares, which are free and available for public use. During Covid, when free access at indoor public facilities was closed off the city was able to open up over 200 new outdoor wifi locations quickly as the infrastructure was already in place.

Other cities in Canada have paired with remote communities, including First Nations communities, to help support their own citizens as well as other areas that have notoriously poor access to internet access.

Advocacy

The $ Federation of Canadian Municipalities$  has recognized broadband as one of its focus areas to ensure all communities across Canada have access. This kind of advocacy can make a difference, as evidenced by the Canadian Federal Government’s recent launch of the Universal Broadband Fund, which is a $1.75 billion fund dedicated to bringing reliable high-speed internet to every Canadian.

The stakes are high for cities that are not able to address the digital divide, but there are many ways smaller, more achievable ways we can begin to tackle this issue.

If your city is doing something creative to address the digital divide, please share on Govlaunch! This free resource has been invaluable to me as a public servant and my team as we navigate this complex web of issues - a lot of which are universal for public sector organizations big and small.

For a quick reference, $ here’s a collection of projects on the digital divide$  and ways cities are working to address it.

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