New Partnerships aim to Bridge Digital Divide

ConnectHome is a national platform for local government and private organizations to work together.

Although most schools in the U.S. have internet access for their students, many low-income U.S. students return to a home without network access. They cannot do research, learn online, or email their teachers and peers. This “homework gap” — the inability to complete assignments and engage in the digital world — will ultimately widen the achievement gap between low-income and middle-class students. Furthermore, most healthcare offices, governmental services and job applications are found online which acts as a barrier for low-income families who may need to access these free resources. In order to address these gaps, ConnectHome was launched to bridge the digital divide for U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) assisted housing residents in the U.S.

ConnectHome is a national platform for community leaders, local governments, and private organizations to work together to create local solutions to bridge this divide. Stakeholders in community organizations and private companies work with the government to provide free or low-cost internet coverage, devices, and resources to low-income families living in HUD-assisted housing. The platform was created in 2015 and initially included 27 cities and one tribal nation. Each city has its own private-public partnerships to extend pre-existing networks into low-income areas. For example, Google Fiber offered $0 monthly home internet service to residents in select HUD-housing properties in ConnectHome cities with a pre-existing Google Fiber network (Atlanta, Durham, Kansas City, and Nashville). Other private companies that are not involved with network coverage, such as College Board and Khan Academy, offered free college prep materials for students and donated to support digital literacy in ConnectHome cities. Since the inception of ConnectHome, 37% of HUD-assisted families with children in these areas have acquired internet access in their homes.

This year, Pittsburgh will be jumping in. The City of Pittsburgh, Allegheny County Housing Authority, and the Housing Authority of the City of Pittsburgh have come together to recognize digital inclusion as a priority for the city. The mission is to increase internet adoption rates in HUD sponsored housing. There are already a few options for digital access in affordable housing in Pittsburgh. Allegheny County Housing Authority and the Housing Authority of the City of Pittsburgh worked with Comcast to provide a $9.99 plan that works in accordance with Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits. Computer Reach, a local non-profit organization, refurbish computers to make them compatible with new network speeds. There are also many national programs that provide internet access for low-income residents. The City of Pittsburgh intends to work with the housing authorities to help residents become informed about the options available to them while simultaneously exploring new partnerships to gather more affordable resources.

With this initiative comes the task of understanding of how a community changes when there is access and what support needs to be coupled with internet access to make it a useful resource. Data collection is integral in this process. We need to understand how these programs are effecting network coverage in low-income housing and whether they are having a positive impact on residents’ access to education, healthcare, and other such resources. ConnectHome Nation will provide a data-driven structure for setting goals and measuring outcomes and connect us with national resources. The goal of ConnectHome is to increase in home internet adoption in HUD based housing to 35% in the first year of the program and 15% each year after until 100% in home internet adoption is reached.

The City of Pittsburgh’s Roadmap for Inclusive Innovation, created in 2015, has stressed the importance of addressing the digital divide and since then, several actions have been taken to narrow the divide. In 2016, the City of Pittsburgh equipped 22 Recreation and Healthy Active Living centers with public Wi-Fi to increase free network coverage beyond the public library system. There are also new STEM learning programs in city-owned recreation centers, developed alongside Rec2Tech. Through a partnership with the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, the City of Pittsburgh created Data Literacy 101 courses to support digital literacy throughout the different neighborhoods. Another Inclusive Innovation partner, Computer Reach, provides free-training and discounted refurbished devices to community members. This new partnership with the Housing Authorities will further the work we have been doing to address digital disparities. #WeInnovatePgh

Join the the Inclusive Innovation network for an afternoon showcase of entrepreneurship and innovation on Friday, September 15th. RSVP on Meetup. Keep up with the Roadmap to Inclusive Innovation by following us on Pittsburgh I&P.