Taking on the Digital Divide in Louisville

Today, more and more of the world is moving online, and in the process, more and more people are being left behind. Full societal participation increasingly depends on the ability to access and effectively use the internet — from applying to a job at a fast food restaurant to doing homework to starting a small business. High-speed internet is no longer a luxury, and technology skills are no longer optional for job success. So for people without internet connectivity, digital skills, or hardware, it’s getting hard to keep up.

The stories of the digital divide are striking. At community centers in Louisville, people often sit on the stoop to access Wi-Fi on their cell phones after the centers close. In places across the country with Wi-Fi enabled school buses, students ride longer bus routes to finish homework. In Louisville, we have “fiber deserts” in west and south Louisville, areas where high-speed internet is completely unavailable because of a lack of infrastructure.

But these anecdotes are more than just stories. They result in notably divided outcomes, especially in employment. In the past two years, almost 80% of people looking for jobs used the internet. So while more people are relying on the internet to find jobs, the people most in need are often the ones without broadband internet (the baseline standard for internet access). Those fiber desert areas, for example, are also the places in Louisville with the highest unemployment rates.

I’ve spent a lot of time this summer thinking about this problem, because as an OPI2 intern, one of my main projects has been researching the digital divide and how to increase digital inclusion in Louisville, in conjunction with the Innovation Team. This week, we’re finishing up a draft of a digital equity report for Louisville. Our report is focused on bridging the gap by improving connectivity, teaching digital skills, and providing hardware and technical support.

We’ve looked at examples across the country like how Chattanooga turned fiber internet into a utility and now has universal 10-gigabit connectivity. That connectivity has revived the city, now home to double the previous downtown population, a 3-D printing hub, and America’s most advanced electricity grid. In Seattle, digital skills training considers the importance of different learning styles. Seattle also boasts a Technology Matching Fund that helps fund community initiatives to teach tech. And then there’s Kansas City, the first Google Fiber city, which is home to the successful Connecting for Good computer refurbishment program. There, low-income residents can get a PC for as low as $75.

Starting with this digital equity plan, Louisville can start to follow these examples from around the country and increase its digital inclusion. Our recommendations include creating Neighborhood Board connectivity plans, increasing collaboration and coordination for digital skills training, and finding partners to create refurbishment clinics.

Bridging the digital divide is a daunting challenge, but it’s a challenge that will only grow harder as digital divide widens. It’ll take creativity, innovation, and collaboration — and from what I’ve seen about Louisville so far, I have faith that this city can do it.

Questions? Contact me at hedy.gutfreund@louisvilleky.gov, or after this summer, contact Ed Blayney at edward.blayney@louisvilleky.gov.

— Hedy Gutfreund