Meet a Changemaker: Alex Banh at San Francisco Digital Equity

For this entry in our “Meet a Changemaker” interview series, we are thrilled to introduce Alex Banh, Digital Equity Manager extraordinaire at the San Francisco Digital Equity Initiative.

Access to technology is becoming more and more important to thrive in modern society, yet many San Francisco residents don’t have broadband internet access or basic digital skills. Read on to learn about Alex’s work bridging the digital divide and what you can do to help.

This interview is part of our “Meet a Changemaker” blog series which highlight innovative work in the public space. See our past stories on SFMTA and Digital Services.

Can you briefly describe your role and the San Francisco Digital Equity Initiative?

I’m the Digital Equity Manager for the San Francisco Digital Equity Initiative, which is housed in the Mayor’s Office of Housing and Community Development (MOHCD). As lead of this citywide initiative, I work to ensure that all residents have adequate access to technology and digital literacy, including basic skills like email correspondence, job search, and staying safe online. We have a very small team, so I do a little bit of everything — manage grants and programs, organize community meetings and events, formulate funding strategies, direct research projects. I also lead trainings and workshops and even help folks at our affordable housing sites connect to the Internet.

In San Francisco, about one-eighth of our residents don’t have broadband internet access or basic digital skills, and they’re predominantly low-income residents, seniors, people with disabilities, people with limited English proficiency — so, folks with already some existing barriers in their lives. While digitizing public services can provide more convenience for residents, and make things more efficient and cost-saving for government, we need to ask ourselves what we’re doing to help residents who need City services the most. We need to think about digital equity.

What does civic innovation mean to you?

I guess it’s a fancy way of saying that we’re trying to find new ways to solve important problems — to make our city more liveable for all of our residents. It’s about not being satisfied with the status quo, questioning our assumptions and limitations, and having an embrace of risk-taking and experimentation to find out what can really work.

Nowadays, innovation gets correlated with technology. But innovation doesn’t require implementation of technology. Civic innovation is the embrace of the techniques, mindsets, and processes honed in the development of new technologies. For example, a design-thinking mindset, understanding and empathy for the people you’re trying to serve, and co-designing a solution with your users as much as possible. It’s about framing the problem in the right way that allows for more creativity and expansiveness and then testing new ideas in small, iterative ways and improving continuously.

What are some important projects you’re working on and how are you applying innovative approaches?

As a caveat, I’d like to say that most of us in government want to apply more innovative approaches and do more innovative work. But it’s really hard to find the space, time, and permission to do that because there’s a lot of other things that need to get done… things that might not necessarily be all that innovative.

Framing the problem in the right way: the Fiber to Housing program

I support the Department of Technology’s Fiber to Housing program, which provides free fiber connectivity to affordable housing sites that are serving some of our lowest-income residents. For this program, we really tried to frame the problem the right way. It would have been easy for us to say, “How do we provide free internet to residents?” Instead we raised the bar much higher and we said, “How can we provide full and equitable internet access to our affordable housing residents?” Not just any free internet, but the quality of internet access that you and I enjoy.

Setting that high of a standard really forced us to be creative and pushed us to use all the tools in our toolbox. We ended up leveraging the City’s own fiber network, our affordable housing building standards, relationships with onsite housing staff, wireless solutions, and a public-private partnership with a local ISP, Monkeybrains, to get it done.

Over the course of two years, we have successfully provided high-quality, super fast internet access to almost 3,000 households.

Actively listening to the community: Digital literacy innovation program

One of the goals in our Digital Equity Strategic Plan is to launch a digital literacy innovation program designed to test new ideas that could address community-sourced challenges around the digital literacy gap. Before we could pilot solutions, we needed to clearly define the challenge.

To source the first challenge for the digital literacy innovation program, we brought in a summer fellow whose user research study made us rethink our initial hypothesis that a big motivator for learning digital literacy was to compete for living wage jobs. Instead, we learned from his user interviews in low-income communities that there was much more excitement about learning to use technology to start a business.

That was pretty surprising. We validated our findings with multiple community groups and training providers who confirmed that, yeah, there’s a huge hunger for entrepreneurship. So we’re creating an innovation challenge this year around the theme of entrepreneurship and how that can be harnessed to motivate folks to continue on their digital literacy journey.

Photo by Luis Villasmil on Unsplash

How can San Franciscans support the City’s digital equity initiative?

Individual support

For people who are digitally literate, we can definitely use more volunteers and mentors at our partner organizations, like community-based nonprofits or libraries. Many of them have volunteering opportunities where you can work with folks who are learning digital skills. Take a look at the the “Referral Destinations” section of the Digital Equity Playbook for a sample of some of our partner organizations. Anyone interested in volunteering can reach out to me directly at alexander.banh@sfgov.org.

We also invite everyone to take part in digital equity events. For example, every year the San Francisco Public Library puts together a week-long series called Connect with Tech Week. This event hosts talks, workshops and trainings all across the city to get people excited about technology and making technology open and accessible to all.

Company-based support

We’re always open to organizational donations of pre-owned computers. We have a computer refurbishment program in partnership with a local nonprofit called Dev/Mission. As part of the program, youth get hands-on experience fixing older computers and the nonprofit redistributes them to communities in need.

We also encourage companies to get involved with our network of community-based organizations working in digital equity. We constantly hear from our partners that they want to see more involvement from tech and the private-sector. When people hear that, I think they hear, “oh, they just want funding”. But more than funding, what digital equity organizations want is expertise. Expertise in shaping their programs and getting clarity on important questions like “where is technology is headed?” and “what kinds of digital skills do people need?”

Interested in providing company-based support to our partner organizations? Or participating as a company in our upcoming Digital Equity Conference? Contact Alex at alexander.banh@sfgov.org or follow MOHCD (@sfmohcd) on Twitter or Instagram.

About San Francisco Digital Equity

San Francisco Digital Equity is a citywide initiative to ensure all residents have the tools and ability to participate in digital society. Our small team is dedicated to helping residents overcome digital barriers and to improving our community’s standard of living.

Digital inequality continues to be a problem in San Francisco. For many residents, the skills or cost to use the Internet are too high. Over 100,000 residents are estimated to lack Internet access at home.

Faced with this persistent problem, our team is focused on helping the city’s vulnerable populations bridge the digital divide and leverage technology to improve outcomes in education, employment, and health.

Through our programs and partnerships, our goal is to uphold San Francisco’s vision of creating a diverse, equitable, and inclusive community.

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San Francisco Office of Civic Innovation

San Francisco Office of Civic Innovation

San Francisco Office of Civic Innovation, making @sfgov more collaborative, inventive and responsive to San Franciscans. #civicinnovation