Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

Access to Technology is Now a Matter of Life and Death

The Covid-19 Pandemic makes clear access to technology is a basic human right

Suzanne LaGrande
Apr 15, 2020 · 6 min read

“We often hear in our community that technology is the thing that will save us technology will change the world. But technology and innovation are really just buzzwords: If they don’t include everyone, technology just becomes another systemic barrier…It’s our goal that when we talk about innovation, we’re really including everyone in the digital future and not leaving folks who are systemically disadvantaged left even further behind.”

The following is an interview with Hilary Shohoney ,who is the Director of Community Development at Free Geek in Portland, Oregon.

Free Geek: Solving Two Social Problem At the Same Time

At Free Geek we take in used technology and we refurbish that technology and work really hard to get it back out into the community for either free or low cost. We’re looking at solving two societal problems by pointing them back at each other: We’re taking e-waste, and we’re putting that at the problem of the digital divide and creating kind of a closed economy.

The Digital Divide & Lack of Access to Technology

The digital divide is this idea that certain folks don’t have access to either an internet enabled device, — that could be a laptop, a cell phone, a computer of some sort.

They might not have access to the internet. They might not have adequate tech support to know how to use their device or to troubleshoot it. On top of that, they might be lacking education to use the device in a way that actually helps them.

Computers: A luxury or a necessity?

A lot of times computers are seen as a luxury for folks and it’s just not something that they feel like they can afford. Sometimes it’s because we have a device at work that we’re using or at school that we’re using, but as soon as those devices become unavailable, then that divide becomes much more important.

Access to Technology Linked to Other Forms of Systemic Oppression

A lot of times it’s our seniors folks who are experiencing this. We find that seniors don’t have access. I think this falls along the line of every other systemic problem that we see. You can map it out based on neighborhoods that people live in systemic oppressions that exists for them. There’s just it’s a very intersectional issue along with just about everything else that you feel about. This affects people who are marginalized in a number of other ways.

The Covid-19 Pandemic: Access to technology is now a matter of survival

Suzanne: What effect is the Covid-19 Pandemic having on the work that you do?

For us, it’s making our work more salient. We knew it [the digital divide] was a problem.

Now we’re seeing folks — maybe they’re students and they are trying to participate in education long distance for the first time. Or maybe they are workers who are learning to work from home for the first time but don’t have access to a computer.

Senior Citizens and Access to Tele-Health Care

Or they’re seniors and they need to have tele-health appointments because they can’t go in and get the care that they need.

That’s something that’s coming up daily for us at this moment.

Access for Kids in Foster Care

Another thing that happened yesterday was we heard from a group that helps with foster care kids in the state of Oregon. What they’re struggling with is a lot of children right now don’t have access to a device at home that would allow them to connect with their social worker and also to connect with their parents who might be trying to regain custody and are experiencing being deported. There’s no way for them to connect with people that are really meaningful in their lives and really helping them to just get through.

Access to Mental Health Services

Mental health is another area. I can say this about everything right now: there’s so many areas where people need a device to connect. Maybe it’s to a mental health professional, and isolation is extra difficult right now. People are struggling and a device is the one thing that can provide them with a connection.

Struggling to Meet the Needs For Access at Present

We are struggling to meet the need right now. We’re hearing every day from hundreds of people who need access to a device and maybe need access to low cost discounted internet services. We’re trying to help connect them to all the resources that we can and try to get some low cost machines or free machines so that people can connect and be a part of what’s happening in the world right now.

Normally, the digital divide impacts people in a very real way. Right now, and people need laptops, people need what we need right now our laptops with a webcam and a built in microphone, and speakers. We’re having hundreds of requests for a day.

Help from the public and corporate partners

The public has been very generous and trying to help us out financially as much as they can. But obviously, most people are strapped for a job right now. On top of that, because we can’t take in technology in the same way.

We’re really leaning into our corporate partners and asking them to give us more technology because they’re the ones that have a little bit more of a logistical arm that can get us large quantities of tech. What we’ve been doing is getting donations from folks who maybe have like a headphone business and they’re saying, okay, we’ll give you the shipment of brand new headphones and microphones so that people can connect it that way. Those functions aren’t available on their computer, and then we’re adding third party webcams onto machines for machines that don’t have working webcams. They pretty commonly exist, but frequently are broken.

Running low on inventory

We are running low on inventory and need more machines to serve the need. We don’t actually have enough technology to meet the need right now. It’s something that we’re really struggling through and trying to trying to solve for.

Sometimes we’re able to work with folks who need a device that maybe they have access to some technology, and they’re helping us to find that tech and that’s helping. It’s a real struggle for us right now. Just finding the device.

Suzanne: How are you actually getting these computers or webcams to the people who need them?

We have a skeleton crew on site right now and they’re offering pickups with six foot distancing with all have been dropping them off at locations.

Recently worked with Portland State University to provide them a couple hundred computers to a group of their students that were a high risk, what we did is we basically set the computers on a table, we walk away, the student comes and gets their computer, we disinfect the table again. And then we do that over and over again.

We’re doing a lot of pickups on site like that for folks who needed advice. And then we’re also able frequently to ship to people’s homes. That’s something new that we’ve been offering, and there’s a cost involved for us.

We’re trying to find ways to creatively recoup that cost. This situation of the pandemic has made the digital divide even more obvious, I think, to many people who it was not obvious before

Access to Technology as a Basic Human Right

Even to this day, we’ll reach out to our community and say, hey, this seems like a basic right to us that people have access to a device and we’ll hear Oh, no, it’s a privilege.

We often hear in our community that technology is the thing that will save us technology will change the world. But technology and innovation are really just buzzwords, they don’t include everyone and they just become another systemic barrier for folks.

It’s my goal and I know it’s the goal as most folks who work at Free Geek to help so that when we talk about innovation, we’re really including everyone in the digital future and not leaving folks who are systemically disadvantaged left even further behind.

Listen to the full interview here:

The Imaginary Possible

How can we create a future where everyone thrives?

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