Last week, I attended the Digital Inclusion Summit at South Seattle Community College. Like InfoCamp and Accessibility Camp, this conference was an “unconference” with no set presentations until the event began. Luckily for all the attendees, those at the conference came with great topics and it was a day well spent for me thinking about “digital inclusion.”
What is Digital Inclusion?
Digital Inclusion is broad—I suspect it means many things to many people—but I see it as an umbrella term that focuses on multiple types of access to 21st century digital technologies. This includes:
- Accessibility to computers for those relying on assistive technologies like screen readers, keyboard navigation, etc.
- The Digital Divide between those with consistent access to computers and those without, usually defined along lines of class, race (more on that later), and geography.
- Digital Literacy or the ability to analyze and evaluate information on computing devices.
Getting at these themes, I thought the conference chose a very apt tagline of “Content, Access, Literacy.”
The Unconference Rules
I thought this was a very well-organized conference (thank you, organizers!) and I particularly liked the rules that they set for the conference:
- The people who come are the best people who could have come.
- Whatever happens is the only thing that could have happened.
- Give back to the conference by participating actively. “Active participation” might mean giving a presentation, helping with a presentation, blogging or podcasting the event, or whatever other creative ways you can find to contribute.
- The session: I starts when it starts; It’s over when it’s over. Feel free to use extra session time for other discussions and activities.
- The Law of Two Feet ((For a more inclusive name, how about the “Law of Personal Mobility?”)) – If you are not learning or contributing to a talk, presentation, or discussion, it is your responsibility (and privilege) to find somewhere else where you can contribute or learn.
Put together, I thought these rules—which the MC mentioned were not set in stone—balanced group cohesion and personal responsibility
Laura Breeden, who works for the NTIA (National Telecommunications and Information Administration) which administers the BTOP (Broadband Technology Opportunities Program), gave the keynote. Her talk was the perfect start to a conference with such a broad topic.
Breeden described how closing technology access gap is a multifaceted problem affecting many groups and putting them at many disadvantages. Similarly, closing that gap requires varied and creative solutions.
Factors that lead to the gap include:
- race & ethnicity,
- disability, and
And that lack of access puts people at a disadvantage as:
- employees (applying for jobs on a computer),
- patients (finding health information),
- students (learning for school or how to get an education),
- consumers (when was the last time you made a big purchase without using a computer?),
- and citizens (increasingly, government applications and services are online).
Breeden gave the following tips on how to close the gap:
- Use trusted intermediaries when working with a group lacking access. Breen mentioned one West Virginian town where the fire department helped with the community outreach to create buy-in.
- Meet people without access where they are. For example, the Techmobile is a large semi truck that brings laptops and wi-fi to migrant workers in rural California!
- Educate the consumer. This generally means empowering people with the knowledge to make their own decisions about using technology.
- Present the upside. It’s important to speak positively about how people benefit from access.
- Engage communities.
That last point is broad, but it provided a great way to complete a list of ways to close the access gap. By “engaging,” Breeden reminded us all that you can’t force technology on people, regardless of how much you think it will benefit them. You must work with them, to create a shared vision of technology’s benefits.
Two sessions followed the conference keynote. There were so many ideas proposed that each session had eight possible topics to attend, so I only attended 12.5% of the conference!
Session 1: The Big Brained Superheroes Club
When I saw a group at the community center just blocks from my house presenting, I wasn’t going to miss it! The Big Brained Superheroes Club started as a straightforward homework help club but evolved into an innovative “STEAM” program—that’s the well-known STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) plus Art!
The group’s leader described how they have used a kid- and volunteer-interest-driven model that has organically grown the program to its current state. But maybe the most interesting thing about the club is that they focus on 12 “superpowers,” all of which are soft skills: teamwork, leadership, kindness, empathy, sense of adventure, critical thinking, adaptability, persistence, empowerment, respect, willpower, and creativity.
Everyone in our relatively small session believed these soft skills played a large role in our own personal successes in technology fields, and so it’s wonderful to see these skills being emphasized in a technology setting.
Session 2: Race, Hip Hop, and Digital Media
The last session took on the always-hot-button issue of race. One of the observations the session leader started off with was that the digital divide is often broken down by race. As our discussion continued, the presenter asked “How does your ‘lived experience’ relate to your use of technology and the internet.”
For me—I was put on the spot to share with the group—this question brought to light my experience of the web as being created largely by people like me for people like me. This feeling is an incredibly simplified view, ((For example, almost half of the internet is written in languages other than English and barely a quarter of users are native English speakers (source).)) but regardless of its accuracy, that vague sense has meant that I always felt comfortable with computers and it was never a question whether the internet might be useful to me.
Closing the Circle
It seems fitting then, that the second session ended by driving home the point that “digital inclusion” is much more than whether you have a computer in your home or in a nearby lab. To build an inclusive internet, we must consider the needs, skills, and “lived experiences” of those who don’t have regular access to it and remember that “access” isn’t just an issue of hardware.