by Mark Van Streefkerk
On July 20, the City of Seattle Office of Economic Development (OED) launched the Digital Bridge pilot program, an initiative that connects low-income job seekers with refurbished laptops and broadband internet access. Digital Bridge is sponsored by a public and private partnership with Comcast, Seattle Jobs Initiative (SJI), Seattle Information Technology Department (Seattle IT), Technology and Social Change Group at the University of Washington Information School, and InterConnection. The program was created in response to job losses caused by COVID-19, which particularly impacted POC, immigrants, refugees, and underhoused people. So far, individuals enrolled in workforce development programs through SJI have been provided laptops and internet connection to apply for jobs and complete training programs, which have moved online due to COVID-19.
“Twenty individuals already have laptops that they have used in a training program. By the first week of August we’ll have 100 of the 200 laptops out, and then we’re already starting the waitlist for the next round of training programs,” explained Ryan Davis, Executive Director of SJI.
Davis emphasises that COVID-19 has only exacerbated Seattle’s digital divide, noting the correlation between low income, unemployment, and lack of digital access. Citing an SJI quarterly research report, Davis said, “Before COVID, some of the inequities that we identified were [that] lower-income households were more than twice to up to five times less likely to have a computer in the home, a smartphone in the home, or access to high-speed Internet.”
Nancy Yamamoto, Workforce Development Director at OED, observed that “COVID has actually eliminated a lot of the options where people have historically looked to access computers. For example, libraries are now closed, our WorkSource centers are closed. People just don’t have the options that they used to access those resources.”
Providing refurbished laptops and internet access is one part of a larger strategy to address the digital divide. Yamamoto said, “We’ve been thinking about digital skills for some time. We see before COVID, with the changing economy, digital skills are becoming more and more important, just a baseline set of skills and knowledge you need to attach to the labor market. We’ve been thinking about how we ensure that our residents are able to gain the skills that are going to be important in the marketplace.”
David Keyes, Digital Equity Manager at Seattle IT, said the pilot program will help effectively scale up the program. He noted the importance of being adaptable to individuals’ varying needs and abilities. “Where is their need for internet capability?” he asked. “Are they in a housing situation where Comcast or Wave can be? Or are they in a housing insecure situation where they’re most likely to need a mobile device to be able to get their internet? [We’re] proceeding carefully and have a well-orchestrated, integrated system to make sure it’s working for the clients.”
Keyes said the next steps were ensuring technical support for participants, as well as working with caseworkers and InterConnection to establish a clear ordering and fulfilment system. Digital Bridge is part of both short- and long-term solutions to filling the digital divide, which includes Seattle’s Tech Matching Fund.
“Every journey starts with a step, and Digital Bridge pilot is step one, but there are many more steps to go,” Davis said.
Mark Van Streefkerk is a South Seattle-based journalist living in the Beacon Hill neighborhood.
Featured image by Adam Foster.