It is difficult to “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” without the ability to use the internet to meet personal needs such as connecting with loved ones, accessing health services, paying bills, and shopping for groceries. A recent study identified that 20% of Seattle residents living alone relied on someone else to help them use the Internet. In addition to personal networks, people relied on public libraries and nonprofits for in-person help with technology and teaching important digital skills. When I moved to Seattle in late 2008, I taught computer classes to job seekers laid off due to the great recession and saw first hand the power and importance of these community technology sites. Without this assistance and unable to fulfill their needs online, people will either need to leave their home to complete their tasks or their needs will go unmet.
Of course, internet access and device issues need to be addressed simultaneously. As Chris Coward, Director of the Technology and Social Change Group pointed out, households with incomes below $30,000 are disproportionately affected by lack of internet and devices. Cost is the main reason for lack of broadband. Although more needs to be done to address this issue, federal policy, ISP low-cost Internet programs, and efforts to connect refurbished digital devices for people in need have begun to address issues around access. While advancing these efforts, we must also support digital skills to help people meet basic needs during potential long-term social distancing.
Who needs help and what do they need help doing?
The needs and strategies for remote technology assistance will differ depending on who you need to reach. Not surprisingly, our society’s inequalities reflect who has internet access and skills. Diving again into the Seattle Technology and Adoption Survey, Seattle residents that are more likely to rely on others to help them access the Internet include:
- 19% for communities of color (highest among black residents at 34%)
- 33% for people who primarily speak a language other than English
- 38% who has a household member living with disability
- 49% living in public housing
- 37% of older adults
Some of these same communities also have higher risk of severe illness from COVID-19 and need to self-isolate as much as possible. If they received this assistance from someone outside their household, they have lost this information lifeline.
TASCHA’s recent research on the technology education and access needs of refugee women found that refugee women primarily rely on their smartphones for internet access and community-based organizations for access and assistance. Nationally, using NTIA’s internet Use Survey Research give a view into the true proliferation of even “basic” digital skills: as of November 2017, only 70% of all Americans watched videos online.
So what are some of the essential tasks that can be done online and reduce the need for someone to leave their house? Some of these critical needs include:
- Fulfilling daily needs: banking, grocery shopping
- Applying for unemployment and other public benefits
- Assisting children in online learning
- Accessing health information: understanding how to prevent and treat COVID-19, using health portals and telehealth services
- Troubleshooting technology issues
- Preventing social isolation through connecting virtually with family and friends
- Reading news to understand current events and government-recommended physical distancing measures
- Completing the 2020 census and taxes
- Using e-resources from the public library such as books and movies
Of course, online resources for basic technology skills do exist. Last year, myself along with colleagues from TASCHA and the City of Seattle reviewed digital skills frameworks and curricula and identified which covered what particular digital skills. However, I know from my days as a technology instructor and as someone who has helped family members with computer questions, the ability to ask questions is invaluable. In a follow-up post, I’ll explore some ideas on potential strategies for quarantine-based technology assistance.