The pandemic has forced even more of our lives to move online. In Seattle, much like the rest of the country, lower income households are significantly less likely to have a computer or internet at home and have lower than average levels of computer-based digital skills. Physical distancing requirements and the unpredictability of the virus will limit or eliminate in-person technology and employment assistance, particularly for the immunocompromised, for the foreseeable future. In response to these new challenges, digital literacy training organizations have started to explore remote technology assistance, but it is a novel approach. On top of these challenges, lower income households were disproportionately impacted by the historic job losses this past spring.
In response, the City of Seattle, with funding from Comcast, partnered with local nonprofits, Seattle Jobs Initiative (SJI), and Interconnection to create Digital Bridge. This program provides job seekers with remote support to develop digital skills to expand their job opportunities. TASCHA received a COVID-19 economic recovery research grant from the University of Washington Population Health Initiative to investigate key questions related to the program design, implementation, and participant experience to increase the understanding of participants’ needs, implications for future program design, and the impact on those who received services. Our project team includes Stacey Wedlake, Yvette Iribe Ramirez, and Chris Jowaisas.
We are experimenting with multiple methods to understand how the program impacts individuals. In a first for our research team, we are asking participants and program case managers to submit a week’s worth of audio diaries to better understand their everyday lived experiences. Then, for participants, we are conducting interviews to ask follow up questions based upon their audio diaries and in-depth questions about their experience in the program. For the case managers, we hosted a focus group using a participatory design approach to understand what’s working and what needs improvement.
We launched our study about the same time the City and SJI launched Digital Bridge. This has turned out to be challenging in a few different ways for recruitment. First, our research project requires a lot of collaboration with Digital Bridge program staff for recruiting participants. Due to privacy protections, SJI cannot share program participants’ names and contact information directly with the UW research team. Due to the immediacy of participant needs, the program was developed and launched quickly and added to an already heavy staff workload. At the same time, the staff were presented with challenges with working during a pandemic, adjusting to remote work, and managing increased caregiving responsibilities. Understandably, the priority for the staff is making sure the participants are taken care of and not our research study.
Second, participants are experiencing a significant amount of information overload. Between the processes for receiving technology, participating in training programs, and navigating life during a pandemic without sufficient support from the federal government, participation in a study falls low on the priority list. We originally tried to recruit participants upon enrollment in Digital Bridge, but people do not have the capacity to participate. Despite the challenges, our initial data collected seems rich, and we keep adjusting our strategies.
We look forward to sharing our findings, and we’ll have some initial insights ready to share by the end of the calendar year.