Creating a Digital Bridge: Lessons and policy implications from a technology access and distribution program for low-income job seekers

Abstract

In the United States, lower income households are significantly less likely to have a computer or internet at home and were disproportionately impacted by the historic job losses in the Spring of 2020. In response, a Seattle-based workforce development nonprofit in partnership with the City of Seattle launched a program called Digital Bridge and distributed 197 refurbished computers and 174 internet hotspots. Program participants also had access to Northstar Digital Literacy Assessment, online curriculum, and a technical support phone line. To understand Digital Bridge recipient needs, program impacts, and experiences of case managers implementing the program, we conducted a mixed methods study using a survey, Northstar Digital Literacy assessments, audio diaries, interviews, and a focus group.

We found that most Digital Bridge participants needed individualized training and structured support to complete online training and look for employment. Case managers became participants’ default help desk without sufficient training and time allocated to properly support their clients. Participants did not use the technical support line but relied on family, friends, and their case manager when they needed assistance. Participants also wanted more structured support such as one-on-one walk throughs of their new devices and formal digital literacy training.

After the initial pandemic shutdowns, more temporary federal funding has been allocated to support digital inclusion efforts. This study found that simply distributing technology will not get someone meaningfully connected; recipients want and need assistance from programs and people that they know and trust. Organizations implementing these programs need additional funding to support the time intensive personnel costs; funding cannot be limited to distributing the technology. Additionally, programs addressing digital inequalities need to work with broader social and economic assistance programs for their participants to access living wage careers.

Recommended Citation

Wedlake, Stacey and Iribe Ramirez, Yvette and Carson, Kathleen and Jowaisas, Chris and Keyes, David and Houghton, Matthew, Creating a Digital Bridge: Lessons and policy implications from a technology access and distribution program for low-income job seekers (August 3, 2021). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3898330 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3898330

Keywords

community informatics, covid, digital navigators, digital equity, digital inclusion