Hazel Green (right), a Springview Apartments resident, finishes her final computer test. Photo by Lea Thompson
Ensuring that more people have access to computers, could help boost economic, educational, and personal opportunities. Credit: Lea Thompson for the San Antonio Report

San Antonio’s first Digital Inclusion Summit took place Wednesday, and participants agreed that comprehensive training must accompany efforts to increase digital access and literacy.

More than 100 people attended the day-long conference at the Central Library. Speakers said progress in bridging the digital divide is being made by extending high-speed internet access citywide, especially in lower-income communities.

That, and ensuring that more people have access to computers, could help boost economic, educational, and personal opportunities in such neighborhoods, they added. Attendees also called for increased focus on outcomes of greater access and literacy.

San Antonio Public Library Director Ramiro Salazar said the library system’s increasing number of branches help with this effort.

“For many communities, [libraries] are the only access they have to high-speed internet,” Salazar said.

Molly Cox, president and CEO of SA2020, said digital inclusion is key to personal empowerment in many communities. But it’s more than simply having computer or web access – it’s about using it productively, she noted.

“How can you fill out a college application without internet access? How do you look for a job? How do you sign up for health care without an email?” Cox added.

One in six San Antonians do not have a computer or internet access, Cox said, citing research. Smartphones alone are inadequate for completing more complex tasks, such as writing school papers or developing a résumé, she added.

Mayor Ivy Taylor has long advocated for San Antonio becoming a globally competitive city where everyone has a chance at prosperity. The mayor’s office spearheads a digital inclusion initiative, where the City, the San Antonio Housing Authority, and private and public partners work toward solutions.

“We can’t achieve that vision without bridging the digital divide,” Taylor said. “It’s the gap between people who have broadband access and know how to use it and those who don’t.”

Taylor said not having internet access at home or in neighborhoods prevents people from completing essential tasks, such as applying for a job, paying bills, or discussing a child’s school performance with a teacher.

Even engaging in local government is a challenge without reliable web access, Taylor added. As a result, people without adequate digital access do not get to share educational and workforce skills with others, she explained.

Socioeconomic inequality exacerbates the digital divide, especially among younger and lower-income families and the elderly. Such individuals often lack the digital or financial literacy to achieve upward mobility, Taylor said.

According to the 2013 American Community Survey, San Antonio ranked in the bottom third of major cities based on percentage of households lacking internet access. Taylor said developing public and private sector partnerships is vital to closing the digital gap.

“Think about that for a minute: up to one in four San Antonians may be functionally illiterate,” she said. “The most important thing we can do to address the digital divide is to build relationships that help our residents learn basic skills that apply competently to new technology.”

Panel discussion participants talked about how such partnerships and innovation shore up access, training, and literacy.

More than one year ago, the Housing Authority began working with ConnectHome, a pilot initiative launched by then-President Obama in 2015. The program links communities, businesses, and the federal government in extending broadband technology to residents in assisted housing.

Google Fiber and several private and public partners joined the Housing Authority in the local cause.

The Housing Authority first installed computers with broadband access in centralized rooms at three of its properties. It later enabled WiFi in individual units and computer rooms at two other Housing Authority properties.

The organization has also provided more than 350 devices to residents across these communities, and more installations are in the works. Local ConnectHome partners hope to expand their efforts beyond federally funded public housing.

The Housing Authority also offers digital literacy classes at its properties where broadband access and devices are provided. Officials said it’s important to instill a sense of confidence while providing proper digital literacy training to residents.

Some of the residents at Housing Authority properties go on to become so-called “ambassadors” to help train fellow residents.

“Confidence is one of the most important things [residents] need to continue,” said Catarina Velasquez, educational consultant with the San Antonio Housing Authority

One of the summit’s speakers, Bill Callahan, is the director of Cleveland-based Connect Your Community 2.0, a nonprofit that helps increase digital inclusion and literacy in low-income communities across Cleveland and Detroit.

He said less than two decades ago, at the dawn of the mainstream internet, many people were comfortable with filling out job applications in person.

Now that most job applications are offered online, fewer residents are confident they can access a computer to seek out job openings, much less fill out applications online.

“This isn’t just a mobility or access problem for the individual, but a huge problem for the community,” Callahan said.

Public discussions about digital inclusion lack focus on exclusion, Callahan explained – not deliberate exclusion, but rather inclusion efforts that are not comprehensive.

As a result, many people – specifically in low-income and rural communities – still get left behind.

“When cities engage as smart cities, you put your digital eggs in one basket, but you tell other communities you’re less vital,” Callahan said. He pointed to a Bexar County map where most residents still lack digital access and mobility.

Organizations such as Bexar Bibliotech and Communities in Schools work to achieve greater access, mobility, and literacy. Bibliotech now boasts two full-service branches, one of which is the first digital library in the nation located in public housing. The libraries allow locals to access the same books available at traditional libraries through digital e-readers which can be checked out for two weeks at a time. In addition, Bibliotech has collaborated with VIA Metropolitan Transit on the Ride and Read initiative, added six digital kiosks at transit centers throughout the city, and committed to furthering anti-cyberbullying programming.

Callahan and Housing Authority representatives agreed that people who have recently become digitally literate should share their newfound knowledge with their peers and, thus, help close the digital divide.

“We’re not making sure everyone who has access or a computer can use the system,” Callahan said. “You can’t expect someone who can’t pay their $60-a-month electric bill to just figure out their internet.”

Jen Vanek, director of the IDEAL Consortium, shared similar sentiment: “Access to poor training is worse than no training.”

Vanek said digital literacy should be well-rounded, relevant, and specified. She added that it should be “embedded in English as a second language, general education development, and workforce development.”

Deb Socia, executive director of the nonprofit Next Century Cities, said widening digital access and literacy helps unleash people’s potential.

With access, anyone can create a web-based enterprise, she said. In turn, communities build wealth internally.

“This is about investing in people,” Socia said.

Investing in people means collaboration, said Catherine Crago of Austin Pathways. She described how the Housing Authority of the City of Austin (HACA) built a coalition of private and public partners to further digital mobility for local low-income residents.

The Austin Community College District donated hundreds of computers to Austin Housing Authority residents, allowing HACA to divert more resources to training. In turn, more residents have access and share their knowledge.

“These people are willing to learn, relearn, and co-learn,” Crago added.

Angelique de Oliveira of Goodwill Industries said Goodwill helps serve low-income residents with needs and workforce development by collecting, refurbishing, and recycling used computers.

“One of the things in using a computer is you can achieve employment as an outcome,” she added.

Towards the summit’s end, Cox stressed the importance of outcomes regarding digital inclusion.

“I want to know what happens with those people when they turn on those computers, once they have access, then go out into the community and apply their new skills,” she said.

Edmond Ortiz, a lifelong San Antonian, is a freelance reporter/editor who has worked with the San Antonio Express-News and Prime Time Newspapers.