This post is authored by Tech Goes Home, a Boston-based nonprofit

Boston, like many cities, has a large number of residents who cannot reliably use the Internet and the many available resources it offers.  Having such an opportunity gap is a dilemma that must be addressed if we are to impact a wide range of community concerns.  Helping families participate in e-government, connect to their child’s schools, manage their finances, and secure jobs are all high priorities.

How can a city help?  It takes more than just the availability of high speed Internet access and the provision of an Internet-enabled device.  Without supporting residents’ understanding of why Internet access is relevant, we know we will continue to have a significant portion of the population offline.  Tech Goes Home, a Boston-based non-profit has taken on this challenge of engaging residents on the importance of high-speed Internet access.  Providing over 13,000 individuals with training, hardware, and available low cost Internet plans since 2010, TGH has had a significant impact on digital equity within the city.

By collaborating with Boston Public Schools, Libraries, Centers for Youth and Families, Housing Authority, and others, TGH is able to provide training in more than 100 sites across the city. Staff at these organizations are taught to implement the Tech Goes Home training. We believe the close connections to trusted anchor institutions within the neighborhood help to ensure residents will feel comfortable, connected, and supported throughout the program and after its conclusion.

TGH prioritizes low-income and underserved populations, including people from challenged neighborhoods, those without technology at home, the unemployed and underemployed, people who do not speak English, and individuals with disabilities. Most TGH households have incomes under $20,000 per year and 79% of participants live in single female headed households. Of the population TGH serves, 90% are people of color, 40% are English learners, and 10% have significant disabilities. Trainings are conducted in 9 languages with the help of more than 150 volunteers, and participants are offered free online Rosetta Stone subscriptions to help improve their English skills.

According to a survey conducted one year after TGH course completion, 90% of respondents report subscribing to the Internet in their homes, a high rate within any demographic, but extraordinarily high within the income level we serve.  In addition, 40% of respondents further report that the training helped them to get a job or improved their prospects in their current position.

In addition to keeping a neighborhood focus, here are our top tips to help improve the success of a digital inclusion program:

  1. Seek volunteers who can help to translate for those who are not English speakers.  While it is helpful if the staff are multilingual, it is not always possible to meet the needs of multiple participants with just one staff member.  We have found that local college foreign language departments are a great source of volunteers.
  2. Inexpensive new equipment is far easier to manage than refurbished.  We currently give participants Chromebooks (for a $50 co-pay).  We do not have to store them, pay for shipping, or deal with broken parts.  In the end, we discovered that the cost was about the same as that of a refurbished computer, but the new devices are more respectful, come with a warranty,  and are far easier to manage.  In addition, it is helpful for participants who do not have access at home – they are able to tuck their device in a backpack and then use it at the library or other venue that offers free wireless access.
  3. Helping participants understand that the cost of Internet access is often offset by the savings found through the use of the technology created incentive for folks to get online.  For example, how many stamps do you currently use?  How much can you save by using Google Calling?  How much are you spending on your phone’s data plan?  How much is spent at check cashing stores compared to online banking?
  4. Using the Internet can feel like drinking from a fire hose. Searching “how to get a job,” for instance, yields over a billion hits. Knowing that this huge amount of information can overwhelm novice users, Tech Goes Home has tried to make it more manageable by vetting a small number of useful resources to help folks feel comfortable and safe as they begin their journey as members of the online community. Take a look at our portal at www.techgoeshome.org.

What we’ve learned at Tech Goes Home is that there is no barrier that is ultimately insurmountable. At its best, advanced Internet infrastructure can and should benefit everybody, and some basic guiding principles can ensure a successful initiative that helps cities achieve an ultimate goal of accessibility for all. If you’d like to learn more about Tech Goes Home or discuss partnership opportunities, please contact us at theo@techgoeshome.org.