The rapid advancement of technology and artificial intelligence is bringing about a double-edged sword, impacting our lives in both positive and negative ways. While some individuals are leveraging these advancements to their benefit, many are left behind, clueless about how to navigate the digital sphere. Their inability not only prevents them from reaping the potential gains but also exposes them to sophisticated cyber threats, such as phishing. We often focus on the lack of access to technology from connectivity to devices, but much of the inequity in the digital space can be attributed to a lack of necessary digital skills.
The pandemic has further spotlighted the need for digital inclusion. With a massive shift to online platforms, many organizations were confronted with the reality that their target audiences lacked either the devices or the skills to navigate the digital realm. However, this awareness is just the beginning. Ensuring consistent attention and funding, especially at the local level, is crucial.
This is where the National Digital Inclusion Alliance (NDIA) comes in.
Founded about eight years ago, NDIA was birthed due to a gap in representation for local digital inclusion programs in the United States. As of today, it boasts over 1,400 affiliates, primarily comprising community-based organizations, housing authorities, local governments, libraries, and more, actively bridging the digital divide. Its focus is on increasing access and participation and, more importantly, ensuring that historically marginalized groups are not left behind. This involves a multi-pronged approach, involving schools, communities, and local organizations.
While there are organizations that focus on tech in schools, NDIA fills the gap by representing community-based efforts and breaking down silos between various community entities. The continuous evolution of technology guarantees that the fight for digital equity will be ongoing.
Leading up to Digital Inclusion Week, I spoke to Angela Siefer, Executive Director at NDIA who told me: “The U.S. Government's historic investment in digital equity is an opportunity to establish robust local, regional and statewide digital inclusion ecosystems while also identifying measures for sustainability. Since technology will forever keep changing, we will forever be bridging the digital divide. And this means we need corporate and philanthropic support strategizing, guiding collaboration and financially supporting digital inclusion programs.”
For NDIA, Digital Inclusion Week is not just an annual event; it's an essential campaign to sustain the momentum. By showcasing stories from local digital inclusion initiatives, NDIA aims to attract attention from community foundations and philanthropic organizations.
Recognizing the critical role of technology in our lives, there is an urgent need for a comprehensive national digital equity plan in the United States. This plan should emphasize digital skills training, not just for the youth, but for adults as well. Given the continuous evolution of technology, it is crucial that training remains an ongoing process, with constant access to updated resources.
When it comes to training, it is important to remember that while AI can offer certain tools for navigation in the digital world, human intervention remains indispensable. AI may serve as the initial point of contact in customer support, but more often than not, users require a human touch to solve their problems. Programs supported by the NDIA across the country have underscored the importance of emotional and social support in navigating the technical world.
Trust plays a pivotal role in the effectiveness of these programs. Locally-driven efforts tend to be more successful because of the established trust within the community. Whether it's a library, a language learning center, or any other community hub, these trusted local entities have a tremendous impact in advancing digital understanding. Peer-to-peer learning, especially among older adults, has been particularly effective, eliminating the barriers of condescension.
While the role of the government in closing the digital gap is crucial, there is plenty of room for the private sector to come in and help.
Dell Technologies is one of those corporations who stepped up to the challenge setting a goal of impacting the lives of one billion people through digital inclusion by 2030. "In a world rapidly shifting online with technology evolving at unparalleled speeds, limited digital access means being cut off from essentials like jobs, education, and healthcare. The pandemic highlighted these disparities, and now Generative AI looms as another challenge, especially for low-income nations and communities. At the heart of digital transformation, Dell Technologies bears a pivotal responsibility," said Carly Tatum, Senior Director of ESG Impact and Engagement at Dell Technologies.
Dell's collaboration with NDIA was not just about financial sponsorship. The heart of their partnership was Digital Inclusion Week. Through this initiative, both Dell and NDIA aim to amplify the significance of digital equity and inclusion, with NDIA providing a structural platform and communities driving the actual activities. The week witnesses a plethora of local endeavors, webinars, social media campaigns, and resources designed to enhance awareness and foster community-building among practitioners.
Beyond Digital Inclusion Week, Dell and NDIA are also partnering to create a Digital Inclusion Start-Up Manual, which will be published in 2024, intended to provide guidance to organizations looking to increase access and use of technology in disadvantaged communities through digital literacy training, affordable home broadband, affordable devices and tech support.
The collaboration with NDIA helped Dell have a more grounded understanding of the grassroots ecosystem, especially considering that the vast scale of the corporation could sometimes make local-level insights challenging.
The significance of this mission can't be stressed enough. With billions allocated for digital equity in the US, the focus now shifts to ensure this investment yields sustainable results. NDIA emphasizes the importance of comprehensive evaluations, storytelling, best practices, and understanding how the digital transformation affects various industries. Their aim is to articulate the benefits of widespread digital literacy and participation, not just for individual communities but for the nation as a whole.
While Digital Inclusion Week is mostly a US celebration, the digital divide has a global impact. This is why Dell, has been partnering with UNICEF to support Giga's mission: connecting every school globally to the internet by 2030. Dell’s advanced computing aids in Giga's school mapping, using AI to identify schools from satellite images. To date, Giga has provided internet to 2.2 million students across 5,700 schools. By 2024, they aim to assist in connecting 25,000+ schools in 40 countries. Dell is also running a back to school campaign where it will donate to UNICEF for each eligible purchase.
In an era where technology accelerates like never before, digital inclusion isn't just a priority—it's imperative. Regardless of political affiliation, ensuring everyone in the US has digital access is crucial. The United States' leadership in the digital age hinges on this commitment, envisioning a world where all reap the rewards of our tech-driven progress.
Disclosure: The Heart of Tech is a research and consultancy firm that engages or has engaged in research, analysis, and advisory services with many technology companies, including those mentioned in this column. The author does not hold any equity positions with any company mentioned in this column.