Local Government Fellow Helps Develop Digital Inclusion Plan for SF Dept of Technology

Zack Weinberg (l) with colleagues at SF City Hall

The vast majority of Americans take Internet access for granted, and for good reason. The digital world is now an omnipresent force in the physical world, always a quick tap of the “home” button away. Nevertheless, in 2016 the Pew Research Center reported that for approximately 13%, of American adults, about 40 million people, basic home Internet access is beyond their reach. For some, this is a matter of personal choice. Yet for many, home Internet is beyond their reach because it is unavailable in their area, unaffordable (particularly when adding in the cost of computing devices), and/or because they lack the technical know-how to leverage the Internet. These Americans follow predictable, and not particularly surprising, patterns: they tend to be lower income, less educated, older, and non-white. This gap between those connected at home and those who are not is known as the Digital Divide.

At the San Francisco Department of Technology (affectionately referred to as DT), I am helping to develop San Francisco’s recently outlined Digital Inclusion plan, aimed at bridging the Digital Divide and improving access to the Internet for the approximately 100,000 San Franciscans who currently lack. As I’ve learned more about the Digital Divide, it has become clear to me, as it already has to others much more knowledgeable on the issue, that lacking home Internet access may be one of the most significant disadvantages a family can have and is not merely the loss of some modern convenience. Consider the following (by no means comprehensive) list of common activities that families on the wrong side of the Digital Divide cannot participate in:

  • Searching for and applying for jobs online (a huge number of employers have moved or are moving to an online-only application process)
  • Checking out the latest viral video on Facebook or Instagram
  • Completing homework assignments and doing research for essay assignments
  • Googling who that actor from that Tim Burton movie was (Hint: it was Johnny Depp, he’s literally in every Burton movie)
  • Paying bills and managing accounts through online banking
  • Buying that one thing you need and a bunch of things you don’t on Amazon because the shipping is free so why not
  • Reading this blog

Sure, some of the items above are goofy and not necessarily vital to a family. Yet, undeniably, the list above demonstrates that not having Internet access has real economic and social impacts—preventing parents from finding a new job when they fall on hard times, preventing their kids from keeping up in school, and preventing all of them from the joy of reading this blog.

The bottom line is that if you’re not on the Internet, you’re missing a crucial tool in today’s culture and economy. Going forward, middle skill jobs are almost exclusively going to require some degree of digital literacy skills. Kids who don’t grow up experiencing the Internet are being put at a massive disadvantage that will be supremely difficult to overcome. For these reasons, digital inclusion efforts like the one DT is developing in San Francisco are crucial. We plan to address as many preventative factors as possible, making access easier and more affordable while offering training to improve digital literacy skills that will help people catch up and stay online.