What is Digital Equity and How Does it Help Create Jobs?
October 22, 2021
Reading time: 7 minutes
Internet use may seem widespread. Many of us shop, learn, and even work online. But does everyone have the same access? According to the 2019 U.S. Census, as many as 30% of the homes in 185 big cities across the country don’t have a wireline broadband connection. This gap in access is a major topic in the context of digital equity.
In this article, you’ll learn more about what digital equity in the workplace is, why it's an important issue to solve, and how businesses can use their resources to create more opportunities for workers.
What is digital equity?
The National Digital Inclusion Alliance (NDIA) defines digital equity as “a condition in which all individuals and communities have the information technology capacity needed for full participation in our society, democracy, and economy.”
Digital equity is typically used when referring to education, but it’s relevant in any industry or community where tech, and specifically internet access, is essential for success. More recent conversations have turned to the importance of digital equity in the workplace as the pandemic has sent many employees into the ranks of remote workers.
What does digital equity look like?
The NDIA explains that the mission of digital or internet inclusion incorporates five elements of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs). Everyone needs access to these elements to be truly included in an equitable digital society:
Affordable, robust broadband access
Internet-connected devices, such as laptops, phones, or computers to use for their unique needs
Access to education on digital technology and best use practices
Apps and online resources that help users participate, collaborate, and work independently
Since technology advances every day, true digital equity methods must adapt in step. Those who support digital equity initiatives understand that barriers to digital inclusion exist, and seek out intentional solutions to overcome them.
Why do we need digital equity?
If you use the internet daily, streaming movies or playing games on gigabit-speed connections, it may seem hard to imagine a world where that's not possible. But this is the reality for many people, and the North Carolina Department of Information Technology identified the reasons why:
Cost: Not everyone can afford to buy high-speed internet service
Access: Not every home is in an area with broadband services (i.e., rural areas)
Relevancy: Some people do not see broadband as useful or necessary for their daily lives
Digital literacy: A lack of understanding of the benefits of connecting to the internet can limit choices for work and education, leading to lowered career potential
Some households may experience more than one of these factors, which makes it difficult to prioritize the internet access they need.
The benefits of digital equity
Aside from the everyday inconvenience of not being connected, what are the wide-reaching implications on a community or even a generation of people who can’t get online when they need to?
Education is the most talked about environment where digital divides lead to poor outcomes. With digital equity, schools can educate students anytime and anywhere in real-time, with the latest tools and resources.
Learning isn't limited to synchronous sessions in a time or place with internet access. From online learning with Khan Academy to building with 3D printers, doors begin to open through learning.
2. Societal growth
Digital equity may lead to an increase in digital literacy, which is the “ability to use information and communication technologies to find, evaluate, create, and communicate information.” Picking up digital skills can have implications in everything, from how people read the news to whether they participate in local government. Being digitally literate often leads to policy changes, as civic engagement increases when people can access information more easily.
3. Healthcare outcomes
Rural hospitals and health systems without access to broadband are limited in the tools they can use for numerous tasks, including scanning, imaging technology, physician collaboration, and billing.
Remote areas are often the best candidates for telehealth, due to the long distances between patients and the office. However, this is often impossible in areas with no broadband connections.
4. Economic development
Broadband is changing communities, large and small, as businesses use tech to create new marketplaces and ecommerce ecosystems. They also use it to reach new customer segments through digital branding and social media.
For employees, the data shows that “high levels of broadband adoption in nonmetropolitan counties are positively associated with higher numbers of businesses and jobs.” Higher employment rates result in less burden on safety net systems and private charitable services.
5. Safety and security
Online methods are becoming increasingly common for police, fire, and other essential service teams to use when sharing life-saving data with communities. If there’s a fire, active shooter, or flooding, those with internet access often rely on the web for up-to-date, essential information.
How employers can support digital equity now
As noted in the data from the latest U.S. Census that tracked broadband access across cities, large numbers of people in even the largest urban centers still don’t have broadband access. Narrowing down the numbers further, some don’t even have access to a mobile device with cellular data, which is the bare minimum that people need to be informed digital citizens.
What can employers do to change this?
You can start by ensuring all of your remote teams have access to high-speed internet, in addition to computers or devices they need.
If they live too remotely for broadband, look into WiFi hotspot devices, 5G, or LTE data plans.
Make sure none of your team members miss out due to a change in circumstance.
Check in regularly with all employees to check that they still have high-speed internet. Never assume they still have it just because they did previously.
How businesses can support digital equity for the future
What about future employees? The students of today are the employees of tomorrow, so it’s worthwhile to look into partnerships and sponsorship opportunities for your business to boost the digital access of your immediate community or consider sponsoring digital literacy programs.
Some larger companies do this through school initiatives, such as granting laptops to children and even providing 5G or LTE data packages. This helps those children in homes without broadband continue to learn and create.
You don’t need an enormous budget to move the needle, either. Here are some ideas for even the smallest consultancies with interest in leveling the playing field:
Sponsor workshops or one-day digital literacy training events for students that teach responsible internet use and how using technology can boost opportunities.
Publish a whitepaper or guide for educators that provides the best research tactics or teaching methods that promote digital literacy in the home and classroom.
Offer a digital job search mentoring program to help students and new graduates make their resumes and LinkedIn profiles “career ready.” Provide computers and internet access, as well as on-site career experts.
Sponsor a coding camp or week-long tech event for students at the elementary or high school level.
These ideas have the benefit of boosting digital literacy and opportunities for disadvantaged youth and students, plus they help establish you as a resource for future partnerships. Nonprofits and educational groups often look to see who sponsored events in previous years to determine those to approach for future opportunities.
If you’re committed to real change and lasting investment in digital equity (and not just a one-season branded event), you will see more ways to help as time goes on. Digital inclusion isn't something we’ll solve quickly, and tech needs change often, making it hard to keep up. If you’re passionate about making a difference, the opportunities to help may find you, especially if you are intentional about your ongoing contribution.
HP recognizes that we have a long way to go before everyone has the internet and device access they need for a successful future. That’s why we have focused on four groups that traditionally fall through the cracks.
Women and girls
People with disabilities
Marginalized communities (including communities of color)
While there are other groups who lack adequate access to digital tools, targeting the needs of these groups addresses issues for many of those most likely to experience “tech poverty.” As infrastructure improves in urban areas, for example, there is more to do to help people actually get connected.
Why addressing digital equity now is essential
A walk to the library is no longer an acceptable way to access email, watch an educational video, or apply for a job. With the future of school and work happening remotely, now is the time to make a change for tomorrow's generation of savvy digital citizens.
About the Author: Linsey Knerl is a contributing writer for HP Tech@Work. Linsey is a Midwest-based author, public speaker, and member of the ASJA. She has a passion for helping consumers and small business owners do more with their resources via the latest tech solutions.
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