Summary: Digital inclusion — ensuring that all individuals and communities, including the most disadvantaged, have access to and use of critical information and communication technologies — is one of the most urgent issues facing America’s cities. This post spotlights the work that data-driven digital inclusion officials like Detroit’s Joshua Edmonds are doing to bridge the digital divide in their communities, outlining the vital roles that strategizing, organizing, and evangelizing play in these efforts.
The digital divide — the gap separating citizens with access to affordable, high-speed internet service and online literacy training from those without — is often framed as a problem facing rural America. Between 2009 and 2017, for example, the federal government dedicated more than $47 billion to expanding broadband infrastructure to rural areas. But according to Census Bureau data, the number of urban households without access to broadband, 13.6 million, nearly triples the 4.6 million rural households in the same circumstance.
Detroit, Mich. is taking matters into its own hands. With studies indicating that as many as 40 percent of Detroit residents lacked broadband internet service, mostly due to cost and digital literacy challenges, the Motor City in 2019 became the first U.S. municipality to appoint a director of digital inclusion, hiring Joshua Edmonds to spearhead efforts to expand computer and internet access to Detroiters in need.
Fast-forward to early 2022, and Edmonds now leads Connect 313, a citywide, data-driven coalition to ensure all 670,000 Detroit residents have access to fixed broadband connectivity, quality devices, technical support, digital literacy programs, and related resources. Edmonds and the Connect 313 team also partner with area organizations and residents to develop neighborhood hubs for digital access, and in mid-2021 launched EBB 313, which provides eligible residents a monthly $50 discount for internet access and a one-time $100 subsidy for a laptop, desktop computer, or tablet.
In addition, Edmonds is among the Detroit officials collaborating with nonprofit human-IT and others on Empowering Digital Detroit, a campaign calling on area businesses and residents to donate used, unwanted, or obsolete technology and devices for refurbishment by local IT professionals and eventual distribution to low-income families.
Edmonds is currently one of just a handful of directors of digital inclusion across the U.S., but he believes the position is essential for any community taking steps to erase the digital divide. “You need to have someone that wakes up every single day and goes to bed every day thinking about this issue,” Edmonds told Cities Today. “There are cities that have started their digital equity stuff way before Detroit, yet we’ve been able to leapfrog them on impact because we have a role like this.”
Let’s take a closer look at how these digital inclusion officials impact the communities they serve.
The nonprofit National Digital Inclusion Association (NDIA) defines digital inclusion as “the activities necessary to ensure that all individuals and communities, including the most disadvantaged, have access to and use of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs).” Per the NDIA, digital inclusion encompasses the following core elements:
The NDIA maintains Digital Inclusion Trailblazers, a public inventory of local government initiatives promoting digital literacy and broadband access for underserved residents. NDIA identifies these Trailblazers — i.e., models for other local governments to pursue digital inclusion efforts in their own communities — based on six indicators:
As of early 2022, the NDIA has identified fewer than 20 Digital Inclusion Trailblazers nationwide, with full-time inclusion staffers on the payroll in under a dozen cities including San Francisco, Seattle, and Austin, Tex. Directors of digital inclusion are rare even within the Trailblazer ranks: in addition to Edmonds, others with the title include Jason Hardebeck, named Baltimore’s first director of broadband and digital equity in April 2021, while in Long Beach, Calif., Rebecca Kauma serves as economic and digital inclusion program manager.
The day-to-day responsibilities of digital inclusion officials vary from position to position and community to community, but Edmonds’s work in Detroit emphasizes:
Edmonds was hired by the City of Detroit to work with its Department of Innovation and Technology on developing a blueprint for expanding computer and internet access citywide, and to establish methods of tracking and analyzing the community’s progress towards digital equity. His signature achievements include the Connect 313 digital inclusion program, founded in collaboration with Rocket Companies, Microsoft, and United Way of Southeastern Michigan.
In mid-2021, Connect 313 and Rocket Companies reunited to launch the Connect 313 Fund, a new organization focused on investing in Detroit-based nonprofit partners to boost access to technology, internet, and digital literacy resources. The fund is focused on four strategic pillars:
Nurturing relationships and coordinating partnerships between public agencies, private-sector companies, and adjacent community groups is vital to Edmonds’s work. Case in point: the rollout of Connect 313’s EBB 313 campaign. While officials projected that more than a third of all Detroit households would qualify for the Federal Communications Commission’s Emergency Broadband Benefit (EBB) program (since replaced by the FCC’s Affordable Connectivity Program), which subsidized the cost of internet and connected devices for eligible residents, the application process required internet access at virtually every step — a huge roadblock to those in most dire need of assistance.
Edmonds and his team responded to the challenge by partnering with Rocket Companies subsidiary Rock Connections on a central call center to help residents understand their options under the EBB program. Detroiters learned how to determine their eligibility and how to apply online through the federal EBB portal, or with the support of a local nonprofit. Rock Connections also helped residents determine the internet service provider best suited for their particular needs, and directed callers to provider partners that could help them secure devices or internet access. According to Edmonds, as of early 2022 about 82,000 Detroit households have signed up for EBB 313.
Edmonds also played an instrumental role in the creation of Connected Futures, a $23 million program bringing together Detroit businesses and philanthropic organizations (including General Motors, Quicken Loans, the Kellogg Foundation, and the DTE Energy Foundation) to supply tablets to all Detroit Public Schools Community District K-12 students, many of whom were forced to attend classes remotely as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. “Simply put, that kind of swift digital equity action likely doesn’t happen in a moment of crisis if a city doesn’t have a clear digital inclusion advocate in city hall to facilitate the work,” said Government Technology magazine when it named Edmonds to its 2021 list of the Top 25 Doers, Dreamers and Drivers.
Connect 313 subsequently joined forces with partners including Detroit nonprofit Focus: HOPE, Wayne State University, Microsoft, and Accenture for Connecting Seniors, a program to supply tablets, digital training, and telehealth services to thousands of low-income seniors throughout Southeastern Michigan. Connecting Seniors is financed by the Connect 313 Fund and a $3.9 million grant from the Michigan Coronavirus Task Force on Racial Disparities Rapid Response Initiative.
Edmonds has testified in front of Congress on the subject of digital equity, chairs the telehealth workgroup within the FCCs Intergovernmental Advisory Committee, hosted Detroit’s first Digital Inclusion Summit, and regularly speaks on digital divide-themed matters across a wide range of platforms and media outlets.
Even more important, Edmonds knows how to make sure his message is heard loud and clear throughout the community he serves. After dismissing FCC-provided Emergency Broadband Benefit promotional materials for looking “very sanitized,” he and the EBB 313 team designed a local outreach and advertising campaign to alert residents to the program: along with filming television commercials in Detroit neighborhoods and producing fliers that could be distributed at area churches and libraries, EBB 313 created a local telephone hotline to answer questions about the program and offer tips for navigating the application process.
Connect 313 has pledged to bring widespread internet access to Detroit by 2024, and the organization is making significant progress towards that goal. The Detroit Free Press reports that according to census data, about 25 percent of Detroiters now lack internet access, compared to 39 percent in 2016, and as of early 2022, Connect 313 has diverted more than 285,000 lbs. of dormant technology from landfills, distributed about 75,000 refurbished devices to residents, and recruited close to 600 members.
What does this mean for Detroit moving forward? “[Without internet access] you have a splintered lifeline, and it, therefore, affects everything else,” Edmonds said in 2021. “If we can mitigate the internet connectivity issue, the splintered lifeline, then we would be mitigating impact in every other area imaginable, from small businesses to healthcare delivery, to learning, to employment, to wellbeing.”
It’s not just about improving the quality of life for Detroit’s existing residents, however: it’s also about making the city a more desirable, livable destination in anticipation of a future that looks to be defined by remote access to work, education, healthcare, commerce, and much more. Many U.S. cities and states are seeking to leverage COVID-era remote employment trends to attract new talent, even offering financial incentives for inbound moves, but some of these regions are home to the same pressing digital access issues facing Detroit, casting doubt over the viability of their recruitment efforts. For example, workers can earn $12,000 by relocating to West Virginia, but the Mountain State ranks 50th out of 50 nationwide in digital infrastructure and digital literacy.
These communities — and others like them, whether large or small, urban or rural — need a digital inclusion champion like Edmonds. “The recipe for successful digital inclusion in every city boils down to four things: partnerships, funding, engaged residents, and political will,” Edmonds said when he took the Detroit job, and he’s proven the recipe works. It can work in your community, too.