The City of Seattle Office of Economic Development (OED) has launched the ‘Digital Bridge’ pilot program to equip low-income job seekers with free laptops and broadband connectivity. This pilot program is a partnership with Comcast, Seattle Jobs Initiative (SJI), Seattle Information Technology Department (Seattle IT), Technology and Social Change Group (TASCHA) at the University of Washington Information School, and InterConnection. ‘Digital Bridge’ is a part of the City’s commitment to achieve digital equity for residents who face barriers to accessing technology and are not connected to the internet. The ‘Digital Bridge’ program is designed to offer job seekers the digital tools and skills they need to access online job training and career pathways in growing local industry sectors.

‘Digital Bridge’ was developed in response to the coronavirus recession, which has triggered job losses particularly impacting people of color, younger workers, refugees and immigrants, and the housing insecure. Through this pilot, participants of various workforce development programs provided by SJI will be equipped with computers and a connection to the internet to complete their training programs that are now offered remotely due to COVID-19, and apply for job opportunities.

“Having a computer and internet is the vehicle for career progression, and connects individuals to resources, health care, and community.” said Bobby Lee, Seattle Office of Economic Development Director. ”Digital Bridge is prioritizing its resources for low-income earning individuals, and BIPOC individuals who lack an internet connection and access to the technology and digital skills necessary to obtain gainful employment in our economy.”

Comcast has contributed $50,000 to purchase 200 refurbished laptops via InterConnection, a computer reuse and recycling nonprofit which is partnering with SJI to refurbish and distribute computers to job training participants. InterConnection will also provide ongoing technical support.

“As technology continues to advance and become a daily part of so many industries, more people need the digital skills and connectivity to thrive in this employment environment. Now more than ever they need our support to cross the digital divide,” said Rodrigo Lopez, Regional Senior Vice President of the Comcast Washington region. “Our company plays an important role in helping people stay connected and we are pleased to do our part. We also know that internet service is essential to everyone and are working hard every day to ensure that our network is helping both businesses and residents across our community stay connected.”

The first cohort of 20 program participants received the first set of refurbished computers on July 6. These computers give participants access to the Virtual Healthcare Institute online learning platform to begin the Intro to Healthcare Apprenticeships (IHAP) program, a program offered by SJI. SJI partners with OED to offer technical and performance skill trainings that lead to careers in our economy’s growing sectors. Participants of this cohort are 100 percent POC—95 percent of which identify as Black/African American, 30 percent are refugees or resident immigrants, 30 percent are young adults between the ages of 18-24, and 25 percent are housing insecure.

“Digital Bridge launched at a critical time as SJI’s workforce programs moved to virtual delivery during COVID-19 social distancing,” says Kathleen O’Leary, Interim Assistant Director of Programs. “With community centers and libraries closed to the public, our program participants were using mobile phones to try to participate in our programs. Providing computers, internet connectivity and basic computer skills will unlock opportunities and provide access to essential services that our participants would otherwise not be able to reach.”

OED has modified its existing contract with SJI by investing an additional $50,000 to evaluate and track all operational steps and activities associated with providing digital resources to program participants who lack the technology and a connection to the internet when public resources, such as libraries, are not available. This operational evaluation is in addition to the trainings and wrap around services SJI is offering. TASCHA has been awarded a research grant from the University of Washington Population Health Initiative to “investigate key questions related to the program design, implementation, and participant experience to increase the understanding of participants’ needs, implications for future program design, and the impact on those who received services.” At its conclusion, this project will not only support job training participants, but will also demonstrate and evaluate effective methods for providing equitable IT access, to inform a much larger, scalable campaign to connect individuals to the internet in order to bridge the digital divide for thousands currently unemployed.

“Everyone needs home broadband, a reliable device that meets their needs, and support to build digital skills,” says Stacey Wedlake, Research Analyst and Coordinator at TASCHA. “The Population Health Initiative grant allows us to investigate how a unique program like Digital Bridge can support individuals’ employment goals and offer insights for other groups wanting to offer similar services.”

The ‘Digital Divide’ is the gulf between those who have ready access to computers and a connection to the internet, and those who do not. COVID-19 has exacerbated this disparity as a portion of the workforce has easily transitioned to working from home with access to the technology and internet necessary to perform their jobs, while others have been further disconnected. According to 2018 data, 25 percent of Seattle households making less than $50,000 in income do not have internet access in their place of residence. These households also represent the highest unemployment insurance claims to date. Workers who are now unemployed due to COVID-19 and lack the technology and an internet connection are experiencing the greatest impact of the ‘Digital Divide’ that predates our current crisis.

Seattle IT manages the City’s Digital Equity Initiative, which includes the?Technology Matching Fund – one of the longest local government-supported digital literacy initiatives in the nation – and other targeted grants to further digital equity. Seattle IT also promotes?free and low-cost internet for individuals and organizations and?free and discounted computers and other devices.

“While a device alone will not solve the vast inequalities that affect people of color and underserved communities, a reliable internet connection, technology skills, and access to a computer are critical to economic opportunity,” said the City of Seattle’s Chief Technology Officer Saad Bashir, who leads Seattle IT. “The coronavirus crisis has emphasized how important it is that we invest in digital equity for all our communities. Seattle IT is pleased to serve as a partner and provide technical assistance to this pilot project with its strong focus on execution and outcomes.”

As the City and economic development partners navigate the impacts of COVID-19, addressing the digital divide will continue to be a part of recovery strategies to help displaced workers reattach to the economy in growing industry sectors, and help build a Seattle economy that is equitable and inclusive.