Amid stay-at-home orders and other tactics to stem the spread of COVID-19, millions of Americans’ daily lives have shifted online. Many employees work from home, students take online classes, and city officials rely on livestreams and social media to disseminate information. But the sudden shift to an online-based life has highlighted the inequity of access to reliable technology for many US households.
To understand how city officials are addressing technology equity gaps to meet their residents’ needs, the Urban Institute surveyed chief technology officers, chief information officers, chief innovation officers, and digital inclusion leads in cities across the country. Our survey received responses from 14 representatives constituting of 11 cities. From the responses, we found four main takeaways:
- Internet access has expanded, but the digital divide is more harmful than ever. Most respondents indicated that since COVID-19 began to spread in the US, low-cost or free internet, access to internet-connected devices, and digital literacy training had all expanded. For most of the responding cities, these steps were the result of accelerating existing programs. Several cities also focused on students, partnering with school districts to set up hotspots and distribute devices. City representatives also said the virus clarified the magnitude of the digital divide, with one remarking, “internet isn’t a luxury anymore, it’s a necessity.”
- With new tools, cities are reaching more residents than ever before. Every city representative who responded indicated that they were using new tools to reach residents, and most also said their cities had also expanded livestreaming of government meetings. Although these tools have expanded access to more residents, there is still potential for low-income and other marginalized communities to be left out because of the digital divide.
- Cities are collecting real-time information and moving services online. Most city representatives indicated that COVID-19 informational pages were one of the most in-demand city services, with many respondents also indicating that information about safety net programs was wanted. Many respondents noted that city services such as building permitting had also moved online for the first time during the pandemic.
- Cities are leveraging relationships and new authorities to deliver services. To serve residents during the pandemic, most city representatives said it has been necessary to obtain new legal, administrative, or procurement authority. With these expanded authorities, city staff were able to purchase devices for students and sometimes deliver cash to residents.
Steps to help cities expand technology access for more residents
Although local governments have responded quickly to increase technology access during the pandemic, many city representatives indicated that there were still barriers hindering their ability to deliver access to all residents. For one, city leaders expressed a need for localized data about their residents’ ability to access city services. Without these data, it’s difficult to make evidence-based decisions.
Most respondents also indicated that discounting internet and providing hot spots were insufficient long-term fixes, and one said that “free access” is what is really needed. To that end, city representatives expressed that greater legal authority is needed in many cities to expand public broadband networks. Even if city leaders have the data to understand where gaps are and what quality equipment could fill those gaps, they might lack the authority to do so.
This survey shows that cities are attempting to address inequities in technology access but still face barriers to closing the digital divide, and that more data are needed to understand how these increased services are benefiting underserved communities.