March 21, 2018

Digital Inclusion Week at SFPL | Field Reports

The Internet is an essential part of modern life, yet more than half of the world’s population is still without access. Several years ago, I conducted a field experiment in rural China to study the Internet’s political impact on first-time users. I originally thought that the digital divide existed primarily in developing countries. However, while working as an NTEN/Google Fiber Digital Inclusion Fellow at the San Francisco Public Library (SFPL), I observed a profound digital disparity in the Bay Area, despite it being the center of technology innovation. In an effort to bridge the divide, we partnered with community organizations to host the first San Francisco Digital Inclusion Week (DIW) in May 2017.

More than 100,000 city residents lack Internet access at home and many are not proficient at using the Internet and digital devices. Residents use the library for free computer access and Internet assistance. As more essential services are moving online, many people are left behind—particularly seniors, those with disabilities, and low-income families. These communities can lack the skills or support to use the Internet, and Internet use is often viewed as difficult to learn, unsafe, or irrelevant.

We began planning DIW with a team of library staff and key local representatives. The goals were to raise awareness of the digital divide in the Bay Area, provide tech training opportunities, and promote collaboration among government, community organizations, and private enterprise. The team met monthly and grew to include 30 members. Over the course of five months, the team scheduled 57 programs at 20 libraries, community centers, and businesses.


About 2,000 people participated in the week’s events. Library staff, tech workers, and industry professionals facilitated 43 free tech skill-building classes throughout the library system and at partner locations. Attendees learned how to text, edit photos, use ride-sharing apps, work with online tools to optimize job searches, protect online privacy, code, and more. An android phone class taught by a Google volunteer attracted a large number of learners at the library—so many that we established an overflow room for the crowd to view the class via live stream.

More than 100 people joined a panel discussion with policymakers, nonprofits, and Internet service providers to discuss Internet accessibility. A tech talk featured key innovators who use technology to promote social change. A tech expo attracted more than 200 people eager to learn about resources and opportunities and participate in hands-on technology fun. Additional events were hosted by partner organizations, such as St. Anthony’s Tenderloin Tech Lab, which served more than 100 low-income neighbors at a tech fair and successfully repaired 20 devices.

In a survey of more than 350 attendees, the overall rating for the DIW programs was a 4.6 out of 5. Attendee Rita A., a longtime resident of the Bay Area, participated every day with a friend. “The past week was one of the most inspirational weeks of my entire adult life,” she said. “Every aspect of the event was as exciting…as the next.” An attendee named Jean watched a film screening of Cyber Seniors and attended DIW classes afterward. “Please!” she exclaimed, “Teach me to be a cybersenior!”

Collaboration was key to making the weeklong event possible. The program pulled a variety of organizations and resources together, with everyone contributing in multiple ways. Digital exploration has since continued at the library, and new collaborations have been established among participating organizations.

During the week, we provided programs and publicity materials in Chinese, Spanish, and Russian. This attracted a diverse group of patrons, most of whom are affected by the digital divide. A WeChat class drew more than 50 patrons, many of whom were seniors, eager to learn more about the Chinese-language social app to connect with family and friends.

We are currently analyzing data collected during the event to improve program planning and services and fine-tune for the future. It is hoped that eventually full digital inclusion will be realized. Nevertheless, technology keeps changing, so a program that provides support and opportunity for people to learn and reflect on how technology can enhance our lives and benefit society in a humane way would make a huge difference in their lives.

Wenwen Shi is an NTEN/Google Fiber Digital Inclusion Fellow at the San Francisco Public Library. She organized the Digital Inclusion Week with library staff and community representatives

This article was published in Library Journal. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

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