City of Austin Leads Coalition of Digital Inclusion Programs to Aid Implementation of Digital Inclusion Strategic Plan

Introduction

The City of Austin’s vision is that every resident has access to the tools and skills needed to participate in our increasingly digital society. According to the City’s 2014 residential technology survey, approximately 55,000 Austin adults do not use the Internet at all. Two‐thirds of non‐users say the Internet is too expensive, and more than half have concerns about their privacy and safety. Relevancy continues to be an issue, with forty-four percent of non‐users stating that they are simply not interested in using the Internet. The Digital Empowerment Community of Austin (DECA) is a cohesive network of organizations and stakeholders managed by the City of Austin’s Digital Inclusion Program to address access and adoption of digital technology within Austin. 2015 saw the kickoff of Phase I of the DECA Working Group Co-Creation process, primarily directed toward organizations and entities providing direct client services, to aid in implementation of the Digital Inclusion Strategic Plan. The goals of the community are to

  • Recognize the independent nature and unique contributions of digital literacy service providers.
  • Improve the quality of computer skills instruction across digital literacy providers to better serve vulnerable populations.
  • Develop common objectives across the digital empowerment community that address the target client segments.
  • Assess and inventory community assets that can be leveraged in meeting stated objectives.
  • Leverage blogging and other web-based communication platforms, including Austin’s Digital Inclusion Bloomfire, to tell the story of digital inclusion in Austin.

Convening the Digital Empowerment Community of Austin

The Digital Inclusion Steering Committee first convened in May 2014 to develop the City’s Digital Inclusion Strategic Plan. Since then, the Committee meets annually to monitor, evaluate, and provide recommendations to the City’s Digital Inclusion Program for implementation. The City has convened DECA, to serve as the community of practice to ensure every Austin resident has an opportunity to be fully engaged in digital society, accessing and using digital and communications technology.

DECA’s process is organized into sprints (an incremental development process) using agile methodology to support a repeatable work cycle. This process is intended to utilize the community’s insights and experience to articulate the common objectives, identify assets, explore program value propositions, and develop actionable strategies to achieve the goals set forth in the City’s Digital Inclusion Strategic Plan.

On October 20, 2015, the first DECA Meeting convened more than eighty community stakeholders from nonprofits, government, private companies, the academic community, and more at the Asian American Resource Center to collaborate and brainstorm challenges. The objective of the meeting was to introduce DECA through storytelling, program inventory, and mapping, as well as through knowledge sharing.

Figure 1. DECA participants conduct a program planning workshop developing digital inclusion capacity at the October 2015 DECA Kickoff Workshop.

Figure 1. DECA participants conduct a program planning workshop developing digital inclusion capacity at the October 2015 DECA Kickoff Workshop.

The meeting included a Capacity-Building Workshop to give DECA members new tools and opportunities to collaborate on how to build successful digital inclusion programs. This activity was designed to foster collaboration and problem-solving among diverse members of DECA using case studies and business planning tools. The desired outcome of this activity was for DECA members to develop organizational digital inclusion capacity using a business model canvas to successfully apply for the City’s Grants for Technology Opportunities Program (GTOPs).

At the meeting, stakeholders selected the most important or salient facts/insights to carry forward into their Program Planning Canvas (using a Business Model Canvas). At the end of the meeting the City’s Digital Inclusion office called on community members to establish a working group to be convened at the next DECA meeting that could identify common goals and opportunities to implement digital inclusion learning models.

Understanding the Digital Inclusion Value Proposition

On December 11, 2015, the second DECA meeting was also the first convening of the Working Group and included the establishment of the group’s goals and the creation of value propositions for the different community organizations. These goals are as follows:

  • Develop common objectives across the digital empowerment community that address the target client segments.
  • Assess and inventory community assets that can be leveraged in meeting stated objectives.
  • Utilize a web based tool, DigitalATX.org, to maintain and develop an asset inventory.
  • Recognize the independent nature and unique contributions of digital literacy service providers.
  • Improve the quality of computer skills instruction across digital literacy providers to better serve vulnerable populations.
  • Leverage blogging and other communication platforms including org to tell the story of digital inclusion in Austin.

The meeting’s main activity, a value proposition exercise, asked each member to answer five questions about their organization’s programs, clients, and service delivery. The goal of the activity was to determine the fit between the needs identified by client profiles and the programs or services each organization provides to meet those needs. An overview of this activity can be seen in the meeting materials.

The meeting was framed around the components of a digital inclusion program, as defined by the Benton Foundation’s 2016 report Digital Inclusion and Meaningful Broadband Adoption Initiatives:1

  1. Providing low cost broadband.
  2. Making low cost computers or devices available.
  3. Operating public access computer centers.
  4. Connecting digital literacy training with relevant content and services.

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Figure 2. DECA participants conduct a value proposition exercise at the December 2015 DECA Workshop.

DECA meeting participants were led through a facilitated workshop to explore dimensions that define a digital inclusion program, as listed below:

  1. Audience (e.g., age, employment, language, transportation, client location, disabled clientele).
  2. Learning Environment (e.g., trainers, languages offered, hours, closed-door vs. open-door, calendar).
  3. Learning Engagement and Activities (e.g., attendance tracking, formal vs. informal instruction, directed vs. self-directed work).
  4. Content and Relevancy (e.g., client feedback, internal assessments, program certifications, formal curriculum).

The group developed insights and feedback of the program dimensions, taking into account the unique needs of Austin’s diverse populations. The Working Group prioritized the dimensions and insights generated at the meeting to focus and define objectives served.

Identifying Community Engagement Opportunities and Outcomes

One of the core challenges of organizations supporting programs in digital inclusion is community engagement. With that in mind, the fourth meeting, convened on February 26, 2016, was dedicated to identifying community engagement opportunities and outcomes. Before the meeting, we had gathered the unanswered questions that DECA-affiliated programs had identified as inhibiting their community engagement outcomes. These questions were organized into four broad categories—clients, curriculum, learning environment, and learning community—and would become the building blocks for the meeting’s workshop.

Participants broke off into groups, tackled these challenges together, and discussed the different tools that might facilitate positive engagement outcomes. The meeting concluded with a feedback carousel where participants critically engaged with and prioritized the tools listed above.

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Figure 3. Austin Digital Inclusion Fellow, Daniel Lucio facilitates a workshop on program dimensions at the February 2016 DECA Workshop.

Problems Framing Digital Inclusion Outcomes

For any digital inclusion program, success largely depends upon achieving positive client outcomes. The fifth DECA meeting, convened on April 1, 2016, gave our members an opportunity to focus and frame what positive outcomes would look like for a client through a series of “How Might We” questions:

1. How might we assess what services clients can benefit from?
2. How might we understand client outcomes from all organizations/programs to enable cross-relevancy of certificates between organizations and programs?
3. How might we better reach clients who are offline?

This framing brought us to a pivotal juncture in the move from scanning and clarifying into challenge formulation. These facilitated exercises unlocked barriers to frame target client segment objectives. At this facilitated workshop, the Working Group, in part, drilled down current priorities by Digital Inclusion partners to build client segment objectives, while identifying necessary variables in supporting working group goals.

These objectives were then broken into smaller sub-challenges through an altitude framing exercise. This deliberate, visual ordering of challenges from broad to narrow helps to unbundle complex challenges into smaller sub challenges, creating a visual road map. Once these systems and elements are understood and illustrated, new options emerge for framing challenges, and teams can begin to make strategic decisions regarding which challenges are most important to begin tackling. Once participants were able to select these challenges, they began to conceive the selected challenges into more fully fleshed out concepts. This activity allowed teams to generate possible solution ideas for the challenges and possible answers to the “How Might We” questions mentioned earlier.

Generating Digital Inclusion Initiatives

On May 6, 2016, the final DECA meeting for Phase I of the Working Group was designed with a goal to generate actionable initiatives from the insights we’d received in previous DECA meetings. We generated these initiatives from the priority goals of DECA:

1. Provide Creative Opportunities, Skills, and Services that Benefit Clients
2. Standardize Digital Curriculum & Client Needs Assessments
3. Provide Training Resources for Program Trainers
4. Conduct a Gaps Analysis on Available Community Services
5. Develop a Client Outreach Plan That Achieves Greater Diversity

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Figure 4. CDECA members prioritized goals as Short-Term (by the end of 2017), Medium-Term (by the end of 2019), or Long-Term (a two- to four-year cycle beginning in 2019).

The seventeen initiatives within these priority goals were separated through a sequencing exercise, and each initiative was marked as either Short-Term (by the end of 2017), Medium-Term (by the end of 2019) or Long-Term (a two- to four-year cycle beginning in 2019). Once the initiatives had been separated into these three categories, we asked DECA members to prioritize them and determine which initiatives were of a greatest need. The initiatives receiving the highest number of votes were (1) Create a Pool of Program Instructors, (2) Leverage Existing Alternative Transportation Outreach Programs, (3) Develop City-Wide Wi-Fi, and (4) Create a Technical Assistance Hotline.

With these insights now integrated into fully developed initiative goals, DECA has built a foundation in Phase I of the Working Group that will help the City strategically assign limited resources while also serving as goals for the collaborative work of digital inclusion programs, funders, and additional stakeholders. Our goal was to eventually move from a clarifying/scanning process (Phase I) into a challenge formation process that would yield actionable goals and initiatives for DECA members to support (Phase II). Through the various exercises from Phase I, the common goal of ensuring that all Austin residents are provided with the opportunity to fully engage in the digital society helped us develop eighteen prioritized initiatives that could be supported by DECA members.

Digital Inclusion Listening Campaign

Building up to the October 21, 2016, launch of Phase II, the City of Austin’s Digital Inclusion Program conducted a Listening Campaign, beginning on August 12, 2016, to gain a better understanding of how the City and the many service providers in the digital inclusion space, whom the city convenes through DECA, are doing in their efforts. The goals of this campaign aligned most strongly with these priorities:

  1. Connecting—One of our chief objectives was to understand organization’s needs and leveraged resources so we could better connect what’s available to what’s needed.
  2. Integrating—By integrating service providers into the DECA community and its objectives, those organizations will be able to frame their efforts within the Strategic Plan’s goals and objectives.
  3. Coordinating—Perhaps the most important priority for the purposes of the Listening Campaign was to better coordinate efforts across organizations and sectors in concert with the community’s common objectives.

Staff from the City’s Digital Inclusion team conducted thirty-two interviews with thirty-one organizations, including direct service providers, digital literacy organizations, government entities, and other connecting organizations. The interviews fell into four categories: programming, client and inter-organizational outreach (connecting), employees/staffing, and capacity (resources desired). Recommendations resulting from those interviews are as follows:

  1. Create a shared digital literacy curriculum and standardized skills-based training.
  2. Continue building the DECA community.
  3. Develop a community resource list and client referral process.
  4. Pursue strategies to connect service providers with their low-income clients with digital devices.

Convening the Digital Inclusion Steering Committee

On September 23, 2016, the City Digital Inclusion Steering Committee met to review Phase I of the Implementation Strategy connecting thousands of residents who have improved their digital skills, gained greater self-sufficiency, and attained life-changing outcomes. The Steering Committee includes a broad representation of key community stakeholders including Austin Independent School District, higher education, public health, non-profit sector, Community Based Organizations, the business/entrepreneurial committee, City resources, library and Internet Service Providers. An ongoing request of the Steering Committee Sector Representatives is to work with the Office of Telecommunications & Regulatory Affairs to develop and oversee monitoring, evaluation, and planning of Digital Inclusion Strategy Implementation initiatives.

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Figure 5. Austin’s Digital Inclusion Program conducted a Listening Campaign, beginning in August 2016, to gain a better understanding of how the City and the many service providers in the digital inclusion space, are doing in their efforts.

At this meeting, the steering committee was provided a prompt: What are the most important things for the City of Austin’s Digital Inclusion Working Group to work on over the next year? The Steering Committee provided over 28 ideas from this prompt, City staff collected and analyzed all the ideas (organizing ideas that had similar objectives, themes and actions) and condensed them into 15 unique ideas that the Steering Committee is prioritizing, as of October 10, 2016, via online voting tool. These priorities, along with the concept catalogue initiatives and listening campaign insights set the strategic framework for the next Phase of the strategy.

Phase I materials are available from the following links:

Digital Inclusion: Moving to Understand Life-Changing Outcomes

The first meeting of Phase II of the Digital Empowerment Community of Austin’s Working Group was conducted Friday, October 21, 2016.  The event featured a workshop, the prompt for which was Tell us a story of a time when a client came to your organization with a need related to digital literacy or digital inclusion, and you were unable or unsure of how to help them as well as you would have liked. This meeting also served as the foundation for the upcoming sessions of Phase II: (1) Data Workshop: Drive to Life Changing Outcomes and (2) Client Certifications and Skills Workshop.

In addition to the in-person workshops, the DECA community also stays connected to one another through Austin’s Digital Inclusion Bloomfire, an online, web‐based platform for knowledge‐sharing, storytelling, and data visualization. Future sessions will be developed as an outcome from this phase of the process and are intended to support the City’s vision to ensure every Austin resident has an opportunity to be fully engaged in digital society, accessing and using digital and communications technology.

For more information on the implementation status of the Digital Inclusion Strategic Plan:

Notes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. Benton Foundation, “Four Essentials for Digital Inclusion Efforts,” Digital Inclusion and Meaningful Broadband Adoption Initiatives, January 4, 2016, https://m.benton.org/blog/four-essentials-digital-inclusion.
Rondella Hawkins, John Speirs & Will Swinton-Ginsberg

About Rondella Hawkins, John Speirs & Will Swinton-Ginsberg

Rondella Hawkins is Officer of Telecommunications and Regulatory Affairs with the City of Austin. She has more than twenty-five years’ experience in local government. Her office has direct responsibility over utility rights-of-way franchise agreements and license agreements with telecommunications and wireless providers, and she serves as the City’s single point of contact for the Google Fiber and AT&T Fiber projects. She is responsible for implementing the City’s Digital Inclusion Strategic Plan, ensuring that all Austin residents have the information technology capacity needed for civic and cultural participation, employment, and access to essential services.

John Speirs is Digital Inclusion Program Coordinator, Telecommunications and Regulatory Affairs, with the City of Austin. Speirs manages operations of the following function areas: Digital Inclusion Strategic Plan Implementation, Grant for Technology Opportunities Program Administration, Community Connections Program, and Austin Free-Net contract. This position coordinates with local organizations, neighborhood groups, city commissions, and other public and private entities involved with the community technology in Austin. Speirs, a native of California, has a BS in Political Science with a minor in Environmental Planning from Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, Arizona. He is currently completing his master’s degree in Public Administration at Texas State University—San Marcos.

Will Swinton-Ginsberg of Americorps-VISTA works with the Office of Telecommunications and Regulatory Affairs, City of Austin. Swinton-Ginsberg works to enhance the strength of Austin’s diverse digital inclusion community through the development of strategic co-creation processes, engagement, and outreach, as well as research and analysis of best practices to achieve equity. In 2015, he graduated with a BA in Global Development at the University of Kentucky and has worked on projects to achieve equity in cities from Cape Town, South Africa, to Louisville, Kentucky.

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