Digital Inequity Is Inequity: The Importance of Cross-Sector, Public-Private Collaboration in San Francisco


According to our latest study, we are ahead: 12% of San Franciscans lack access to the Internet at home, compared to the national average of 30%. This is a reflection of dedicated work, numerous investments toward digital inclusion, and and a reflection of our wealth. However, we don’t feel like we are ahead. Because despite these past efforts and despite our wealth, many of our citizens still lack internet access in the home.

So why in a booming technology metropolis, in a city of such great wealth and such great innovation, do our citizens remain offline? Because of marginalization and poverty, which is persistent in San Francisco, despite the city’s wealth. The barriers to adoption are tied to the barriers faced by those in poverty, by marginalized communities that are often underserved—health, safety concerns, basic education, discrimination, and on and on. This is a complicated and difficult problem, but we remain hopeful for the future because of our strengths and our past success. However, we can’t work in isolation. Solving this problem will require cross-sector collaboration and public-private partnerships. We need to come together and coordinate our efforts in order to address this very challenging problem of inequity.

Context Matters: The Hard Facts of Inequity in San Francisco

Not everyone has benefited from the wealth in San Francisco. In 2014 the city’s median income was $78,378 compared to the national average of $53,482,1 and studies have shown that high adoption rates are highly correlated to wealth.2 Thanks to the benefit of a flourishing tech boom, our wealth has increased and unemployment has decreased below the national average to 3.4%.3 From 2009-20014, the percentage of those making more than $100,000 increased by more than 5%, while the percentage of those making less than $25,000 remained flat. Poverty levels remain persistent, hovering around 13%, despite the influx of venture capital money and job creation.4 The poor remain poor. Affordability is a primary barrier of adoption and wealthy cities benefit from this fact.

Digital Inequity is Inequity: Who is Offline in San Francisco and Why

Not surprisingly, the demographics of those who lack Internet in the home are similar to the demographics of those living in poverty in San Francisco.5 The 2013 San Francisco Controller Survey found that if a person lacks internet in the home in San Francisco, they are more likely to be poor, over the age of sixty-five, African American or Latino, and have less than a high school degree.6

The issue of digital inequality is a problem for every demographic in our community, including our children. In 2013, the San Francisco School District conducted a Family Technology Use Survey, and the results followed our citywide trend: 13.8% of students lacked Internet in the home, and the demographics of the children impacted also mirrored poverty demographics.7 Families and children are impacted as well; poverty can be a vicious cycle.

San Francisco Invests in Digital Inclusion

San Francisco is a City that advocates and invests in digital connectivity and literacy for our communities. We believe digital inclusion is critical in creating a more equitable, inclusive and resilient San Francisco.

–Jay Nath, Chief Innovation Officer, San Francisco

San Francisco has a rich history of investing in digital inclusion and has invested in creating available and affordable access points across the city. For example, the San Francisco Public Library has a long history of promoting broadband access to San Francisco residents, logs over 650,000 online hours per year on its 1,000 computers, and offers free Wi-Fi in all 28 branches. In addition, the library has refurbished its Bookmobile into a Techmobile and plans to pilot a MiFi8 and laptop rental program in 2017. We offer free public Wi-Fi in thirty-two of our public parks and in high traffic areas in across the city9.

In addition, the City of San Francisco has invested in affordability by providing free Wi-Fi access in all forty-two of our public housing units.10

We have also invested in digital literacy and training, which is important for ensuring long-term adoption. The Department of Aging and Adult Services runs a robust digital literacy and training program, SFConnected, that provides access and training to seniors and adults with disabilities through its strong partnerships with twenty-six Community Based Organizations (CBOs), and the San Francisco Public Library offers extensive digital literacy training and adult and youth education courses.

There are additional investments from other stakeholders. Our problem is not that we haven’t invested; it’s that we need a united front in order to cross the finish line. We need to come together and coordinate our efforts in order to address this very challenging problem of inequity.

And that’s why I’m here and why my role was created.

The City is committed to building a supportive and inclusive digital society.

The Digital Inclusion Officer position was created to

  1. Bring stakeholders to the table in order to make sure that we are working toward common goals and metrics.
  2. Increase our data collection and reporting through regular survey work so that there is transparency into how we are progressing.
  3. Dig deeper into the challenging barriers faced by a population historically underserved and coordinate resources and programming accordingly.

My position is a one year executive mayoral fellowship sponsored by the city and in partnership with FUSE, a nonprofit that helps recruit executives from the private sector to address challenging problems in city governments. I am working closely with the San Francisco Public Library, as that organization is already deeply invested in digital inclusion activities.

Our journey isn’t just beginning in San Francisco, but it hasn’t ended. A year isn’t enough to solve everything, but I’m lucky because we have the players and the experience, both inside and outside of the government. Now it’s time to build a cohesive team and compile a playbook for success built from our past and future practices. The team will be the ones who cross the finish line, with or without me.

As the saying goes, It takes a village…. And in this case, a city.


Notes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. United States Census Bureau, “Quick Facts: 2010-2014 American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates,” American Community Survey,
  2. John B. Horrigan and Maeve Duggan, “Home Broadband 2015,” Pew Research Center,
  3. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Continued improvement in U.S. labor market in 2014,” United States Department of Labor, April 2015,
  4. United States Census Bureau, “2010-2014 American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates,” American Community Survey,
  5. United States Census Bureau, “Household Income 2013,” American Community Survey, September 18, 2014,
  6. City and County of San Francisco Board of Supervisors Budge and Legislative Analyst, Policy Analysis Report, April 15, 2015,
  7. San Francisco Public Schools, Family Technology Use Survey, Fall 2013,
  8. MiFi is a wireless router that acts as mobile Wi-Fi hotspot.
  9. Sites available from
  10. Sites available from—WiFi.html.
Margaret Pulvermann

About Margaret Pulvermann

Margaret Pulvermann has more than 12 years of experience managing large-scale projects in both the public and private sectors. After starting off her career as a Peace Corps volunteer in Guyana, Margaret has built her career in financial services and technology. She’s worked as an associate at Fidelity Investments and managed strategy and research initiatives at Citigroup. Most recently, she has been leading growth strategy, business development, and marketing for EdSurge’s new product Concierge, which helps schools and district leaders find the right edtech products for their schools and students. She has a BA in public policy from Brown University and an MBA from Duke University.

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