Irrigating America’s Driest Digital Desert

Dave Abel is President and Chief Executive Officer of Aventiv Technologies.Follow me Twitter.

Desert: The word itself connotes a harsh climate where vegetation and life itself struggle to grow and even survive. It has become an appropriate public policy term for market failures in underserved areas. There are medical deserts where Americans, both rural and urban, struggle to access primary and preventive care, leading to tragic and otherwise preventable outcomes. There are food deserts, where residents do not have easy access to affordable and nutritious food. There are public transit deserts here, making it harder for often low-income residents to get to job interviews, let alone jobs. Affordable, easy-to-use technology can help solve each of these socioeconomic deserts.

For decades, America’s correctional facilities have been the largest digital deserts. But today, they are serving as examples of how the public and private sectors can work together to address policy and market dislocations and how technology can be used to help citizens develop their most valuable resource: their own potential.

As we emerge from the Covid-19 pandemic, many of us have gained a new appreciation for the role technology can play in connecting us to services and keeping us in touch with loved ones. Telemedicine went from experiment to necessity, moving us away from crowded doctor’s waiting rooms. Zoom became a verb for how many of us are at work and how kids can stay connected to grandparents or schools when face-to-face contact is too risky.

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But it also highlights two very different Americas on either side of the digital divide. According to the FCC, “19 million Americans—nearly 6% of the population—do not have access to broadband service at threshold speeds.” According to WILMAPCO, these digital deserts are concentrated in “Internet connectivity, computer access, and computer access to smartphones.” unique dependency gap”.

Technology deserts reflect differences in demographic and socioeconomic conditions. Three times as many households in urban areas remain offline than in rural areas. Families living below the poverty line, people of color, and people with less education are more likely to live in technology deserts. It is no coincidence that these same attributes mirror America’s incarcerated population.

This digital divide is especially acute in the delivery of online classes to students’ families when schools are closed due to Covid-19. The Educational Trust tells us that 50% of low-income households and 42% of households of color do not have the technology needed for online education. This opportunity gap becomes an achievement gap, disproportionately affecting low-income, underserved students, and its effects will ripple through our nation for years to come.

Even the census is affected. By 2020, these differences may already be reflected in the response rates and methods of the decennial census that the government uses to allocate resources. Households in affluent areas are more than twice as likely to use the internet to answer questionnaires than those in technology deserts, potentially underestimating resources and directing them to those most in need over the next decade.

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Ironically, for decades the most neglected, underserved, and vulnerable technology desert in our society—correctional facilities—has provided more than clues about how we can effectively use technology in our country.

When Covid-19 shuts down, limits or cancels in-person visits by loved ones to those incarcerated (the population my firm serves), the digital divide is wider than ever. Those with access to video calls and emails have weathered the quarantine more effectively by staying in close contact with family and friends. Numerous studies have shown that programs designed to strengthen bonds between incarcerated people and their loved ones can improve mental health, reduce recidivism and increase the likelihood of finding and keeping a job after incarceration.

When face-to-face education suffers, those who have access to online courses (designed to complement face-to-face education, not replace it) will be able to ride out the storm. Those with access to a secure tablet with music, podcasts, and educational content also tolerated this disruption of daily activities the most. In fact, the facility reports how technology has become indispensable in averting violence and unrest when other channels of energy and emotion have been temporarily closed to individuals due to the pandemic.

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This is a teaching moment for all of us. Advocates, experts, and even correctional facility leaders who previously had reason to doubt technology’s role in facilities — whether it’s concerns about safety or its potential to replace in-person activities — see its value. But more importantly, we’ve all seen key players collaborating in delivering security technology. Over the past four years, only private-sector companies have the resources to regularly and reliably deploy hundreds of millions of dollars of capital to build technological capabilities where none exist.

Just as Walmart’s partnership with downtown and former first lady Michelle Obama helped address food deserts and downtown nutrition, public-private partnerships will be critical to creating a digital backbone for hundreds of correctional facilities. As with addressing health inequities, businesses, policymakers, and advocates all have a critical role to play in minimizing technology deserts and ensuring equal opportunity for all Americans.

Digital deserts block opportunity for millions of Americans, especially those who cannot simply move elsewhere. Where you are should not limit your potential. No one exemplifies this more than America’s incarcerated people. But by working together, we collectively point the way forward so that something extraordinary can grow in the digital desert of yesteryear: hope.

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