With the COVID-19 pandemic exposing and widening digital divides among residents, cities and countries are taking steps to close the gap, both to tide citizens over the crisis and to ensure that the benefits of digital advances are shared by more, if not all, in the longer term.
Cities mentioned in this article:
San Francisco, Kansas City, Detroit, Singapore, New York City, Barcelona
10 ways to close the digital gap © Freepik.com
01: A public television service
Mindful that some students may not have computers or laptops at home, the national government in Austria worked with public television stations to broadcast educational programmes for students during their school closures from March to May 2020, with episodes for pre-school and primary school children airing from 6 am to 9 am and those for students aged 10 and older being shown from 9 am to 12 pm.
In Mexico, with schools still closed, the government has also recorded lessons for pre-kindergarten to high school students and partnered with different broadcasters to televise them around the clock, so that the children and youth can tune in at their convenience.
02: Rounding up resources
Ahead of its school closures which started in March 2020, the government of Argentina produced and collated video lessons, self-learning resources, suggestions for learning activities, documentaries and other digital educational materials on its Ministry of Education’s website.
To broaden access to the materials, it also worked with the country’s telecommunications firms to permanently zero-rate the website, which means that browsing the content does not consume data. It also created nine different physical notebooks with learning resources, for students from pre-primary to secondary schools, and delivered them to households with no Internet access.
With schools in San Francisco in the United States set to remain shut until at least the end of this year, the city is taking a different approach to help students who lack Internet access or digital devices at home. It is converting more than 40 recreation centres, libraries, cultural centres and other public facilities to act as ‘Community Learning Hubs’ from September 2020 until schools reopen.
The hubs will observe safe distancing while providing free full-day learning programmes, computers and healthy food for up to 6,000 youth and children, with priority given to those in public housing, foster care, low-income households and other disadvantaged communities.
04: Devices for donation
Donation of used devices can benefit children of low-income families © Freepik.com
Kansas City in the United States is calling on businesses to aid in bridging the digital divide. In a permanent programme called the ‘Employer Laptop Challenge’ launched in April 2020, it is asking companies and other organisations to donate used laptops, tablets or computers to designated non-profit refurbishers who will repair, reset and clean them before giving them to schools, non-profit groups and lower-income families.
As of early September 2020, the programme has redirected more than 1,800 of the electronic devices to those who need them.
05: Help to work from home
With more companies turning to remote working temporarily or permanently since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, some countries are subsidising the cost of such transitions for small and medium enterprises who cannot afford them otherwise. In Japan, the government committed in March 2020 to pay half of the cost of equipment for remote working for such businesses, up to a cap of JPY 1 million (approximately USD $9,400) per firm.
06: A virtual boost
To give small businesses a better chance of surviving the COVID-19 pandemic and prospering afterwards, Detroit in the United States is offering them a free virtual course in website development, branding, content creation and other areas to advertise their products and services online. About 100 firms underwent the five-week pilot programme that concluded in July 2020, and the goal is to scale up the course to get 10,000 small businesses online.
Ms Charity Dean, Director of the city’s Civil Rights, Inclusion and Opportunity Department, said: “Many small businesses do not have the budget to invest in branding and website development, especially during this time when it is uncertain if they will be able to cover payroll and common business expenses. We are doing everything in our power to fill in the gaps for them.”
07: Signing up stallholders
The city-state of Singapore is betting that a personal approach and financial incentives will persuade all 18,000 stallholders in its hawker food centres and markets to adopt a national electronic payment solution called the ‘Singapore Quick Response Code’ by June 2021. This system reduces the handling of cash, minimising the risk of Covid-19 infections, and leads to more seamless transactions.
In June 2020, the city tasked 1,000 full-time staff and part-time volunteers with encouraging the stallholders to install the system. Until May 2021, the stallholders will also receive SGD $300 (approximately USD $219) for each month where they complete at least 20 transactions worth at least SGD $1 (approximately USD $0.70) each on the system, up to a maximum of five pay-outs. As of mid-August 2020, nearly a third of them have signed up to use the system.
08: Reaching out to the elderly
Helping the elderly stay in touch digitally © katemangostar/ Freepik.com
Elderly citizens, especially those who live alone, are among the most vulnerable to the COVID-19 coronavirus and the isolation caused by movement restrictions. In May 2020, New York City in the United States distributed tablets with Internet connectivity paid for by the city to 10,000 of them who are living in its public housing units, so that they can stay connected with family and friends.
Staff from the city’s Department for the Aging and Older Adults Technology Services set up the tablets for them and showed them how to operate the devices, access free classes and other resources, and communicate with their loved ones.
09: All in on inclusivity
In August 2020, the Spanish city of Barcelona announced that it would spend EUR 700,000 (approximately USD $828,000) by the end of the year on a range of digital inclusivity measures to tackle inequalities underlined by the COVID-19 pandemic1.
Among the upcoming projects are a survey to map neighbourhoods’ and households’ access to the Internet and identify people’s digital needs, the improvement of Wi-Fi networks at public facilities, and the deployment of staff to help more residents learn how to access digital government services and use basic apps for videoconferencing and other business purposes.
10: Ensuring equal access
Under an ongoing agreement between the government of New Zealand and the country’s three largest telco operators, residents who use the companies’ mobile networks can access 11 key health websites and two online health services portals free of data charges between July 2020 and June 2021.
Dr Ashley Bloomfield, New Zealand’s Director-General of Health, said that the agreement was necessary to ensure fair access to essential information about the development of the Covid-19 situation within the nation. The collaboration will also be reviewed every six months to determine if it should be extended. O