Section 1: Digital Inclusion Coalitions and Why They Matter

People learning internet skills at the Rockwood Library in Multnomah County

This Guidebook is for people who are already committed to working for digital inclusion and equity in our communities. And it’s for people who already understand the value of working together, across a variety of organizations and institutions, to advance these goals.

There are many ways organizations and individuals can come together to pursue common goals for our communities: nonprofit organizations and businesses, partnerships, collaborations and short-term and long-term alliances. Each is “right” for some purposes and circumstances.

This Guidebook is concerned with one particular organizational choice that digital inclusion leaders in some communities are making: community-wide digital inclusion coalitions.

In 2012, the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the University of Washington Technology and Social Change Group and the International City/County Management Association published Building Digital Communities: Getting Started, a document that is incredibly valuable to community-wide digital inclusion efforts “to help spark community conversation and action to increase broadband adoption and use.”

“The Framework is a resource for community-wide planning to help forward-looking communities achieve digital inclusion for all of their residents. It sets forth a vision of what a modern 21st [century] community looks like when digital inclusion is a priority, presents a set of principles that need to be addressed in order to achieve that vision, and provides specific goals that can serve as benchmarks for making progress against each of the principle areas” (Building Digital Communities: Getting Started, p. 2).

Recommended steps:

  1. Convene stakeholders.
  2. Develop a shared community understanding of digital inclusion.
  3. Create a community action plan.
  4. Implement the plan.
  5. Evaluate and revise the plan.
Building Digital Communities Logo

Definition of a “Community-Wide Digital Inclusion Coalition”

By “community-wide,” we mean organized at the level of a city, county or similar civic locality (not just a single neighborhood) and drawing participants from a variety of institutions, organizations and neighborhoods throughout that locality.

By “digital inclusion,” we mean that the coalition exists specifically to promote access to affordable high-speed home broadband, appropriate devices, digital literacy training and tech support for the community’s underserved residents.

By “coalition,” we mean:

  • an organization of organizations (e.g., local governments, libraries, educational institutions, housing authorities, community technology training and network providers, other social service and civic organizations, etc.)...
  • operating in the public realm, with a reasonable degree of transparency about its activities, in its governance and finances…
  • with a formalized (though not necessarily incorporated) structure including leadership responsibilities, rights and obligations of members, regular meetings, etc...and open to growth by adding members that support its mission, with a clear process for joining.

Key Definitions:

  • Digital Inclusion: The activities necessary to ensure that all individuals and communities, including the most disadvantaged, have access to and use of ICTs. This includes five elements: 1) affordable, robust broadband internet service; 2) internet-enabled devices that meet the needs of the user; 3) access to digital literacy training; 4) quality technical support; and 5) applications and online content designed to enable and encourage self-sufficiency, participation and collaboration. Digital inclusion must evolve as technology advances. Digital inclusion requires intentional strategies and investments to reduce and eliminate historical, institutional and structural barriers to access and use technology.
  • Digital Equity: A condition in which all individuals and communities have the information technology capacity needed for full participation in our society, democracy and economy. Digital equity is necessary for civic and cultural participation, employment, lifelong learning and access to essential services.

Why Digital Inclusion Coalitions Matter

There are many communities across the country where digital inclusion efforts take the form of collaborations and partnerships as well as free-standing programs. But at the moment, there are just a handful of cities with community-wide digital inclusion coalitions as defined above. Most of these coalitions are fairly new. They vary significantly in their leadership, objectives and strategies. None can yet claim to have “won” a major new commitment of resources or caused a dramatic change in the lives of community residents.

But NDIA believes that the coalitions whose leaders we interviewed, and others like them, represent something new and important for the digital inclusion movement because of three effects they create (deliberately or not) for their participants and communities:

1) The advocacy effect

Coalitions focus local attention on the issue of digital inclusion as a specific area for public policy and community action. Whether or not their organizers intend it, broad-based digital inclusion coalitions have an “advocacy effect” that raises the profile of digital inclusion for their communities’ media, opinion leaders and the general public.

Rivard Report

Source: Rivard Report

Coalition: Digital Inclusion Alliance of San Antonio

2) The alignment effect

Coalitions create a framework to align the perspectives and efforts of the varied community players that may, at the beginning, share a concern about digital inclusion but little else: libraries, local government, low-income housing providers, workforce and social service agencies and traditional “community technology” training and access programs. In general, pushing in the same direction is more satisfying and effective than the alternative.

Portland Digital Equity Plan

Source: City of Portland’s Digital Equity Action Plan

Coalition: Digital Inclusion Network (DIN)

3) The network effect

Simply by bringing this range of parties together in one room, coalitions set the stage for their participants to better understand each others’ perspectives, share information and strategic insights and discover opportunities for new working relationships–including two- or three-way collaborations and program partnerships.

Rivard Report

Source: Eventbrite screengrab

Coalition: Technology Learning Collaborative

A local digital inclusion coalition that can manage to keep operating openly, with a structure that encourages participant engagement and new participants, has the potential to keep generating these advocacy, alignment and networking effects. In fact, the potential is also to grow them over time–i.e., to increase its participants’ influence and impact–no matter what specific projects it chooses to undertake.

Coalition > Advocacy, Alignment and Networking > Influence and Impact

Not every community needs, or has the opportunity to create, an effective community-wide digital inclusion coalition. But NDIA believes it will make sense for local leaders in many more places to consider building coalitions in the next few years.