Guest column

Houston expert: Three steps community organizations can take to close the digital divide

In times of crisis, communities are disproportionately affected and access to tech is limited. Here's what one organization is doing to bridge that gap. Photo courtesy of Medley Inc.

The pandemic has had a devastating impact on low-income communities. On top of job losses and a greater risk of exposure to COVID-19, people in disadvantaged neighborhoods face another significant hurdle: access to technology.

In communities like Houston's Fifth Ward, owning a device with internet access can be an almost insurmountable challenge, as residents are 53 percent more likely to lack access to basic technology than the greater Houston area.

Technology has the power to help level playing fields, providing information and resources and even programming and socialization to all who have access, but for communities where the median household income is roughly $18,308, or less than half of Houston's median income, organizations must bridge the gap and support residents' access to and adoption of technology.

Here are three steps the Julia C. Hester House, a community center serving the greater Fifth Ward in Houston, has taken in order to provide successful virtual programming and services to ensure that everyone from children to seniors can benefit.

Provide greater access

The first barrier disadvantaged communities face is access: both to devices and to the internet. A 2019 study from the Pew Research Center found that nearly half of low-income adults lack a computer, and a majority are not tablet owners. However, many residents have access to landlines and smartphones, offering a starting point for virtual engagement. Community centers can start with partnerships with tech companies to help bridge the gap by securing and distributing tablets and internet-ready devices to provide an initial step toward connectivity.

On top of low device adoption rates, the recurring cost of home broadband internet creates another hurdle. When the City of Houston used a portion of CARES act funds to provide one-year internet vouchers to 5,000 low-income households, Hester House worked to spread the news quickly to the Fifth Ward. Hester House also recently partnered with the Fifth Ward Redevelopment Corporation, which has taken on a leadership role in this regard, to get internet service into the homes of local seniors and families with young children. Public-private partnerships and policies that provide free or low-cost internet services across communities can enhance connectivity and improve outcomes for families and neighborhoods.

About 4 percent of Fifth Ward residents possess a college degree, and while that's not required to browse the web, it suggests a lack of exposure to technology, particularly among seniors who came of age before widespread adoption of the internet.Beyond securing greater access to broadband, new approaches to providing computer training and teaching tech fundamentals such as how to access and participate in Zoom meetings go a long way toward increasing new technology adoption rates. Zoom program participants may be reticent at first, but practice and support offer opportunities for greater community adoption.

Innovate program models

As internet, hardware and software access has increased in the community, the next step requires adjusting programming to meet new virtual parameters. Hester House moved many of their programs online and developed new programs to replace what was offered in person prior to the pandemic. Shifts to virtual programming can include virtual tutoring and youth classes, mental and social support programming, exercise and activity based video programming and purely social engagements such as group dinners and games.

The acclimation to virtual programming at Hester House has been a challenge, particularly for youth, however program managers continue to make adjustments to program models to strengthen engagement. Recurring programs that make use of music, guest speakers and pre-planned topics of conversation can help strengthen engagement and encourage participant retention, providing more shared experiences that uplift communities.

Measure and iterate results

As virtual programming continues to grow and find its cadence, program managers must continue to survey participants and make adjustments. Understanding the experiences and needs of participants will help guide planning and execution of changes that ensure participants will not only come back but will bring friends. Utilizing appreciative inquiry to improve programming benefits attendees and ensures that mission-oriented goals are met with regard to service to the community. For example, recent virtual gardening and food preservation classes, aimed at teaching healthy food growth and storage practices, has been so popular that the Hester House is assessing ways to expand the program and dive more deeply into specific topics.

Feedback from the community through surveys and qualitative data collection through individual interviews offer the space to understand the experience from members of the community, allowing organizations to focus on testing and iterating new approaches to foster successful engagement, continuing to meet the needs of the community.

It's no surprise that during difficult times, there's an even greater squeeze on nonprofits serving at-risk communities, which is why Hester House launched its Technology and Innovation Access Campaign in December. Campaign goals include funding long-term internet access, computer training, tech education classes and support, real-time tech support, helping residents navigate online applications for local, state, and national resources, and more. Community centers are focused on a successful continuation of service in these changing times, and the steps above offer a model for technology innovation for other organizations looking to provide continuity of service in difficult times.

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Lis Harper is a strategist and account executive at Houston-based Medley Inc.

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Building Houston

 
 

Check out this curated list of innovation events in Houston for February. Photo via Getty Images

It's time to look at what's on the agenda for February for Houston innovators — from pitch competitions to networking events.

Here's a roundup of events not to miss this month. Mark your calendars and register accordingly.

Note: This post might be updated to add more events.

Feb. 8 — Digital Marketing Luncheon

Join Insperity, a partner of The Cannon, and digital marketing expert, Danny Gavin, at The Cannon Downtown for a lunch and learn.

The event is Wednesday, February 8, at noon, at The Cannon Downtown. Click here to register.

Feb. 9 — Innovation on Tap: Fred Higgs, Engineering at Rice University

Discuss research in the speaker’s engineering lab at Rice University on key Industry 4.0 technologies, namely additive manufacturing.

The event is Thursday, February 9, at 4 pm, at the Ion. Click here to register.

February 10 — Women in Leadership Conference 

The 23rd annual Women in Leadership Conference will be held in-person at Rice University. The conference has been a beacon of inspiration in the Houston community, empowering women to accomplish their career goals. In panel discussions and interactive workshops, attendees hear from leaders across different industries, explore various approaches to leadership, and discuss future opportunities for success.

The event is Friday, February 10, at 8 am, at McNair Hall at Rice University. Click here to register.

Feb. 15 — Real Talk from Real VCs

Join this event for a candid fireside chat on venture capital and its role in supporting and growing innovative startups.

The event is Wednesday, February 15, at 5:30 pm, at the Ion. Click here to register.

Feb. 16 — Engage VC: Lerer Hippeau

Lerer Hippeau is an early-stage venture capital firm founded and operated in New York City. Since 2010, they have invested in entrepreneurs who embody audacity, endurance, and winning mindset – good people with great ideas who aren't afraid to do hard things. Join the HX Venture Fund to hear Caitlin Strandberg, Partner at Lerer Hippeau discuss her perspective on how to build and scale a great company, what early-stage investors are looking for, why Houston, and market trends among other topics.

The event is Thursday, February 16, at 8:30 am, at the Ion. Click here to register.

Feb. 16 — Female Founders and Funders

Calling all rockstar female founders and investors in the Houston area. Mark your calendars for this month's Female Founders and Funders meetup. Coffee and breakfast is provided and the event is free to attend.

The event is Thursday, February 16, at 9 am, at Sesh Coworking. Click here to register.

Feb. 21 — Web3 & HOU: Demystifying the Web3 Space Panel I

Join us to learn more about Web3 and its numerous applications.

The event is Tuesday, February 21, at 6 pm, at the Ion. Click here to register.

Feb. 22 — The Trailblazer’s Guide to Cultivating Authenticity

In this fun and interactive workshop presented by Erica D’Eramo of Two Peirs Consulting, we’ll look at how to foster a leadership style that works for you, even in the absence of role models.

The event is Wednesday, February 22, at 2 pm, at Sesh Coworking. Click here to register.

Feb. 22 — Houston Startup Showcase

The Houston Startup Showcase is a year-long series of monthly pitch competitions. Founders will pitch at the Ion and compete for the grand prize package. Watch the startups pitch their company and see who the judges will name the champion of the Houston Startup Showcase 2023.

The event is Wednesday, February 22, at 6 pm, at the Ion. Click here to register.

Feb. 23 — Navigating Innovation in the Corporate World

Join us for a fireside chat with leaders from Houston's largest employers, including Microsoft and Chevron to discuss how they have navigated successful careers in technology and innovation.

The event is Thursday, February 23, at 11:30 am, at the Ion. Click here to register.

Feb. 27-March 2 — Houston Tech Rodeo

The Houston Tech Rodeo is a conference showcasing the best and brightest of the Houston startup community in the region and beyond by putting investors, entrepreneurs, industry leaders, and creative minds in a room to talk about the biggest innovations and the future of tech sandwiched by some happy hours and friendly competition.

The events run Monday, February 27, through Thursday, March 2, at various locations in Houston. Click here to register.

Note: This post might be updated to add more events.


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