Irrigating America’s Driest Digital Desert

Dave Abel is President and CEO of Aventive Technologies. follow me Twitter.

Desert: The term itself refers to an unforgiving climate where vegetation and life itself struggle to grow or even survive. It has become the appropriate public policy term for market failure in underserved geographic areas. There are healthcare deserts, where Americans, rural or urban, struggle to access primary and preventive care, leading to tragic and otherwise preventable outcomes. There are food deserts, where residents lack easy access to affordable, nutritious food. There are deserts of public transportation, making it difficult for residents, usually low-income, to travel to job interviews, let alone jobs. Affordable, accessible technology can help address each of these socioeconomic deserts.

For decades, America’s correctional facilities have been the largest digital desert of all. But today, they are becoming prime examples of how the public and private sectors can work together to address policy and market disruptions and use technology to help citizens develop the most valuable resource of their own potential.

As we emerge from the Covid-19 pandemic, many of us have a new appreciation for the role of technology in connecting us to services and keeping in touch with our loved ones. Telemedicine went from an experiment to a necessity, keeping us out of crowded doctors’ waiting rooms. Zoom has become a verb for how many of us work and how children stay connected to grandparents or school when personal engagements are too risky.

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But it also underscores two very different Americas on either side of the digital divide. According to the FCC, “19 million Americans – about 6 percent of the population – lack access to broadband service at threshold speeds.” According to WILMAPCO, this digital desert suffers from concentrated “gaps in Internet connectivity, computer access and sole reliance on smartphones for computer access”.

Tech deserts reflect differences in demographic and socioeconomic conditions. Three times as many households in urban areas remain unattached than households in rural areas. And families living below the poverty line, people of color, and individuals with low education levels are more likely to live in tech deserts. These same traits mirror America’s incarcerated population, and this is no coincidence.

This digital divide was particularly acute in delivering online classes to students’ homes when schools were closed due to Covid-19. The Education Trust tells us that 50% of low-income families and 42% of families of color do not have the technology needed for online learning. This opportunity gap became an achievement gap disproportionately affecting low-income, underserved students, with effects that will ripple across our country for years to come.

The census was also affected. In 2020, these differences may play out in response rates and methods for decennial censuses, which governments use to allocate resources. Households in affluent areas answered questionnaires using the Internet more than twice as often as those living in tech deserts, potentially undercounting and under-allocating the resources they will need most over the next decade.

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Ironically, the place in our society that has been the most overlooked, underserved and vulnerable technology desert for decades—remedial facilities—offers more than a hint of how we can effectively leverage technology in our country.

When Covid-19 took hold, limiting or eliminating in-person visits from loved ones of incarcerated individuals—the population my company serves—the digital divide felt sharper than ever. People with access to video calls and email coped with isolation more effectively by maintaining close ties with family and friends. Numerous research studies show that programs aimed at strengthening bonds between incarcerated individuals and loved ones improve mental well-being, reduce recidivism, and increase the likelihood of finding and keeping jobs after incarceration.

While in-person education was affected, those with access to online programs—designed to complement, never replace, in-person education—were able to navigate the disruption. Those with access to secure tablets—with music, podcasts, and educational content—were also best able to tolerate this disruption to daily activity. Indeed, facilities reported how technology became integral to avoiding violence and unrest when other outlets for energy and emotion were temporarily closed to individuals due to the pandemic.

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This is a teachable moment for all of us. Advocates, experts and correctional facility leadership who previously had reason to be skeptical of technology’s role in facilities — whether it was security concerns or its potential to replace individual activities — saw its value. But more than that, we all saw the critical role collaboration plays in delivering secure technology. Only private sector companies have had the resources to invest hundreds of millions of dollars in capital over the last four years, routinely and reliably, to build technological capability where none existed.

Just as Walmart’s collaboration with inner cities and former first lady Michelle Obama helped address food deserts and inner-city nutrition, public-private collaboration was essential to building the digital backbone for hundreds of correctional facilities. As in addressing health disparities, businesses, policymakers, and advocates each play an important role in reducing technology deserts and ensuring equal opportunity for all Americans.

The digital desert creates opportunities for millions of Americans, especially those who simply cannot afford to go elsewhere. Where you are located should not limit your potential. No population embodies this more than America’s incarcerated population. But together, in collaboration, we’re moving toward a day when something extraordinary can grow in the former digital desert: hope.

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