The COVID-19 pandemic has forced many elementary and high school students to switch from in-person to partial or full-time online learning. This has intensified the existing digital divide in our society, emphasizing socioeconomic and racial disparities in access to essential technology.
Here in Philadelphia, the public school district provided students with laptops, but that effort only fulfilled part of the broader need. Broadband interconnectivity is essential to enable videoconferencing for learning, and available bandwidth within a home is often shared by multiple students and other family members learning and working simultaneously. Even when a family has the necessary hardware and a sufficient, reliable internet connection, there is still the need for technical knowledge and skills. For example, a parent or guardian needs to be able to help a young student use and troubleshoot their laptop.
EY has been helping to narrow these gaps through our Bridging the Digital Divide initiative, which addresses the three main aspects of technology access: hardware, connectivity and mentoring. This is a national effort that is led by teams within each participating city, allowing for customized approaches to gathering support from our local EY offices.
In Philadelphia, we are able to combine forces (virtually) between our main Center City office and our PHL Design Studio. For the Studio, with its focus on designing usable technology, the digital divide hits close to home. We take pride in our human-centered approach, but all of our work is based on the assumption of technology access. Consequently, many of us have been inspired to support this fundamental need.
As part of the local Digital Divide team, we have worked to increase awareness and action within the Philadelphia EY community by stressing the concept of “multiplying.” Beyond just being the antithesis of “divide,” multiplication symbolizes the impact of many individuals acting together and the exponential benefits that can result. But in order to have a multiplicative effect, we had to effectively engage the local EY community.
While people are interested in supporting initiatives, we recognized potential challenges in getting from interest to action. We knew we had to make the digital divide a relatable situation so that an empathic connection could be made. We wanted to make actions simple and measurable so the community could see quick wins. Lastly, we had to make our messaging stand out among volumes of information and content that our colleagues navigate.
Consequently, we have applied overarching engagement principles:
Personify – A problem as broad and complex as technology access can seem overwhelming unless it’s framed in a relatable way. While we talk about thousands of households in need and millions of dollars to solve, it comes down to one individual helping one family at a time. With that mindset, we created Connect25, where we ask our colleagues to donate their monthly, company-provided internet reimbursement while working from home. The donations were directed to the city’s PHLConnectED and PHLDonateTech initiatives that help student families get internet access, laptops and training. Rather than thinking of the donation in monetary costs, we framed it in terms of outcomes. For example, donating $25 provides basic internet service to two families for a month. This is literally paying forward one’s own connectivity to give to another in greater need, and it is also a means to create empathy. Our initial month of this campaign was surprisingly successful, and we hope to maintain momentum.
Simplify – Making participation tangible by putting needs in human terms inspired many to help, but we also wanted to minimize any barriers to action. For example, donating personal laptops and hardware is a great way to provide support, but typically requires visiting a donation site or shipping the devices somewhere — neither of which is ideal during a pandemic. Again, by working with the city, we were able to promote a service that provides no-cost home pick-up for technology donations, making the process easier.
Amplify – Getting a message out to our EY community means having to compete with all the other information that flows within our organization. In some cases, this meant being highly targeted — for Connect25, we send out a reminder only on the 25th of each month. In other cases, we used our Digital Divide platform to increase awareness of already-existing volunteer opportunities within EY. This allowed us to highlight those opportunities that were most relevant to our focus (e.g., design and technology), while also making other options more accessible to the community.
By applying these principles in our communications with the Philadelphia EY community, we aimed to increase engagement and reduce friction. While our efforts represent a small part of the overall national effort, the ability to localize our approach allowed us to tailor it to our audience.
Beyond the current EY initiative, it’s important to be aware that the digital divide will not go away when kids are able to go back to school. It not only affects education, but also virtually all aspects of life, including access to health care and jobs for all members of a household. We will continue to pursue effective and creative ways to close that divide.
Image by Eno Olson
The views expressed by the author are not necessarily those of Ernst & Young LLP or other members of the global EY organization.