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City of Seattle’s Digital Equity Grants provide more than connectivity

The City of Seattle released a new report reviewing the impact of several years of Technology Matching Fund grants, based on four years of narrative reports from community partners. Findings suggest that Technology Matching Fund programs are making a real difference in closing the digital divide for Seattle residents. The report emphasizes the need for the core elements of Seattle’s Digital Equity strategy—internet access, digital devices, and digital skills—for communities to fully participate in culture and civic life, advance their careers and education, and access essential services.

Seattle is a highly connected city overall—as of 2018, 95% of Seattle households had a way to access the internet in their home. However, digital access is not equitably distributed. In 2020, 21% of households with incomes under $25,000 lived without internet access at home.

Seattle’s Technology Matching Fund (TMF) program started in 1997 and has awarded over $5 million to support community efforts to close the digital divide. Technology Matching Funds are awarded to support programs that will help close the digital divide for these communities. Programs focus on connecting people with internet access, providing devices like laptops, teaching technology skills, or a mix of these activities.

Each year, community-based organizations receiving TMF grants submit reports detailing their program’s achievements. These reports are reviewed in detail each year, and quantitative data is available on the Internet for All dashboards. However, there had never been a systematic review of the detailed qualitative data submitted by community partners. These narrative reports provide rich detail on the human impact of TMF-funded programs.

“[A student] took English classes at Literacy Source and obtained her GED…Because of all of the tech skills, she learned how to look for and apply for jobs online. The tech skills helped her to apply in a way that got her a job in nursing, something she had been trying for a few years but lack of tech skills had been a barrier. She now has a higher-paying job she loves, doing exactly what she wanted to do, thanks to the tech support she received.”

Program Staff, Literacy Source, 2021

In this report, Seattle’s Innovation and Performance Team analyzed four years of quantitative and qualitative data to identify themes and program achievements across TMF partners. Overall, common outcomes reported by funded organizations included:  

  1. Increased internet access   
  1. Increased access to digital devices  
  1. Increased access to digital literacy training  
  1. Increased confidence in digital navigation 
  1. Increased access to economic opportunities 
  1. Increased access to educational opportunities 
  1. Increased access to social service benefits and essential services 
  1. Increased overall wellbeing and quality of life 

“Participants had very little knowledge on how to use a computer, and many of them had never graduated from an educational program. The class helped them develop important life skills, and participants received a digital literacy certificate for successfully completing the class. We have a huge, huge digital literacy gap in the community. Our digital literacy program helped Somali mothers getting the skills they need to apply for jobs, find information for their families, help their kids with school.”

Program Staff, Somali Family Safety Task Force, 2021

Many organizations that received TMF grants also experienced an increase in their overall capacity to provide services, thanks to building new partnerships, creating new classes or resources using the funding, purchasing new or better equipment, and more actions taken using TMF funding.

While these positive outcomes were seen across organizations, there were differences in how digital equity services impacted different communities. For example, programs serving immigrant and refugee communities frequently reported the importance of improved digital skills to help school-aged children and family members with online platforms. A common outcome for TMF programs serving older adults, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, was decreased social isolation and improved connection with friends and family.

“A program participant and stay at home mom had always struggled to pay her utility bills and access to human resources online. When she enrolled in the ADA-2019 program she learned how to pay her utility bill and apply for Utility Discount Program herself. In March of 2020, Seattle Public School transitioned to online learning. Her children did not have a device to sign into online classes and complete their assignments. She had to use the computer borrowed from ADA program and she was able to support their children thanks to the skills acquired. She can now help their children succeed in school because she knows how to send emails to her daughter’s teachers, and how to navigate the school district’s’ website. She also enrolled in college to pursue further educational opportunities. Her goal is to get a GED or High School equivalence Diploma and find a job to increase the family income.”

Program Staff, Villa Communitaria, 2019

“A participant came to us and mentioned she had lost her husband recently. Because she had some health concerns and because Covid was raging, she did not want to see anyone in person, but she wanted emotional and mental support. She knew her church offered such things online, but she had no idea how to access them. We provided a WiFi hotspot and gave her tutorials on how to access her church’s grief support services.”

Program Staff, Senior Center of West Seattle, 2021

The report also identified common challenges TMF partners face and strategies and best practices to address those challenges. For example, some providers shared difficulties with teaching classes with a large skill level gap between students. One solution was to match students with higher skill levels with more inexperienced students during activities. This practice allowed more savvy students to solidify their knowledge through teaching while giving newer students extra support.

Many organizations shared their challenges with transitioning to online or hybrid programs during COVID-19. Teaching tech skills in a virtual environment is difficult, and this was even more difficult when students lacked quality internet connections or devices at home. Partners stressed the importance of connecting students with affordable internet programs at the beginning of class and setting aside funding to ensure each student has the technology devices they need to participate. These and other lessons learned from program partners will be shared with the 18 organizations receiving TMF grants in 2023, as well as other organizations working in the Digital Equity space.

In addition to analyzing the successes and challenges of past TMF programs, the report also identified ways TMF programs can better understand and document long-term outcomes in the future. Seattle Information Technology staff will work with Innovation and Performance staff during the next grant cycle to expand the program’s ability to track long-term outcomes and reduce administrative burden for community partners applying for and receiving the grants.

Read the Technology Matching Fund 2018-2021 Qualitative Review, and visit the Technology Matching Fund website to learn more about the program. Applications are being accepted now through November 9 for the 2024 round of Digital Equity grants.

The City of Seattle’s Information Technology Department (Seattle IT) oversees the City’s Digital Equity Program. To learn more about Digital Equity Programs, including the Technology Matching Fund Grant program, reduced-cost internet opportunities, the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP), and other programs, visit Seattle IT is a trusted partner that provides secure, reliable, and compliant technologies, enabling the City to deliver equitable and responsive services to the public.