At the National League of Cities Congress of Cities event in November 2015 in Nashville, Austin was selected as one of six winners of the inaugural Digital Inclusion Leadership Awards, a partnership program of Next Century Cities, the National League of Cities and Google Fiber. These awards celebrate city governments who are leading programs or empowering community-based organizations to tackle barriers to Internet adoption.
The Digital Inclusion Leadership Awards featured two categories, with two overall winners selected in each category and an additional entrant in each category receiving recognition for an innovative approach. The categories, the Leader in Digital Inclusion Best Practices and the Most Promising New Plan awards, recognize established and newly-launched or planned programs, respectively. Austin’s Unlocking the Connection, an initiative led by the Housing Authority of the City of Austin (HACA), was recognized in the Most Promising New Plan category.
“The most innovative element of our Unlocking the Connection initiative is that public housing residents have helped in the design and delivery of digital inclusion services,” said HACA President and CEO Michael Gerber. “Our residents are often digital pioneers—the first in their communities to register for free Internet, take digital literacy classes and earn free refurbished computers. They want to improve their children’s educational lives, develop workforce skills, and improve quality of life for their families and neighbors.”
About 25 percent of U.S. households, or approximately 60 million Americans, don’t have Internet in their homes. Families affected by the digital divide, many of whom are from lower-income neighborhoods, are at a disadvantage when it comes to doing homework, applying for jobs or staying in touch with loved ones. The City of Austin has been recognized as a leader in digital inclusion.
“Thanks to broad community support and HACA’s innovative approach, Unlocking the Connection is the flagship program that is enabling our city’s newly minted Digital Inclusion Strategic Plan,” said Rondella Hawkins, Telecommunications & Regulatory Officer for the City of Austin. The City of Austin, through its Grant for Technology Opportunities Program provided seed funding to leverage the contributions from other funding partners for hardware upgrades and stipends for HACA residents who are trained to work as Lab Apprentices in HACA Community Center computer labs.”
Unlocking the Connection is a locally driven, community-based effort to bring the benefits of the Internet to 4,300 public housing residents of all ages who reside in 18 developments throughout Austin. Programming includes digital literacy and science, technology, engineering and mathematics training, access to devices and the opportunity to access an affordable Internet connection.
Phase 1 of HACA’s initiative covered six of 18 public housing properties, representing about 500 households. About 80 percent registered for free basic broadband Internet provided in partnership with Google Fiber; more than 150 households received at least 50 hours of digital literacy training; and 150 families earned a free refurbished computer provided in partnership with Austin Community College.
That computer HACA residents earns comes with 32GB of free educational content that can be accessed even when the computer is not connected to the Internet.
Partners for Unlocking the Connection are the City of Austin’s GTOP program, Ford Foundation and Open Society Foundations, Google Fiber, Austin Community College, IBM, Freescale, Juntos Podemos Parents Alliance, KDK-Harman Foundation, Microsoft, National Center for Women and Information Technology, and Rackspace. Key service providers include: Austin Free-Net, Boys and Girls Club, Goodwill Central Texas, Latinitas, Skillpoint Alliance, and United Way for Greater Austin. The University of Texas Moody College of Communication serves as the initiative’s evaluation partner.
In July 2015, the White House and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development established ConnectHome, a pilot project to connect families in public housing to the Internet. Austin is a Mentor City to the 28 communities participating in the national ConnectHome broadband initiative.
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