BTOP in Focus: The Philadelphia Freedom Rings Partnership

This is the first in a series of four blog posts about the Freedom Rings Partnership in Philadelphia and its KEYSPOT program, funded by the federal Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP).

Like millions of people across the country, many of Philadelphia’s poorest and most disenfranchised residents still lack access to and the skills to effectively use the Internet.

Fortunately, since 2011, the Freedom Rings Partnership’s KEYSPOT program has been working to provide members of Philadelphia’s most underserved communities with digital literacy skills and access to public computers. Based on an interim evaluation - data collected between July 2012 and January 2013 - New America Foundation’s Open Technology Institute (OTI) found that in their first two years, KEYSPOTs provided valuable lessons for how to engage individuals and communities digital technologies - and keep them engaged. Those lessons include: 1. Embedding public computers and digital literacy programs within existing community and social services 2. Ensuring that support staff meaningfully engage with public computer users and students, in order to reach populations that have the greatest broadband needs while providing programs that best suit their interests 3. Creating a definition of broadband adoption that is locally appropriate to the context of digital inclusion and its challenges in the City of Philadelphia

As the fight for digital inclusion in Philadelphia and across the nation continues, these lessons remain relevant.

Reaching Target Populations One of the key goals for the Philadelphia KEYSPOTS project was to attract and meet the needs of target populations. Because partners represent and collaborate with diverse service organizations, they reached constituencies who already trust and visit those institutions, such as people who are homeless, veterans, under/unemployed, disabled, former prisoners re-entering society, living with HIV, and youth. In interviews, staff of several lead partners reported that the placement of KEYSPOTs helped them reach target populations in surrounding areas.

To assess the demographics and broadband usage of the adult participants, OTI administered a short online survey, between July 2012 and January 2013 that revealed the following: Eight out of ten adult participants identified as African-American or Black. Nearly half of all respondents were African-American women (47 percent). Fourteen percent identified as being of Hispanic ethnicity. The average age of adult respondents was 42, with a range from 18 to 98. * High concentrations of KEYSPOT users came from North, Southwest, and West Philadelphia.

  • More than half of all WUS respondents said that they go online everyday (55%). Only 7 percent said that they never go online.
  • About one-third of survey takers had Internet at home. However, even among those who did not have access at home, nearly half used the Internet everyday (47%). Though the survey did not assess participant income or education levels, interviews with staff and focus group discussions with participants revealed that many participants were struggling to keep up with daily needs. As one staff member described in an interview, “People are just surviving. They're not living. They're not existing. They're just surviving. If you're talking about Maslow's hierarchy of needs (food, clothing, shelter and water), [those are] not even met.”

Serving Participants’ Needs As mentioned above, host sites fulfilled diverse participant needs with a range of services. Host site staff discussed how they were able to refer participants from core services of the organization to KEYSPOT digital literacy services. Participants also spoke about discovering digital literacy trainings while benefiting from another social service, and vice versa. When asked specifically about why they came to a KEYSPOT, most participants cited a training or workforce development reasons.

Similarly, both staff and participants highlighted the role that KEYSPOTS played in job readiness and finding work. As a KEYSPOT staff member said, “It's rare that you can just go somewhere and submit a [job] application right there on the spot—everybody tells you to go online.” Participants and staff also emphasized workforce development and basic computer skills as key motivators for attendance.

While the survey data reveal participants’ tendency to use KEYSPOTs for workforce related reasons, participants also had many other motivations. One participant noted several goals met by the KEYSPOTs: “Filling out [job] applications, finding [family] that I’ve been looking for for a long time, and getting my schoolwork done. Trying to get my education, my GED. It helps me accomplish a lot of things.”

Since the Evaluation The Freedom Rings Partnership and KEYSPOT hosts have continued to document their successes in reaching the target populations, including being featured in a Wired magazine article on homelessness and Internet access. The Internet Is a Human Right. Just Ask the Homeless KEYSPOTs Serve Veterans * Woman grows small business with KEYSPOT

Authors:

Kayshin Chan
Kistine Carolan
Darby Hickey

Seeta Peña Gangadharan is a program fellow at New America's Open Technology Institute (OTI) and an assistant professor at the London School of Economics and Political Science.