DDIW23 Panel Focuses on Research, Policy and Digital Equity, Positions the Internet as a Utility Required for Everyday Life

A series of informative and interactive panel discussions at Wayne State University on October 2 marked the start of this year’s Detroit Digital Inclusion Week powered by Connect 313. The day’s first panel of local experts, assembled to discuss digital equity policy and research, grew animated as they described what a digitally included Detroit might look like.

“Closing the digital divide in Michigan appears different depending on where you are in the state,” said Allie Herkenroder, Michigan’s digital equity director. “We can’t just put a one-size-fits-all solution everywhere and have it work.”

Herkenroder was joined by City of Detroit CIO Art Thompson, Johnnie Turnage, CEO of Even Score and Black Tech Saturdays, Dr. Pierrette Dagg with Merit Network, and Stephanie Vaughn, lead innovation educator with The Hidden Genius Project. The conversation was moderated by Scott D. Woods, president of the public-private partnership Ready.net.

“We need to be thinking about the systemic issues that caused this to begin with,” added Dagg. “Digital equity is not a problem of devices and it’s not a problem of infrastructure, it’s a social issue.”

While each panelist illuminated the complexities of achievingcomprehensive digital inclusion, they all agreed on a few key points to effectively light the way forward.

First, the panelists agreed that broadband access is a needed utility, rather than a luxury, in today’s digitally integrated world. Participants cited the pandemic as bringing this fact into sharp focus, leaving those on the wrong side of the digital divide without access to online healthcare, education, or employment. At the time, anyone without a broadband connection, an appropriate device, and the skills to use it was left behind.

They also agreed on the importance of “meeting people where they are.”

Herkenroder discussed findings from a recently completed statewide listening tour, which started and ended in Detroit, to hear directly from citizens about their digital access priorities.  

“We heard … ideas, questions, and concerns at every single one of our 43 stops throughout Michigan with the number-one identified broadband barrier for Michiganders being availabilityand number two: affordability,” Herkenroder recalled. (Region 10 community participants, in which Detroit is located, placed affordability as the top barrier rather than access, which was listed as second.)

Dr. Dagg reinforced the importance of local voices when she talked about the need for champions of digital inclusion such assupportive local governments and a varied, already existinglandscape of federal funding that communities can leverage.

“For me, digital equity looks like how we get people to a certain level of confidence and competence to even talk about it,” added Turnage. His initiative, Black Tech Saturdays, draws hundreds of people each week to network, share ideas and solve problems at Newlab, near the reinvigorated Michigan Central Station in Detroit.

Finally, the five panelists agreed that as with any complex issuethe best place to find a solution starts by establishing common ground.

“If you look at the internet, it is a utility, it is something we need for everyday life,” Thompson said. “We need to do something that’s going to leave an everlasting effect and drive up adoption of resources. It has to be transformative.”

Special Thanks to DDIW 2023 Sponsors and Partners

Detroit Digital Inclusion Week was generously sponsored by DELL, Comcast, Verizon, and Wayne State University, and supported by Connect 313 partners the City of Detroit, Rocket Community Fund and United Way for Southeastern Michigan.

Boost your digital literacy by taking advantage of Connect 313’s network of 22 Neighborhood Tech Hubs, meeting with a Community Ambassador to learn more about available resources, submitting a suggestion for a community initiative, signing up for the Affordable Connectivity Program by calling 313-241-7618, receiving free digital skills training and tech support and more, and becoming a member at connect313.org.