Griffiths: Even in high-tech SF, there is a digital divide 

When I was pregnant with my son, I was able to use my patient portal to email my doctor with questions. As a new mom, the speed and ease of digital contact was invaluable, so I appreciate the value of something as seemingly basic as an email account.

And yet, a 2013 survey of Californians found that 14 percent of our friends and neighbors do not use the Internet, mostly because they don’t know how.

Even here in high-tech San Francisco, we have a digital divide. In April, Supervisor Eric Mar and the Board of Supervisors released a detailed analysis reporting that over 150,000 of our neighbors lack high-speed Internet at home.

Having a home computer with Internet access is important if you want to apply for jobs online, help your child with homework or find an apartment to rent.

Imagine having no idea how to create a free email account or conduct a Web search for information. The digital divide is about more than low-cost broadband and home computers. It’s also about digital literacy — about having the basic skills and confidence needed to create an email account.

A survey conducted in San Francisco Health Network’s clinic waiting rooms found that a staggering 40 percent of patients don’t use email despite the fact that 71 percent are interested in using it to communicate with their health care providers. Even among those who do use email, only 59 percent are able to do so from home.

Volunteers and staff from Community Technology Network have helped thousands of San Franciscans close the digital divide. We have helped the isolated homebound senior who now uses video chat to sit down to dinner with her distant family; the single parent earning a living by working at home while her children are at school; the disabled veteran who receives health services online and avoids the time and expense of traveling to the doctor. We are working to address this need for training as part of The City’s SF Connected program, but a lot more needs to be done.

It’s 2015 and we live in San Francisco. We shouldn’t have to imagine these benefits for our neighbors. Mar’s report says, “the City does not have a comprehensive plan to bridge the digital divide.”

The report offered eight recommendations to address “availability, affordability and non-adoption,” including increased funding for digital training to help young people, seniors and people with disabilities; creation of a citywide municipal broadband network; and initiating a computer hardware subsidy program. We applaud these recommendations because the sooner we get everyone online, the sooner we will see improvements in dozens of other policy objectives from reducing health care costs to improved educational outcomes.

Kami Griffiths is the executive director of Community Technology Network, a San Francisco nonprofit that seeks to transform lives through digital literacy.

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Kami Griffiths

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