A Model for Closing the Digital Divide?

In working to become a truly "smart city," San José is tackling issues that confront communities everywhere.
June 9, 2016
By Shireen Santosham  |  Contributor
Chief innovation officer for San José, Calif.

In my previous work with an international trade association, my job was focused on closing the gender digital divide in mobile phone and internet access in the developing world. I saw first-hand the dramatic impact the internet can have in empowering people to learn new skills and get access to information to improve their lives. I worked with women across Asia and Africa who used mobile banking to save money and invest their savings in their children, utilized YouTube to learn new skills such as sewing to increase their earnings, and used mobile apps to access health information or health care when pregnant. Access to the internet literally changed their lives.

Now, as the chief innovation officer for San José, Calif., the largest city in Silicon Valley, I have the privilege of working in a global hub of innovation and technological creativity. But despite the starkly different setting, I've found that many of the same lessons apply.

San José, like many cities, has low-income populations and youth that sometimes don't have access to digital resources. Without a laptop or tablet, a child may be unable to complete homework at night and could fall behind in school. Adults working multiple jobs with limited free time may not be able to access essential services online if they don't have access to the internet at home.

Using technology to improve services is imperative to the future of San José and other cities. As a gateway for immigrants to an American middle class -- nearly 40 percent of our adult residents were born in another country -- San José has an opportunity to pilot the technologies that will ensure that all of our residents benefit from internet access while simultaneously serving as a model for other cities.

Notably, San José will be the first city in the world to test and deploy Facebook's "Terragraph" technology, allowing the city to provide free Wi-Fi service at street level throughout the downtown corridor, benefiting thousands of residents and business owners while testing the next generation of wireless systems that will lower costs for high-speed internet for everyone. The city also hopes to pilot deployments of the technology in underserved neighborhoods and "last mile" areas at the end of the local communications network.

Through these efforts, San José is seeking to be a test city for technology that ultimately could help connect the half of the world's population who have yet to access the internet or access it at sufficient speeds to be beneficial.

While most cities don't have Facebook in their backyards to help pilot innovations like this, there are steps that all cities can take to help bridge the digital divide. The first is shifting mindsets around digital infrastructure and digital skills from a "nice to have" investment to something that is essential to economic and social development. Investing in digital skills and digital infrastructure is essential to attracting new businesses and staying competitive in the long term. Small businesses increasingly need low-cost, high-speed digital infrastructure. Making sure the next generation understands how to engage in the digital world will build a cadre of budding entrepreneurs to create these businesses. And developing digital skills will also increasingly be a key driver of social mobility for underprivileged youth.

San José's effort to bridge the digital divide, including its partnership with Facebook, is part of an approach we are taking to become a "smart city." Although the city has a history of piloting innovative projects and working with the private sector, too often these projects did not have a pathway to scale. And, as the technology ecosystem became increasingly sophisticated, it became clear that a comprehensive digital strategy was essential to the city's future growth.

That's why our City Council recently adopted a Smart City Vision to serve as a guiding comprehensive framework around how to use technology to work smarter, deliver services more efficiently, better serve and include residents, and continue to compete on the global stage. It's also behind our adoption, with the help of Bloomberg Philanthropies' What Works Cities initiative, of the city's first open-data policy, designed to drive a new level of transparency and civic engagement. The policy will open up the city's more than 600 datasets in machine-readable and accessible formats by 2020.

San José's combination of innovative, technologically-focused businesses and diverse population make it an ideal testing ground for these kinds of smart-city solutions. We hope other cities will look to what we are doing to help guide their own efforts to bridge the digital divide, make smarter decisions and improve services for their residents.