Bridging the Digital Divide

Dan Hoffman, Chief Innovation Officer, Montgomery County, MD
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Dan Hoffman, Chief Innovation Officer, Montgomery County, MD

Dan Hoffman, Chief Innovation Officer, Montgomery County, MD

As technology transforms communities, policymakers have focused their attention on the unintended side effect of a society that now has everything at their fingertips. The “digital divide,” as it’s called, has become the broad term used to describe the inequity that results when the benefits of technology are not distributed equally. Most commonly this conjures up visions of students without laptops, homes without broadband, and jobseekers without smartphones. These are all valid concerns, and proactive communities are taking steps to combat this. What we are not currently prepared for is a world where the digital divide extends to virtually all aspects of life. The internet of things and the associated smart city applications promise to make cars and homes safer and more efficient, but will it be only for those who can afford it?

The digital divide applies not only to internet speeds and laptops in the classroom. Inequity in those areas severely hinders economic opportunity and upward mobility for vulnerable populations. The bigger divide that looms ahead of us is one where people in higher socioeconomic groups live safer lives at a lower cost. Of course, this has always been true to some extent for reasons unrelated to technology. What should concern community leaders is that the divide will grow more severe.

Imagine the technology available today that detects fire and other home hazards, the technology that is possibly in your home right now. You may have one of the many connected smoke detectors or home security systems that not only alerts you with a siren, but also alerts emergency personnel.  According to the National Fire Protection Association, seniors are less likely to have even a basic functioning smoke detector. That is a pretty large divide, and one that costs lives every year. To improve safety and overcome this divide, Montgomery County, Maryland distributes and installs smoke detectors at no cost. We will even come change the battery if requested. We do this to create a community that is safe for everyone—and we can go further. We are currently developing a system that would facilitate the distribution of connected sensors that would detect hazardous environments like fires and gas leaks. This is one way in which we are trying to close the new digital divide. We, along with others, are looking at how we can leverage devices such as the Amazon Echo. For instance, elderly communities or people with physical disabilities may find it difficult to read fine print on computer, type on a keyboard, or navigate a mouse. Georgia government's digital services agency is using Echo to “bring 50 of the state's most accessed services and pieces of information” to the platform. I encourage all jurisdictions undertaking smart city initiatives to take the time to better understand how they can spread the benefits of smart and connected communities to everyone, especially those who can benefit the most.

  ​Thoughtful planning and policymaking can help ensure that the internet of things and smart city advancements benefit those who need them the most 

The substantial part of the new digital divide has yet to impact communities, but is only years away: connected and autonomous vehicles. These vehicles are a cure. Let’s not try to spin them as a bad thing. Because of this advancement we are now close to saving tens of thousands of lives a year, reduce emissions, and virtually eliminate traffic. Even people without one of these vehicles will benefit as roads unclog and accidents diminish. Based on our own study of this, we anticipate that connected and autonomous vehicles will begin to have a material effect on our local transportation system in 8-10 years. This is not saying the transition will be complete in 8-10 years, but that we will begin feeling the effects. I look forward to asking the question, “What are we doing to make sure that the benefits of this technology reach our entire community?” If we don’t ask this question ofourselves and our policymakers regularly, we will face a new digital divide. These vehicles will completely disrupt the public transportation system in ways we cannot fully anticipate, and many communities may face tough choices when it comes to funding public transport. As a result, some communities may see autonomous vehicles as a replacement for public transportation systems. However, this oversimplifies the issue. It is not simply a debate about what mode of transportation to fund. For example, the prevalence of autonomous vehicles is expected to make reliable transportation for people who may not be able to invest in a car. So as you plan for the impact of connected and autonomous vehicles on your community, ask yourself what steps your city or county should be taking to ensure that everyone has access to the safest, most efficient transportation possible. This is why many communities have shifted the conversation away from talk of cars and roads and towards talk of mobility as a service.

Your home and your transportation are opening up new fronts in the digital divide, but they are gaps we can close. Thoughtful planning and policymaking can help ensure that the internet of things and smart city advancements benefit those who need them the most, not just those who can afford them.

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