Background of Digital Inclusion in Davidson County
Nashville’s digital inclusion work has always existed within a framework of collaboration between government, nonprofits, and private organizations working to expand opportunities and resources for Metro residents.
One of the foundations for the larger work was the Nashville Digital Inclusion Fund (NDIF), established in 2015 through public-private partnerships and donations, and housed at the Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee (CFMT). In 2015, Pew Internet Research reported that more than 53,000 Davidson County families needed assistance to enter the digital age. To respond to the need, Nashville established the fund to provide free or low-cost Internet access, computers, devices, training, and support to Nashville residents. Metro Government invested $100,000 in the fund in the 2015 fiscal year budget. Google, the James Stephen Turner Family Foundation and Comcast each matched Metro’s donation, expanding the fund to more than $400,000. As described by the founders of the fund:
“This is the next logical extension of Economic Development: creating a workforce trained and equipped for today’s jobs and tomorrow’s rather than importing talent.”
The fund supported multiple initiatives and pilot programs, particularly through Nashville’s Anytime Access for All, a collaborative effort serving Metro Nashville Public School students and families who lacked access to devices or the internet at home. The program, modeled after Boston’s TechGoesHome, provided devices gifted by Vanderbilt University, device refurbishment through a partnership with ER2, technical support through ReviveIT, and relevant training provided by Nashville Public Library.
The same year the fund was established, Nashville pursued and was selected to participate in the pilot program for ConnectHome, an initiative of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) aimed at expanding access to digital resources for underserved communities.
In January of 2016, using the Anytime Access for All model, the Metro Development and Housing Agency (MDHA) piloted a program to offer low-cost devices, low-cost connectivity, free training and free technical support to residents of targeted MDHA communities, particularly those with high populations of K-12 students.
The collaborative efforts that spurred these intersecting programs built a model for Nashville’s future work around digital inclusion.
In May 2016, a committee of 75 community members with diverse backgrounds in Nashville business, academia, non-profit sectors, and all levels of government set about to build a sustainable multi-year plan to make Nashville a smarter, more connected city. The Connected Nashville smart city working group first examined Metro’s stated priorities and then looked globally at ways to address local priorities in new ways using technology and data, with an unwavering eye on equity.
Even then, there was agreement around the need for data to guide successful planning. In August of 2016, CIO Durbin, in a presentation to a state committee about Nashville’s long-term digital inclusion goals, recommended a ‘Metro Nashville digital inclusion assessment/survey,’ referencing Austin’s Digital Assessment model, as one of the two most important recommendations for future work. This recommendation was carried through as a strategic action submitted by the Connected Nashville Education and Advancement committee, which Dr. Wilson led. The Nashville Digital Inclusion Needs Assessment in strategy 12.3 of the Connected Nashville report.
In August of 2017, Dr. Wilson and her organization, Black in Tech Nashville, brought Nashville’s first Tech Inclusion Forum, hosted at Belmont University. Among the contributors to the event were key Connected Nashville thought partners like the Nashville Technology Council, Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce, where Dr. Perez (taskforce co-founder) is the Vice President of Educational Initiatives, and Vanderbilt University, where Dr. Hasina Mohyuddin (Principal Investigator for the Nashville Digital Inclusion Needs Assessment) is the Assistant Dean of Equity, Diversity & Inclusion for Peabody College.
Nearly two years of work went into the resulting document, Connected Nashville: A Vision for a Smarter City, published in October 2017. This initiative laid a foundation for the collaborative relationships that exist within the Digital Inclusion and Access Taskforce today.
About the Nashville Digital Inclusion Needs Assessment
The Nashville Digital Inclusion Needs Assessment is one result of strategies set forth in Connected Nashville, Metro’s multi-year smart city plan, published in 2016.
With its first execution during the spring and summer of 2021, the Nashville Digital Needs Assessment is a countywide resident survey to better understand the needs and resources available in different communities across Davidson County, and to determine which needs are not being met because of the digital divide. The study addresses seven major facets of digital inclusion: awareness, access, adoption, ability, accessibility, affordability, and application.
The study is conducted through a partnership between the Digital Inclusion and Access Taskforce, organized and led by Dr. Fallon Wilson (#BlackTechFutures Research Institute) and Dr. Samantha Perez (Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce), The Equity Group Community and Public Relations Firm, and Vanderbilt Peabody College. The first iteration of the study was generously funded by Frist Foundation, Google Fiber and Nashville Public Education Foundation. The work of the taskforce is guided by an advisory group made up of local leaders from various sectors.
- Pearl Amanfu, Metro ITS
- Jurnell Cockhren, Civic Hacker
- Katie Cour, Nashville Public Education Foundation
- Alex Curtis, Greater Nashville Technology Council
- Keith Durbin, Metro ITS
- Kaki Friskics-Warren, The Maddox Fund
- Melissa Jaggers, Alignment Nashville
- Dr. Hasina Mohyuddin, Peabody College
- Tom Ward, Metro Nashville Public Schools
Impetus for the 2021 Study
In 2020, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, Metro Government and local agencies came together to develop solutions for remote learning to support Metro Nashville Public School (MNPS) students. Utilizing funds received through the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) act, Metro Government was successful in distributing laptop devices and hotspots to school students to address the emergency requirement of online learning. Yet, there remained a need for the community to come together to support MNPS families, and our city as a whole, in equitably addressing other areas of need to support sustained success in a remote world.
Dr. Wilson and Dr. Perez were both familiar with and involved in work to build equity and inclusion in digital spaces. Each of them found themselves on multiples committees focused on addressing the immediate and expanding local needs around digital inclusion.
Through a series of conversations and engagement, together they assembled an advisory group of local leaders from multiple sectors to discuss ways to provide the kind of surrounding support that, in addition to devices and immediate connectivity, ensures long-term digital equity: technical skills and digital literacy education, culturally competent trainers, culturally relevant resources, available, reliable and affordable broadband, and effective public communication to build awareness of the types of resources available.
As a starting place, the group sought out the single most important element to successful planning: Information. To make recommendations to successfully address the specific needs of Nashville and Davidson County, the group engaged researchers at Vanderbilt Peabody College to develop a countywide digital needs assessment in the form of a survey distributed by mail, telephone, email and live field team, translated into Spanish, Somali, Burmese, Kurdish-Behdini, Arabic and Vietnamese in addition to English. The survey was executed from April to June of 2021, with results published on Nashville.gov and Nashville Open Data on July 1, 2021.
View the survey response data on the Nashville Open Data Portal