3 Characteristics of Transformative Technology in Underserved Communities

3 Characteristics of Transformative Technology in Underserved Communities


A few weeks back, I was attending community event here in the Bay. As often happens at gatherings here in the Bay, there was a distinct mix of nonprofit workers, educators, organizers, technology entrepreneurs and “wantrepeneurs.” And as often happens, someone asked me what I do.

Me: ZeroDivide works with government agencies, anchor institutions, community-based organizations and businesses to help underserved communities realize the transformative power of technology to improve economic opportunities, increase civic engagement and enhance health and well-being…

An Educator: Transformative…? [Editor's note: If ever you had any doubt, watch. this. video.]

An Entrepreneur (interrupting): But isn’t it the case that technology is transformative for everybody nowadays? What makes you think your work different from any other technology-driven business out there?  

An Entrepreneur (interrupting himself): I mean, what would you say are the three major characteristics of “transformative” technology in these communities where you work?

Me: Just three, huh? Well…

1) It disrupts the constraints of place as a barrier to opportunity.

Where you live is a proxy for opportunity. If you know a person’s address, the data algorithms can now tell how long that person will live, the access they will have to a high-quality education and whether they are likely to be connected to viable job networks and employment.

Nowhere are these place-specific inequities in health, education and employment outcomes more starkly evident than in the under-resourced urban core and rural locations where boys and young men of color live.  

We have found and continue to find that technology access can disrupt  “place” as a predictor of life outcomes when coupled with efforts designed to amplify voices, connect local and distant communities, expand learning and access networks and leverage opportunities for systemic change.

What if one’s access to digital technologies, connectivity and innovation was part of the algorithmic equation? What would success look from place to place

2) It alters the trajectory of individuals’, families’ and communities’ health, education and economic outcomes. 

Think about a young person who by way of a broadband connection is not only able to take an online course in robotics, but find a mentor and tap into sector knowledge networks.

Think about how much more prepared that young person is to pursue education and job opportunities after high school.

And what about a parent who is able to locate health insurance and service for the family through a broadband-connected device, which is also used to manage family health records, monitor chronic conditions and make proactive decisions about the family’s health and well-being.     

3) It enables expanded paths to cultural and civic participation.

What do you think happens when folks are not only given access to broadband connections, but to digital media production and distribution technologies?

When they are not only simply consumers of media but become media creators?

They tell stories. Their stories.

They begin to author and message their own futures by preserving their past, documenting the present and anticipating what needs to happen next.

They turn cameras, mics and connected devices into mobile research labs and surface issues not well understood or known to conventional media but critical to the sustainability of the communities in which they live. The creation and/or enhancement of information ecosystems, hyper-local and often simultaneously connected to others at great distances, create distinct opportunities for learning and exchange.

The Entrepreneur: OK. OK. I get it, broadband plus authentic user experience and voice equals expanded opportunities for health, education, culture and civic participation. But how does ZD really know this works? I can call it ZD, right?

Me: We prefer ZeroDivide (see ZeroDivide: The Origin Story, Volume 1, Issue 15).  About three years ago, ZeroDivide had a hunch, well actually it was more than a hunch (see ZeroDivide: The Prequel, Volume 1, Issues 1- 14), that broadband connectivity was only part of the picture. As it turns out, the NTIA/Broadband Technology Opportunity Grant program (BTOP) offered a chance for discovery. What if broadband literacy, access and adoption were catalysts for realizing greater social outcomes in isolated and vulnerable communities?  What if beyond increasing broadband internet usage and adoption in communities where broadband technology had been traditionally underutilized, we could demonstrate that broadband integration has the potential to truly transform people’s everyday lives and whole communities?

ZeroDivide chose to focus its BTOP work in communities where anchor institutions and community-based organizations saw the potential of young people as gateways to greater broadband adoption and, ultimately, community transformation. Much of this work took place in what we term “the third space”: organizations in community environments, not at home or in school, that foster authentic voice, engagement and action. As we approach the end of this grant cycle, ZeroDivide underwent an evaluation of technical assistance to these organizations in an effort to go beyond the numbers and determine the impact of our work. To learn how our BTOP program transformed these organizations, their program participants and their wider communities, stay tuned.

Coming Soon in the Next Issue: The BTOP Discovery Years, Volume 2, Issue 16….[Editor's note: Or, our report on our evaluation findings from our BTOP work. Watch for it next week.]