Population Health

May 11, 2021

Exploring physically distant technology access and assistance to support a changing economy

Image of woman working on a laptop outsideThe COVID-19 pandemic triggered not only massive job losses, but also displaced many workers whose occupations are incompatible with the changing times. Among those impacted, people of color, younger laborers, those with lower levels of education and low-wage laborers are disproportionately affected by the rise of this new economy.

As safety restrictions lessen and businesses look to reopen, some employees may return to work, while many others will be displaced. As a result, many workers will need to retrain for new careers.

Studies show that living wage jobs increasingly require digital skills. Still, many of the individuals recently unemployed are less likely to have the digital literacy necessary to access these career options. In addition, many jobs have shifted to remote platforms, meaning that those who lack access to technology are excluded from these opportunities entirely.

To address some of the challenges job seekers face, the City of Seattle, the Seattle Jobs Initiative (SJI), and researchers from the Technology and Social Change Group (TASCHA) at the University of Washington Information School have collaborated to pilot a small-scale program, Digital Bride. This program will provide job seekers with digital technology and remote support to develop digital skills and prepare for new careers.

The development of this program is informed by the work of researchers Chris Jowaisas, senior research scientist at TASCHA, and Stacey Wedlake, TASCHA research scientist.

Through a qualitative inquiry into pilot participants’ technology access and support needs, the researchers strive to explore how remote technology access and support aids unemployed workers build skills for a changing economy.

The project builds upon a preexisting collaboration between the UW Information School and SJI, and the researchers were supported through a Population Health Initiative COVID-19 economic recovery pilot grant.

“In the last few years, I have been working with the Seattle Jobs Initiative on a project looking at digital skill assessment,” Wedlake said. “When I saw the Population Health Initiative [funding] call, I immediately thought about that relationship and reached out to propose this project to complement the planned [pilot program].”

The support from the Population Health Initiative assisted the researchers’ project to increase the number of study participants, allowing the researchers to distribute more devices and compensate participants.

“These people are in an incredibly stressful situation already, having lost a job and trying to make that adaptation,” Jowaisas said. “It’s nice to be able to be able to provide participants some compensation for their time.”

The funds also enabled the researchers to hire Ph.D. student, Yvette Iribe Ramirez, to assist with the qualitative inquiry into participants’ technology access and support needs.

To first identify participants for the pilot program, Seattle-King County’s WorkSource operator was used to identify low-income clients who required more intensive employment and training resources.

The researchers then equipped participants with a computer, Internet and phone-based technical support.

“To some degree, it’s easy to get support for tangible objects like a laptop or hotspots,” Jowaisas said. “But if you look at digital inclusion work broadly, access is the first step, but to really leverage that, you need [to build] some connection for people to feel comfortable to ask questions.”

To provide this support, the researchers fostered connections with the Seattle Public Library, WorkSource and other collaborative partners to provide participants access to one-on-one digital literacy training and employment assistance.

“The role of public libraries in digital equity and digital inclusion activities is important,” Jowaisas said. “[Libraries] are often one of the few places in many communities where people can have access, both to technology but also to staff, which helps support them in leveraging and utilizing that technology fully.”

The researchers then looked to examine how participants’ employment and technology learning goals have changed since the onset of the pandemic, as well as determined the types of support new device owners require to utilize technology for employment opportunities.

The researchers will collect participants’ daily experiences using technology and accessing remote technical support through audio diaries and remote interviews to assemble this information.

“I have a big interest in digital inequities and thinking about what digital equity means and how to get there in communities,” Wedlake said. “I was really excited to be able to talk directly with people who were receiving technology.”

The data collected and findings will inform the future distribution of devices and support services through the Digital Bridge program. The researchers have also shared updates on their work through a series of blog posts on the TASCHA website.

Through the researchers’ thorough analysis, the City of Seattle aims to develop the Digital Bridge program into a scalable approach to equip workers with the skills necessary for living-wage careers.

“The pandemic has amplified digital inequity,” Wedlake said. “Technology is only a slice of reaching social and economic equity, but it’s a support that people need.”

Additional investigators involved in the project include Matthew Houghton, workplace development advisor of the office of economic development of the City of Seattle; Meghan Sebold, inclusive creative industries policy advisor of the Office of Economic Development of the City of Seattle; David Keyes, digital equity program manager of the Information Technology Department of the City of Seattle; and Ryan Davis, executive director of the Seattle Jobs Initiative.