Creating empathy and awareness of those living in the Digital Divide

The first Digital Divide Simulation event on Nov. 9 at the Central branch of the Kansas City Public Library increased awareness for the socioeconomic setbacks faced by Kansas Citians living on the wrong side of the Digital Divide. Participants were asked to take on the persona of an individual to complete tasks for “one month” measured as four, 15-minute long, “weeks.” Tasks assigned to participants included enrolling their children in school, finding housing information online, and applying to government programs, such as the Affordable Connectivity Program.

Unless you’ve lived being disconnected personally, it’s difficult to truly understand. On November 9, 2023, KC Digital Drive hosted the organization’s first Digital Divide Simulation to help illustrate the barriers that the “digital divide” creates and instill empathy and understanding in participants for people affected by it every day. 

The Digital Divide Simulation is a “day in the life” interactive, immersive experience to heighten and expand individual awareness and the extent of the difficulties of an analog life in a digital world. The goal is to better appreciate what it’s like to live without home internet access, digital skills and a device. The National Digital Inclusion Alliance points out, “As technology constantly evolves, the digital divide prevents equal participation and opportunity in all parts of life, disproportionately affecting people of color, Indigenous peoples, households with low incomes, people with disabilities, people in rural areas, and older adults.”

Creating simulations to better empathize with others’ lived experience is not out of the ordinary. Based on her familiarity with the long-standing poverty simulation model that helps participants walk in the shoes of people who are financially struggling, Christal Watson, executive director of the Kansas City, Kansas School Foundation for Excellence, suggested to build on this concept to create a digital divide simulation to illustrate the impact of having access to technology (or not) affects others. 

To develop the simulation, KC Digital Drive reached out to the National Digital Inclusion Alliance listserv of hundreds of digital inclusion practitioners last year to see if anyone had done anything similar before. Several people offered resources, including Deb Socia from The Enterprise Center, who had done a mini-simulation at MozFest, where the inspiration for the persona cards came from, and Catherine Draper, who put on a Digital Exclusion Simulation as part of her AmeriCorps service in Provo, Utah, that was the backbone for creating our simulation here in Kansas City.

While inspired by the poverty simulation, instead of focusing on just the monetary barriers that people face in poverty, the emphasis was on the value of internet access, device access in the home, and the digital skills to use these devices. Participants, who came from the health sector, local media, federal government agencies, nonprofit organizations, libraries and local government, were given a unique persona with a series of tasks that needed to be completed in order and challenged to complete as many tasks as they could. 

The different factors between personas included: digital skill level, transportation option (car, bus dependent, etc.), home broadband access, home computer or smartphone dependent, language barriers, and more. There were eight tables set up around the room to represent agencies, institutions and organizations participants may need to visit to access resources. These included: the library, health center, employment office, school and utilities office as well as a “community organization” and workforce organization that offers digital skills classes. The agencies were staffed by KC Digital Drive team members as well as Ash Spears with Groundwork NRG and D’Mitri Farthing, Jr., with the Missouri Office of Broadband Development.

The exercise highlighted that personas with more resources available to them were able to complete their tasks more efficiently and effectively and have “free time” in their week that they could use to do a fun activity with friends or family or improve their circumstances, like completing an online class to gain additional skills and knowledge. Those with little to no resources often could only complete a few tasks with some unable to complete any in a week. 

Once the simulation was complete, there was a debrief discussion about thoughts and opinions about participants’ experiences from both the “agency” side and the individual side. The design of the simulation succeeded in evoking strong emotions in participants. Participants were frustrated, tired, lost, angry, and overall more empathetic towards people living within the digital divide. Inspired by their newfound understanding of the real impact that the digital divide has on real people, all participants joined in a breakout session to discuss potential solutions. 

To wrap up the event, participants gave their feedback via a post-survey that provided additional insights. Most said that they faced unexpected difficulties that they had not considered before, including “how much time is spent accessing basic needs without digital access.” One participant said that they had a “heightened awareness of a need for public service infrastructure and multi-lingual or translation services.” Also, this simulation can help create empathy in one another for folks who are on the wrong side of the digital divide, where we realize “the challenges to possible reasons for people missing appointments, to being late with bills.” 

Another participant had an epiphany after their simulation experience, describing the simulation–and, therefore, life in the digital divide–as “cascading challenges built on one another, while systems are designed without the user in mind, as well as raising artificial boundaries without any real cause.” Finally, participants realized their own role in this, explaining that there is a need for more partnerships and realizing their own agency’s role in either closing the digital divide or that they may be perpetuating the problem. 

Someone else wrote that “a collective response is needed to budge systems and individuals” to closing the digital divide. Overall, most of the participants said that they gained new insights or realizations from participating in the simulation, and all of the participants who gave feedback said that they would recommend that their friends or colleagues participate in a digital divide simulation. The local government participant now wants to host one of these events for city council members and other leaders in city hall, and representatives from a hospital and a local nonprofit organization indicated they would like to host a digital divide simulation for their teams.

Leslie Scott, our Digital Inclusion Program Manager at KC Digital Drive, helped to make this simulation a reality by identifying the many ways we take our access to technology for granted. Among the other KC Digital Drive staff members who worked tirelessly on this project were ACC AmeriCorps member Leah Henriksen, AmeriCorps VISTA Peter Smith, Director of Operations Kari Keefe, and Product Design Contractor Bree Walter. We would like to thank the rest of our staff and all the volunteers for taking their time to embody their agency’s personas to the best of their abilities, as well as the participants for participating in the simulation and providing their insights. Also, we thank the Central branch of the Kansas City Public Library for hosting this event. 

Where do we go from here? The digital divide will more than likely continue to be a reality for too many, even with unprecedented funding coming for internet access, devices and digital skills training through the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. We must continue to engage with those most affected to ensure effective solutions. In the meantime, look for a Digital Divide Simulation near you soon. 

 

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