One out of every five homes in Essex County lacks a basic computer, and 160,000 people live in homes without regular broadband Internet.
Spurred by those and other findings from a 2020 report by Essex County Community Foundation, the University of Massachusetts Lowell is teaming with the charitable organization to seek new strategies for expanding computer and Internet access and literacy.
Through the Digital Equity Challenge, the university’s Innovation Hub Haverhill and the foundation are inviting individuals and groups to submit creative ideas for advancing that goal in Essex County.
“The aim is to come up with some really great projects that address the digital divide in Essex County,” said Stephanie Guyotte, associate director of Innovation Hub Haverhill. “It is also to encourage entrepreneurship by giving people a platform to launch an idea and resources to move it forward.”
She said proposed strategies might include initiatives to teach seniors how to engage with telehealth services, create new community WiFi areas, and provide digital devices for young children to do their school work remotely.
The contest is open to all, including high school and college students. Applicants must submit their ideas by March 23. Up to 10 of them will be selected to pitch their proposals to a panel of judges on April 27. The three or four selected as winners will share in $10,000 in prize money along with free mentoring and other support to implement their plans in the summer and fall.
Innovation Hub is a business incubator and co-working space UMass Lowell operates on its Haverhill and Lowell campuses. The Digital Equity Challenge is being administered at the iHub in Haverhill, which is part of Essex County, the foundation’s service region.
In the wake of its report, the foundation last June joined with 140 partner organizations to launch a three-year digital equity initiative. The $2.5 million effort aims to connect 15,000 Essex County residents with free or affordable Internet access, teach digital skills to 1,000 individuals and business owners, and provide 5,000 county residents with reliable devices.
Guyotte, who is participating in the broader initiative, contacted the foundation last year to suggest the challenge, and the organization quickly embraced the idea. The foundation is funding the $10,000 prize money and other contest expenses.
“We’re always looking for solutions that come from the communities,” said Kate Machet, the foundation’s director of strategic initiatives. “We hope this contest inspires entrepreneurial collaboration to address all these issues.”
Though lack of access to digital technology is often seen as a rural issue, the foundation’s report — developed with Tufts University — showed the problem affects even congested cities, said Stratton Lloyd, the foundation’s executive vice president.
“Some rural areas have no access, but lots of folks here don’t have access,” he said, noting that many people cannot afford Internet service, or — particularly in the case of seniors — lack the skills to use computers or the Internet. Many also live in buildings where Internet service is limited or spotty.
The report found that “cities struggling the most with digital access tend to be the most economically disadvantaged, including Lawrence, Lynn, and Peabody.”
Guyotte said UMass Lowell witnessed digital inequity firsthand during the worst of the pandemic, when some students “didn’t have a way to reliably access the Internet to do their classes at home.”
Also partnering in the challenge is UMass Lowell’s Rist DifferenceMaker Institute, which trains and mentors students seeking solutions to social problems, and EforAll Lowell, which helps area residents start businesses.
Having access to digital technology and the skills to use it are “so critical to realizing your potential as an individual in society,” Lloyd said, noting that they are now essential for tasks ranging from applying for housing to seeking unemployment insurance. “Digital capacity is no longer a privilege, it’s a right.”
For more information on the Digital Equity Challenge, go to uml.edu/digitalequity.
John Laidler can be reached at email@example.com.