Bridging the Digital Divide

Bridging the Digital Divide

Bridging the Digital Divide
November 19, 2014

“Teachers are scared to death sometimes that the kids know more than they do about technology,” said Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, on the need to prioritize professional development in New York City public schools—one of several measures she called for Tuesday morning at City & State’s On Tech event, which was dedicated to the tech outlook in New York State.

Interviewed by NY1’s Courtney Gross, Brewer suggested that New York should follow Chicago’s lead in adding computer science to its core curriculum, and highlighted the urgency of enhancing the “pipe”—fiber and broadband—coming into public schools, as well as the computer hardware available to the city’s students.

The borough president noted, however, that the speed of the procurement process must keep pace with that of technological innovation, and called on New York City Schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña to create a task force to oversee funds allocated from the Smart Schools Bond Act, the $2 billion ballot proposition approved by voters earlier this month.

The one-on-one interview with the Manhattan borough president was followed by a panel discussion, moderated by City & State’s Ashley Hupfl.

Despite its noted deficiency in city classrooms, advanced technology has already aided the de Blasio administration in implementing one of its signature education initiatives, according to Anne Roest, commissioner of the NYC Department of Information Technology & Telecommunications.

“Finding where the four-years-olds are, so we could do the outreach and get people enrolled, required data,” said Roest of the mayor’s universal pre-K program. That the process came together in such a short period of time, the commissioner added, “shows the maturity of the data community in the city.”

Roest also said that another high-profile de Blasio program, Vision Zero, was shaped in large part by the collection of data, in this case about car crashes and accidents.

On the state level, New York’s Chief Digital Officer Rachel Haot explained how big data played an essential role in the recent re-launch of

One of the main challenges, Haot said, was that “your experience of New York varies widely depending on if you are in a small town or a big city.”

The new website anonymously detects user location to provide personalized data sets, such as emergency alerts, road closures, job listings, career fairs, and local farmer markets.

Enhanced data collection, however, inevitably leads to privacy concerns, which New York City addresses by assigning each data set its own steward. The need to carefully vet data, however, can be at odds with public pressure for its release.

“It’s really important that we be given that latitude to sometimes take our time and get through the data,” said Roest.

Along with privacy concerns, the “digital divide”—or unequal access to broadband technology—was a focal point of the discussion.

Eric Gertler, executive vice president of the NYC Economic Development Corporation, hailed Mayor Bill de Blasio’s announcement this week of the city’s initiative to convert its 8,400 public pay phones into Wi-Fi hotspots as “a huge addition to wireless capabilities in the city.” Addressing both the “digital desert” and “digital divide,” he said, has been of “paramount importance to the mayor.”

“[Broadband connectivity] is up there with running water, with electricity, and with the highway system in terms of being a true modern utility,” said Rachel Haot. 

Gov. Cuomo has committed more than $500 million in his next term toward broadband deployment, according to Haot. Coupled with available federal grants, the state could invest as much as $1 billion toward narrowing the digital divide.

In New York City access to wireless Internet service—which 95 percent of New Yorkers have—is less of a problem than adoption, which between 60-70 percent of the population has done. However, in rural areas across the state—where the incentive for private investment in infrastructure is often lacking—government subsidies may be required to increase access.

“At one time, digital divide meant the difference between rich countries and poor countries,” said Dr. Katepalli Sreenivasan, dean of the NYU Polytechnic School of Engineering. “I now see it’s used in a very different context.”

Gabe Ponce de León