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“Not everyone in our city is equally digitally literate:” Pittsfield hears update on tech equity study

Pittsfield, Massachusetts city hall.
Josh Landes
Pittsfield, Massachusetts city hall.

The Pittsfield, Massachusetts city council received an update on a digital equity study underway in the community during this week’s meeting.

Tuesday night, Chief Information Officer Kevin Zawistowski told the body that it’s critical to examine digital equity disparities in Pittsfield.

“It goes without saying that everything we do has a digital or a technological component to it, and we need to make sure that as a city and a community, everybody has equitable access to that, whether it's paying your water bill, telehealth, paying your parking ticket if you need to do that,” he said.

Zawistowski said that the city had received a grant from the Massachusetts Broadband Institute with the help of the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission.

“They're helping us to identify the barriers that are within our community limiting folks that have access to technology," he told the council. "Now this a big part of this conversation is broadband, and speed and that, but it's not just broadband. We want to know what the barriers are to each community member- Is it security? Is it trust? Is it speed? Is it affordability?”

“This work is actually happening countywide," said Wylie Goodman. "BRPC is the chosen consultant to work with 14 communities throughout the county and Pittsfield is our first.”

Goodman is the senior economic development planner for the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission.

“There's money through the federal government through the BEAD Act, the Broadband Expansion Deployment Program, as well as the Federal Digital Equity Act, which again, is intended to meet the needs of eight what they call covered populations," she continued. "So that's often seniors, veterans, people with disabilities, rural residents, low-income folks, and people who are incarcerated, as well as BIPOC communities, Black, indigenous, people of color, and English language learners.”

Goodman says part of the research involved collecting handwritten survey responses from community members who attend the Tuesday night food pantry just across the street from city hall at the United Methodist Church.

“Not everyone in our city is equally digitally literate," she told the council. "And we know that there are folks in our community who are homeless, who don't have regular access to the internet, who are going into our library to access the internet for the resources they need. We've heard really powerful stories going over there about people who had court dates, or who were having issues with the landlord or again, were trying to apply for food stamps, and weren't able to because they didn't have the devices, the internet access, or the skills.”

The study includes the creation of maps that capture who is and isn’t plugged in to the internet within Pittsfield and why.

“This is households without internet access- Again, you can see there's a higher percentage in some of our downtown locations, also part of Ward 2, I guess, and 2B," said Goodman. "And again, there are different reasons why people do or don't have internet again. We talked to seniors, sometimes at Ralph Froio [Senior Center], who will say things like, I don't need the internet, I never get on it, my kids help me. And then we talked to other people who say, well, I'd like to have the internet but it's too expensive.”

Goodman says there are transformative funding opportunities to rectify the digital divide in Pittsfield.

“One of the grants that the city is potentially pursuing is one that would actually provide free internet in all Pittsfield Housing Authority buildings, so that folks in those buildings do not have to pay on their own individually for internet service," she said. "It would actually wire up an entire building to provide that for free for residents.”

Goodman plugged an upcoming digital resource fair at the Berkshire Athenaeum October 20th and 21st.

“We are getting some great organizations- Tech Goes Home out of Boston, Berkshires CanCode Communities out of Albany that's been really working to have a presence here in Berkshire County, the DA’s office to talk about security and being safe online, UCP, a cerebral palsy organization, to talk about resources for people with disabilities,” she said.

An official report on Pittsfield and the BRPC’s digital equity study is expected to be delivered in early 2024.

Josh Landes has been WAMC's Berkshire Bureau Chief since February 2018, following stints at WBGO Newark and WFMU East Orange. A passionate advocate for Western Massachusetts, Landes was raised in Pittsfield and attended Hampshire College in Amherst, receiving his bachelor's in Ethnomusicology and Radio Production. His free time is spent with his cat Harry, experimental electronic music, and exploring the woods.
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