Seniors ready to learn (photo: John McCarten/City Council)
When the COVID-19 pandemic struck and forced a lockdown of physical access to many government agencies and services, it highlighted New York City’s stark digital divide. Some of the city’s most vulnerable people lacked access to high-speed internet connection or the knowledge and training to use them. Now, a City Council bill expected to pass on Thursday aims to address that gap for the city’s rapidly growing older adult population.
Intro. 665, sponsored by Council Member Jennifer Gutiérrez, a Brooklyn Democrat who chairs the Council’s Committee on Technology, will require the Department for the Aging (DFTA) and the city’s Office of Technology and Innovation (OTI) to create an online digital literacy program for older adults aged 65 and above, who make up just over 15% of the city’s population.
The program would address issues such as accessing and navigating city telehealth services; navigating online platforms and websites, including social media, that provide lessons in technology; navigating the city’s websites and mobile applications that offer access to city benefits and older adult services; and training in spotting online scams, among other topics.
Under the bill, the program would be provided in person or through live interactive video instruction in at least one library or senior center in each of the city’s 59 community districts. It would be evaluated and updated every three years and offered in the city’s most prevalent languages
“Access to technology played a pivotal role during the pandemic, whether it was ensuring people could receive vital social services, or enabling families to stay connected,” Gutiérrez said in a statement. “It is not enough to simply hook someone up to the internet and consider our work done - true access means providing people with the necessary devices and empowering them with digital literacy to safely harness the full potential of this connection to the world.”
In 2020, then-Mayor Bill de Blasio launched an Internet Master Plan that aimed to tackle the digital divide by building out municipal broadband infrastructure across the city with a $157 million investment of capital funds. But Mayor Eric Adams quietly abandoned that plan, as Gothamist first reported, even as he evangelized about using technology to improve city government, consolidated the city’s various technology agencies into the new OTI, and launched a website that is meant to centralize access to city benefits and services.
Adams has, however, taken other steps on digital access including by launching Big Apple Connect in September 2022, a program where the city partners with private internet providers to give public housing residents free high-speed internet access and cable. In December, the administration also collaborated with DFTA to launch the Queens Gigabit Center at the Allen Senior Center, where older adults get access to digital literacy trainings. The Brooklyn Gigabit Center which launched in March at Digital Girl also provides similar programs.
At a January 12 City Council hearing on the older-adult digital literacy bill, OTI officials also testified that they are also already overseeing the Connected Communities initiative that provides digital literacy programs and free internet access through other city agencies and public institutions at 100 sites across the city.
“With respect to the older adult population, OTI recognizes that older adults need particular support to engage with the benefits of digital life,” said Brett Sikoff, OTI’s executive director of Franchise Administration, at the hearing. “We believe that digital literacy programming, when paired with devices and access, combat social isolation and mobility barriers, provide basic skills for staying safe online, and helps maintain civic engagement.”
However, he said that Gutiérrez’s bill would require OTI “to more directly administer digital literacy training for seniors in a singular program with broadly defined parameters.” Instead, he said OTI’s “best function is to leverage digital literacy practitioners and expertise, rather than either staff these programs with in-house personnel, or set limitations on the curriculum practiced by the City’s partners. We worry this bill could inadvertently compromise the incredible work already underway.”
The bill has since been revised and requires DFTA to administer the program in collaboration with OTI, rather than OTI taking the lead. “We wholeheartedly support digital literacy – particularly for older adults – and are committed to continuing to collaborate with our partners at NYC Aging to ensure older New Yorkers are able to fully participate in our modern society,” OTI spokesperson Ray Legendre said in a Wednesday statement.
DFTA welcomed passage of the bill. “The pandemic underscored the importance of technology for older adults to stay socially connected and receive the services they needed to stay in touch with family and friends, and service providers,” said DFTA Commissioner Lorraine Cortés-Vázquez, in a statement to Gotham Gazette.
She noted that the administration has taken measures to spread awareness of the federal Affordable Connectivity Program, which helps reduce broadband costs, and that DFTA’s older adult centers provide digital literacy classes and training to its members. “This bill will formalize and expand these efforts, and the Department for the Aging looks forward to working with our colleagues in government and community partners to ensure we are giving even more older New Yorkers the skills they need to age in place,” she said.
The bill is set to pass the Council's technology committee then the full Council on Thursday. It would then be up to the mayor to sign it into law or veto it.
by Samar Khurshid, senior reporter, Gotham Gazette