“The goal is to come up with really good projects that address the digital divide in Essex County,” said Stephanie Guyotte, Associate Director of Innovation Hub Haverhill. “It’s also to encourage entrepreneurship by giving people a platform to launch an idea and the resources to take it forward.”
She said proposed strategies could include initiatives to teach older people to use telehealth services, create new community Wi-Fi zones and provide digital devices for young children to do school work remotely.
The contest is open to everyone, including high school and college students. Applicants must submit their ideas by March 23. Up to 10 of them will be selected to present their proposals to a jury on April 27. The three or four selected winners will share $10,000 in prize money plus free mentorship and other support to implement their plans over 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 administered at iHub in Haverhill, which is part of Essex County, the foundation’s service region.
Following its report, the foundation joined forces with 140 partner organizations last June to launch a three-year digital equity initiative. The $2.5 million effort aims to connect 15,000 Essex County residents to free or affordable internet access, teach digital skills to 1,000 individuals and business owners, and provide 5,000 residents from the county of reliable devices.
Guyotte, who is part of the larger initiative, contacted the foundation last year to suggest the challenge, and the organization quickly embraced the idea. The foundation funds the $10,000 prize and other competition expenses.
“We are always looking for solutions that come from the communities,” said Kate Machet, director of strategic initiatives for the foundation. “We hope this competition will inspire entrepreneurial collaboration to solve all these problems.”
Although the lack of access to digital technology is often seen as a rural problem, the foundation’s report – developed with Tufts University – showed that the problem affects even congested cities, said Stratton Lloyd, vice- executive chairman of the foundation.
“Some rural areas don’t have access to it, but a lot of people here don’t have access to it,” he said, noting that many people can’t afford internet service or, especially in the case of the elderly, 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 “the cities that struggle 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 at the height of the pandemic, when some students “did not have a way to reliably access the internet to complete their classes at home. “.
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, are also partners in the challenge.
Access to digital technology and the skills to use it are “so essential to fulfilling your potential as an individual in society”, Lloyd said, noting that they are now essential for tasks ranging from application for housing seeking unemployment insurance. “Digital capability is no longer a privilege, it’s a right.”
For more information on the Digital Equity Challenge, visit uml.edu/digitalequity.
John Laidler can be reached at [email protected].