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CLOSING THE DIGITAL DIVIDE & INCREASING DIGITAL INCLUSION

The news headlines indicate the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) has the fastest growing number of technology-related jobs, and it is also a region with the largest increase in technology-job related incomes. At the same time, Toronto, like many other cities, is a city with increasing divisions. One of these divisions is the digital divide. As Toronto and other cities accelerate investments and allocation of resources towards becoming a “Smart City”, we need to ensure that resources are allocated in a way that the digital divide is closed rather than widened.



The first layer of the digital divide that needs to be addressed is access to computers. Students cannot do homework on phones, funding constrained libraries do not provide sufficient hours and computing resources, and a growing number of government services require computer access. Closing the digital divide requires each individual or household to have their own personal computing device, whether it’s a desktop, laptop, or a tablet. There are a number of small organizations addressing the issue of computer access in the GTA, and this proposal describes the model for Free Geek, which has been replicated across different cities including Toronto.



One of the main focuses of the Free Geek model is to reuse unwanted technology to promote greater adoption and application of technology in communities that generally experience barriers to use. Reusing technology also reduces the waste that ends up in landfills and provides Right To Repair training opportunities for those who want to learn more about the opportunities of a Circular Economy. As the number of technology-related organizations and jobs grow in the GTA, there will be a high volume of used items available. These are valuable resources that should be directed towards reuse-first organizations addressing digital inclusion, rather than simply being passed through standard e-waste recycling.



Training is key to the success of this model, as the adoption of technology and finding suitable applications for communities is proportionate to adequate learning opportunities. Free Geek’s model does not need to rely on established industry patterns of using/installing proprietary software as the standard. Refurbished technology is a prime candidate for using Free and Open Source Software (FOSS), such as a Linux/GNU operating system. Using FOSS further reduces the potential costs and helps extend the life of computers. Considering that there is a strong correlation between income and digital inequality, effort needs to be undertaken to ensure the lifetime cost of owning personal computers is as low as possible, and the individuals that own them are as self-sufficient in computer use as possible. Self-sufficiency includes reducing knowledge barriers around using FOSS for daily tasks, access to low cost replacement hardware and technical support services to troubleshoot issues that arise.



In summary, there is a need to replicate working models of organizations like Free Geek in closing the digital divide through the refurbishment of computers and reduction of e-waste, providing no and low cost personal computers to those in need, and providing Right To Repair training to interested individuals. All citizens, regardless of income, that have at least a minimum level of access to computers will be able to contribute to and benefit from a growing digital society.