By Rachel Marie Stachelrodt, Communications and Advocacy at the University of Pittsburgh
COVID-19 exacerbated the Pittsburgh region’s digital divide yet increased expectations that our neighbors are comfortable in this new digital environment. While virtual engagement provides a viable alternative to traditional education, social support services, and employment for many in the face of the pandemic, those without ready digital access are at risk of being left further behind. The University of Pittsburgh has intensified its efforts to help close the divide through an array of digital equity strategies.
Following the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania’s Stay At Home order, Pitt joined a coalition of regional organizations in—Beyond The Laptops— an initiative providing computing devices to local families. Pitt gave 599 laptops to scale a mass computer refurbishment effort and donated funds, alongside regional partners, totaling $150,000 to the effort. So far, the initiative has raised over $370,000 and delivered 1,600+ devices to qualifying families throughout the region.
Pitt is conducting two ongoing research projects funded by the National Science Foundation, seeking to realize digital equity for Allegheny County residents. The first, led by Dr. Rosta Farzan, explores why and how Pittsburgh-adjacent communities navigate the demands of our virtual landscape by identifying common barriers to digital inclusion, then developing community-centered solutions to those barriers. The second, led by Dr. Kostas Pelechrinis, investigates how households without internet access prior to the pandemic acquired it, as well as which hurdles arose in the process, and how institutions like universities and libraries can bring long-term connectivity to disconnected regional residents.
Dr. Pelechrinis’ research supports the PittMesh community wireless network in conjunction with nonprofit Meta Mesh Wireless Communities–the leader of Every1Online – a project delivering broadband Wi-Fi access to Pittsburgh-adjacent communities “by building community wireless networks” via super node emitting radio signals from atop Pitt’s Cathedral of Learning. These signals then connect to “repeater towers” located throughout various neighborhoods, delivering Wi-Fi access to approximately 450 households in the region.
In leveraging its full array of engagement assets ranging from technical assistance, fundraising, research, to coalition building, and investing in workforce development, the University of Pittsburgh is working to bridge the digital divide from all angles, seeking not only to close them, but to build lasting equitable spaces in its stead.
The University of Pittsburgh continues to realize this vision by embracing opportunities for multidisciplinary collaboration in deference to the wealth of experience, resources, and knowledge present in our regional communities and organizations– remembering that through intentional, sustained effort and thorough critical examinations of access, power, and privilege dynamics, universities like Pitt are empowered to deliver ongoing meaningful support to community members across their respective regions.