By Ed Brennen
Many people take access to a computer and broadband internet connection for granted — like running water and electricity.
But in Massachusetts’ Essex County, which includes the neighboring cities of Haverhill, Lawrence and Methuen, one in five households — about 160,000 people — lacks a basic computer and fixed broadband connection, according to a recent study by the Essex County Community Foundation (ECCF).
The consequences of this digital divide were exposed during the pandemic, when students of all ages had to abruptly shift to remote online learning.
To help address the problem, UMass Lowell’s Innovation Hub in Haverhill recently hosted the “Digital Equity Challenge,” where entrepreneurs and nonprofits pitched their ideas and projects for increasing digital access and literacy in Essex County’s 34 cities and towns — and vied for $10,000 in prize money.
The event was co-sponsored by ECCF and Pentucket Bank, with support from the Rist DifferenceMaker Institute and EforAll Merrimack Valley. UML alumna Sophan Smith ’02, executive director of EforAll, was the moderator.
U.S. Sen. Edward Markey, who last year secured more than $65 million for Massachusetts schools and libraries to provide students with devices and internet access as part of the $7 billion federal Emergency Connectivity Fund, praised UML and ECCF for “shining a spotlight” on the issue.
“The pandemic has highlighted more than ever how essential broadband is to the future of American education, jobs and medical care,” Markey said in a recorded video message. He added that broadband is “simply unaffordable” for too many lower-income households, which disproportionately include Black, brown, immigrant, rural and other vulnerable communities.
“These disadvantaged populations are being denied the equalizing opportunity of broadband service in the 21st century, and that is a national tragedy,” Markey said.
From an initial field of 15 applicants, six teams pitched their ideas to a panel of judges that included alumna Rajia Abdelaziz ’16, CEO of invisaWear Technologies; Josh Biren, director of innovation and special projects at WinnCompanies; Beth Francis, president and CEO of ECCF; and Marvin Venay, chief advocacy officer at Tech Goes Home.
MakeIT Haverhill, a nonprofit dedicated to workforce development, won the $5,000 first prize for its Affordable Internet Access Program. As volunteer Tim Haynes, who leads the organization’s digital literacy and equity programs, explained in his five-minute pitch, the program aims to hire a digital ambassador to educate community members. It also seeks to create a public WiFi hotspot outside the organization’s Haverhill headquarters.
“It was great to be involved with the event and spread the word about the work we’re doing,” said Haynes, an industrial technology advisor who began lending his expertise to MakeIT Haverhill last year. “There isn’t a lot required to create big results, and that’s really meaningful.”
Aaron’s Presents, a nonprofit focused on mentoring, received a second-place prize of $3,000 for its initiative to teach Microsoft Excel to teens.
The third-place prize of $1,000 went to the city of Lynn for its intergenerational program to teach technology skills to seniors. Haverhill Public Schools won the $1,000 Fan Favorite award for its program to promote healthy social media use among students.
Mechanical engineering alum Jonathan Aguilar ’21, project manager for CADSPARC, a 3D printing startup based at the Haverhill iHub, pitched his company’s student internship program.
Stephanie Guyotte, associate director of the Haverhill iHub, says the idea for the challenge came about last fall through the university’s participation in the Digital Equity Coalition. Launched last summer, the coalition includes more than 100 business leaders, educators, legislators, community organizers and residents.
Given UML’s expertise with entrepreneurship through the DifferenceMaker program and the iHubs, Guyotte said hosting a pitch contest to develop creative solutions was a “natural fit.”
“We saw a variety of innovative ideas that addressed the problem in different ways and introduced new opportunities for people to get involved with programs,” she said.
With the ECCF making a three-year, $2.5 million commitment to advance digital equity in Essex County — where so many UML students come from — Guyotte said she hopes the iHub can host the challenge again next year.