By Marie Conley Smith, Social Science Research Professional, Stanford Center on Longevity
Access to the internet and internet-compatible devices is widespread but still not universal. As Susan Nash, Consulting Research Scholar at the Stanford Center on Longevity, noted, the digital divide – the gap between those who have access to these resources and those who don’t – was exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, worsening particularly for older adults when looking at the US population. When we look globally, we see even more examples of people being affected differently depending on factors such as their age, geographic location, and economic status.
The 2021 Stanford Center on Longevity Design Challenge asked students around the world to design solutions that would help people live long and healthy lives in the post-pandemic future. Most innovation centered on how to solve digital inclusion problems worsened by the pandemic. With 223 entries from 37 countries across 5 continents, the Challenge cast a wide net and highlighted the diverse ways in which life was affected.
As people of all ages around the world sheltered in place, virtual connection became a necessity. Those who didn’t have easy access to the internet or who lacked knowledge and comfort using it couldn’t attend school remotely, work from their homes if their jobs allowed it, or stay in touch with family and friends.
Separated virtually as well as physically, millions of people were at a disadvantage and suffered. According to Pew Research,1 about a quarter of Americans don’t have broadband internet access at home. This number is worse for older adults, Black and Hispanic Americans, and people with lower incomes and education levels.
Yet the pandemic also spurred technology innovation and efforts to lessen the digital divide. In many cases, as was the case in the Longevity Design Challenge, new products and services were created by people who were grappling to solve connectivity and other problems they experienced themselves during the pandemic.
Increasing Access to Science Education
John Onuigbo and Kyrian Obikwelu, undergraduate students at Chukwuemeka Odumegwu Ojukwu University and Federal University of Technology, Owerri, respectively, both in Nigeria, saw that science education was particularly hard hit by the pandemic. When schools closed, there was no at-home substitute for the practical experiments that happen in a science lab. Nigeria has some of the highest internet costs in the world and poor connectivity in the majority of the country, and most of the virtual EdTech solutions that schools were pivoting to during the pandemic were inaccessible to most students there.
Onuigbo and Obikwelu decided to address both issues by creating a virtual laboratory program for high school students, called “Foris Labs.” It allows students to carry out science experiments and is available to use offline. Onuigbo stressed that the COVID-19 pandemic and our efforts to overcome it highlight the necessity of quality science education for students today so that they will be equipped to tackle future public health crises.
Transforming Smartphones into PCs
At the Metropolitan State University of Denver in the US, Dominique Hunt was working at his school’s IT Service Desk at the onset of the pandemic. When on-campus resources shut down, many students were left without access to a laptop or desktop computer. The requests for loaner laptops soon exceeded the school’s supply. However, Hunt noticed that while many students didn’t have access to a personal computer, the majority owned a smartphone. This inspired Hunt to design a 3D-printed device that turns a smartphone into a laptop-like experience.
Imagine a laptop with no computing power of its own but which runs off of your smartphone that is plugged in where the trackpad would normally be. It has a screen and a keyboard (with a rechargeable battery) – and the plugged-in smartphone now acts as the trackpad. The “PhoneBook” is intended to be inexpensive and reduces the need for multiple computing devices. Hunt envisions this solution will be useful outside of the US as well, such as in his home country of Kenya, where wireless connectivity is widely available and many people have smartphones.
Closing the Knowledge and Comfort Gap
Family experiences during the pandemic inspired a team of grad students from the Kellogg School of Management in Evanston, Illinois to address the digital divide. Ferrona Lie, a Kellogg student and co-founder and CEO of a venture called Near, was worried about her mother’s health in Indonesia, which is about 10,000 miles away from Evanston and difficult to travel to even in non-COVID times. Lie wanted to find technology that her mom would be comfortable using so that she could help her track her health. Co-founder and CSO Andrew Mueller, meanwhile, found himself unable to visit his grandmother in-person in her assisted living facility, and both his grandmother and the facility staff were uncomfortable using most communication technology devices.
Lie, Mueller, and their team of fellow students launched Near to offer consulting about which existing technologies best fit a family’s needs as well as coaching on setting up and using the devices. Their aim is to help people, especially older adults, gain the comfort and skills to use the technology available to them.
As these designs show, we need multi-pronged approach to close the digital divide. According to Christian Gonzalez-Rivera and Ruth Finkelstein, both of the Brookdale Center for Healthy Aging, there are three components that will allow someone to be able to connect with others and do necessary tasks virtually – or have “meaningful” access to the internet.2 These include: access to good connectivity, access to an internet-compatible device, and knowledge about and comfort with using the internet.
As we emerge out of the pandemic, we won’t be reducing our reliance on technology. “Furthering innovations that increase global access by leveraging digital connectivity is crucial in making sure every person has the chance to live a long and healthy life,” said Alan Goldstein, Managing Director at Procter & Gamble Ventures and a Longevity Design Challenge judge. “The solutions that the student designers developed have the potential to have meaningful global impact well beyond the pandemic.”