Volunteers narrow digital divide in Saint John's priority communities

·4 min read
Data from a survey conducted in five community centres in Saint John found 31 per cent of respondents lacked internet access at home and 30 per cent don't have a computer  (AdvertisingGroup/Shutterstock - image credit)
Data from a survey conducted in five community centres in Saint John found 31 per cent of respondents lacked internet access at home and 30 per cent don't have a computer (AdvertisingGroup/Shutterstock - image credit)

Volunteers are using their technical skills to narrow the digital divide in Saint John's low income neighbourhoods.

The project is being led by Civic Tech Saint John, the local branch of a national volunteer movement.

The group engages people who work in or study technology "to come together and see how we can help address challenges in the community," said John Wong, a co-founder of Civic Tech Saint John.

Data from a survey conducted in five community centres found 31 per cent of respondents lacked internet access at home and 30 per cent don't have a computer.

Lane Harrison/CBC
Lane Harrison/CBC

The priority neighbourhoods of Crescent Valley, lower west side, old north end, south end and Waterloo Village were chosen for the survey. A neighbourhood is given priority status if it has a poverty rate greater than 30 per cent, according to Randy Hatfield, the executive director of the Human Development Council, which is helping to fund the project.

Now that the survey is complete, he said the plan is to get to work on implementing solutions.

"We have a sense of the scope of the issue for certain populations. It's time to remediate this, it's time to address this,'" Hatfield said.

The survey was conducted in partnership with the Carleton Community Centre, the Crescent Valley Resource Centre, the Waterloo Village Neighbourhood Association, ONE Change Inc. and People United in the Lower South End (P.U.L.S.E) Inc.

Idea came from pandemic shifts

The survey was inspired by the shift to digital school and work during the pandemic.

Julia Wright / CBC
Julia Wright / CBC

Even after kids returned to their classrooms, the need for digital access didn't go away, said Mary LeSage, a community developer at People United in the Lower South End.

She said many of the people who visit the P.U.L.S.E centre on Wentworth Street do so to use the internet.

"I've had people come in applying for jobs. They can't do it, because they don't have the internet [at home]. So that is not going to go away. It's only going to become more of a problem," LeSage said.

Rob Morgan, a south end resident who was surveyed for the project, doesn't have a home computer. He visited the community centre recently to use one so he could apply online for a low income internet plan in order to access the web on his phone.

"It kind of sucks," the 62-year-old said about not having home internet.

Without it, he can't do things other people take for granted, like accessing his banking information or keeping up with family on social media.

"That's a big issue with me, talking to family," he said.

Refurbished computers ready for communities

Using the data collected during the survey, Civic Tech Saint John and community partners will begin to find solutions to address the digital divide.

Lane Harrison/CBC News
Lane Harrison/CBC News

One solution to help those without without computers is already in the works, according to Rob Moir, a member of Civic Tech and director of the Urban and Community Studies Institute at the University of New Brunswick.

He said they'll be taking advantage of the university's practice of upgrading faculty computers on a regular basis.

"[UNB] says, 'OK, you're on a cycle. This year, you're due for a new computer,' but my computer is not old. It's just hard for the institution to maintain it," he said.

As a result, volunteer students at the New Brunswick Community College are refurbishing some of those old computers, led by Ben McHarg, a Civic Tech Saint John co-founder and NBCC cybersecurity instructor.

With donations from UNB, he said they have about 20 to 25 computers ready to distribute.

"As, you know, the fall starts up, we'll be using the data from [the Civic Tech] survey to make sure we deploy PCs to the most needy places," McHarg said.

Contributed by Ben McHarg
Contributed by Ben McHarg

The group has been around in Saint John for several years, getting started not long before the pandemic hit. Civic Tech is now preparing to host its first in-person meeting since the pandemic began and will be launching a new website in the fall.

The volunteers mainly organize through a Facebook group. At their meetings, community members can come and pitch to those in attendance.

"You have people who have certain technical knowledge ...  who say, 'I totally understand what you're saying, I would love to help you with that,'" Wong said.