Attendees at the First Women in Tech Summit in Philadelphia. Photo credit: Nell Hoving.
For one action-packed week in late April, Philadelphia techies and non-techies brainstormed, programmed, blogged, and tweeted about tech access, entrepreneurship, and innovation. Philly Tech Week (PTW 2012) events ranged from the first ever Philadelphia Women in Tech Summit to an arm-wrestling tetris tournament.
This year, PTW 2012 organizers, Technically Philly, dedicated a whole track of events to the issues of technology access and media policy. Sponsored by the Knight Foundation and the BTOP-funded Philadelphia KEYSPOTS program, these events highlighted the stark digital divide that exists in Philadelphia and strategies for closing that gap.
Between 40 and 50 percent of Philadelphia residents do not have Internet access at home. To begin addressing this problem, KEYSPOTS provides free computer classes, web access and individual training to Philadelphia residents in more than 80 centers. During PTW 2012, KEYSPOTS partners hosted panels in the access track like, The Intersection of Print and Digital Literacy, Community Media and Technology: Tools for Social Change, and KEYSPOT: Solutions Session.
Andrew Buss from the City of Philadelphia’s Office of Innovation and Technology, one of the lead partners for KEYSPOTS, believes that this track was a key element of this year’s PTW:
“It was great to see an Access track added to Philly Tech Week and the nice variety of events associated with it. I think it’s easy to forget the significant part of the population that doesn’t have access to technology or know how to use it, so it’s really important to highlight that issue and the initiatives going on in Philadelphia that address it.”
As KEYSPOTS continues to establish itself as a critical program providing trainings and technology access to underserved Philadelphia residents, its partnership with Technically Philly is an essential step in bringing wider awareness and a broader audience to digital access issues.
Though Technically Philly is still tallying up the numbers from PTW 2012, the program certainly attracted a large audience. As many as 10,000 attendees participated in over 80 events in 50+ venues with 60+ organizations. In comparison to last year’s inaugural Philly Tech Week, which had over 4,000 attendees, there was nearly a 150 percent growth in the number of attendees in one year.
In addition to the growth in audience size, Brian James Kirk of Technically Philly noticed one more key difference. “The scale of the event was much larger this year and the quality of the content was much improved,” Kirk explained. “We've heard many reports about events selling out or attendees being waitlisted because: (1) more people saw this one coming; and (2) the events were just great.”
Kirk also observed that one of the most important aspects of PTW 2012 was a change in the dialogue. “The [access] conversation has become more in tune with populations in Philadelphia that may not be connected to this, but ought to be,” Kirk explained.
Despite this year’s emphasis on access issues, a knowledge gap remains between those who work in the business of tech and those who work in public and nonprofit sectors. At the Women in Tech Summit, the “Giving Back” panel focused on volunteering and mentoring efforts, without mentioning the technological divide facing Philadelphia residents. A few informal discussions throughout PTW 2012 with tech professionals and entrepreneurs revealed that they had not heard about nor considered the lack of broadband access for low income communities. On the other end of the spectrum, during one of the panels on digital literacy efforts in the city, nearly every hand went up when the hosts asked who knew about KEYSPOTS.
The conversation around digital divide needs to transcend the traditional nonprofit and government circles to truly address the problem of developing affordable communications infrastructure and meaningful technologies. As Philadelphia clamors to become “America’s next big tech town”, they cannot neglect the problem of tech access in their own backyard. PTW 2012 was a critical first step in bringing together industry and nonprofit partners to the same forum to start tackling this challenge.