What Digital Navigators Can Do for Underserved Communities

Community-based digital navigators can play an important role in closing the “digital divide” between those with and without access to the internet. Digital navigators empower unprivileged people by helping them overcome practical problems such as finding an internet provider, getting online and making the most of access to the web.

A recent Boston Consulting Group survey of 1,500 people who worked with digital navigators found they experienced a wide variety of positive outcomes. For example, almost half obtained better healthcare, while 40% received support for food, rent and housing. Perhaps most importantly for adults, 1 in 3 reported either getting a new job or obtaining a higher salary.

What Is a Digital Navigator?

Those unfamiliar with the digital divide may also remain unfamiliar with digital navigators. As defined by Stanford University, the digital divide refers to a growing gap between wealthy and middle-class Americans in urban and suburban areas who have access to computers and the internet, and the underprivileged who do not (especially the poor, rural residents, the elderly and the handicapped).

While it is not a new concept, digital navigators have gained in popularity in recent years as more people become aware of how they can help bridge this divide. A digital navigator works with adults and students in underprivileged communities. They help in a variety of ways, including connecting them to an internet service and resources that can help them get a computer or tablet.

They also help people develop the skills necessary to use the internet, getting the most benefit from the information available to them. They also help them develop digital media literacy, a skill that involves understanding what sites provide reliable and factual information.

How Digital Navigators Support Digital Equity

Digital navigators typically work with community-based organizations. They range from volunteers at private and non-profit organizations who want to support their communities to cross-trained staff members at community organizations. They offer a trustworthy source of advice for those who aren’t sure where to start when it comes to getting on and using the internet.

They often work with organizations as part of a larger effort to bridge the digital divide. Comcast NBCUniversal (No. 7 on Fair360, formerly DiversityInc’s 2022 Top 50 Companies for Diversity list) provides an example of a private company that focuses on the issue. Dalila Wilson-Scott, Executive Vice President and Chief Diversity Officer of Comcast Corporation and President of the NBCUniversal Foundation, recently wrote about Comcast’s efforts to support digital equity in Chicago.

The company has invested $500,000 over three years in the YMCA of Metropolitan Chicago, including support for digital navigators at the Y. She called digital navigators a “key to success” for the program. She said they will help bring the Internet into homes  “family by family, student by student, Chicagoan by Chicagoan.”

The program is part of an effort from Comcast called Project UP, created to advance digital equality. The project supports efforts in many major cities, including Detroit, Boston, Denver, Miami, Houston, Portland and Philadelphia.

Ways Digital Navigators Help Children, Students and Adults

Digital navigators accomplish their goal of getting people successfully on the internet by having repeated one-on-one visits. They first assess the needs of a community member, then guide them toward the resources they need that also match their skill level and lifestyle.

For example, they connect students with the information they need to apply for an important internship or a college scholarship. They can help adults navigate job listings online or find resources on how to earn a promotion at their current job. They can help introduce younger students to reliable sources on everything from STEM fields to works of great literature online.

The National Digital Inclusion Alliance (NDIA) writes that the model for supporting digital navigators can be replicated in any organization. That model begins with mapping the available assets and developing processes customized for each community.

The NDIA recently announced a $10 million grant from Google to create a National Digital Navigator Corps that will focus on providing support for 18 rural and tribal communities across the United States

The U.S. government also has boosted the drive to close the digital skills gap. As part of the bipartisan infrastructure bill signed by President Joe Biden, the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP) allocates $14 billion toward monthly subsidies to eligible households for broadband service and connected devices.