Editor’s note: This article highlights our most recent participant in the “Triangle Voices in Leadership” interview series, Maggie Woods, Digital Equity Manager for the NC Office of Digital Equity and Literacy. Stay tuned for more installments in this collection, where WRAL TechWire contributor Dr. Sarah Glova will continue to highlight veteran leaders from across the Triangle region.
RALEIGH – Maggie Woods is working on digital equity and digital inclusion for North Carolinians. But she says there’s a big hurdle — there simply aren’t enough computers.
“If we were to snap our fingers and have the funding to ensure that all 328,000 households in North Carolina that don’t currently have a computer had a computer —like, we have the funding for it, we’re gonna just buy them new or buy refurbished — we wouldn’t be able to do it because there are not enough computers,” Woods told me in an exclusive interview.
Woods is the Digital Equity Manager for the Office of Digital Equity and Literacy, which is part of the Division on Broadband and Digital Equity.
“We’re focused on digital equity as a goal, but the way we get there is through digital inclusion,” said Woods. “And those are the policies and the activities that we employ to reach digital equity.”
Digital inclusion has five elements, says Woods: (1) access to affordable high-speed internet, (2) access to a device or computer that meets the needs of the user, (3) digital skills, (4) access to technical assistance, and (5) access to applications and websites that are user friendly.
In other words—it’s about more than just access to the internet. It’s both having affordable access to the internet and devices and having the skills, support, and applications needed to participate.
And right now, over a quarter of North Carolinians are not using the internet, Woods told me.
“All of those digital inclusion elements are the barriers to adoption, but our office is working on, by 2025, reaching 80% across the board,” said Woods. “No matter who you are, 80% of people adopting the internet. Which still leaves 20% out, right? So we’ve got a long ways to go.”
A call to the tech community — share your computers
“We know that the most up-to-date numbers show that 320,000 households in North Carolina don’t have a home desktop or laptop computer,” said Woods. “And we know that that’s only part of the problem.”
Woods says this statistic is “nuanced” because it only addresses one kind of computer need.
“So certainly, we want to target the households that don’t have any sort of computer,” said Woods. “But in talking to folks across the state, we know that, often, people are relying on the computers coming home from the K 12 school system. They might have kids in school bringing home Chromebooks.”
Chromebooks, Woods says, are great for basic uses in the classroom but sometimes lack the capabilities to help households truly access the power of the internet — plus, the Chromebooks are returned to the school during the summer or over long breaks.
“So a household will go from having computers to suddenly not having a computer,” said Woods. “Or, you may have a household that has a computer or two, but they really probably need four or five or six computers. Just having one computer or one device in the home for a typical family is not enough.”
But Woods says a huge barrier is the computer pipeline — even if her office had the funding to buy more computers for North Carolinians who need access, they couldn’t. Because there simply aren’t enough available.
“And so one of the things that we’d really like the tech community to think about is, what’s happening to your computers when you’re done with them?” said Woods. “Do you have them for three or five years, and then they need to be recycled somewhere? Are you selling them? Are you providing them to local device refurbishers? In your philanthropic giving, do you want to provide computers?”
Woods called on the tech community to consider this need when evaluating their equipment or their philanthropic programs.
“People need computers,” said Woods. “It’s better for the pipeline if computers are not recycled, and instead are refurbished, so the pipeline of both refurbished computers and then new computers is really important. And it’s something that we’ve identified as a gap in our partnership with the tech community and the corporate community in general.”
Refurbish your devices — and reach out to the Digital Equity office
For companies looking to partner with a device refurbished — Woods says there’s a great local resource.
“There’s a great one in the Triangle, it’s called the Kramden Institute,” Woods told TechWire. (Learn more at kramden.org.)
Woods also said her office welcomes feedback and partnerships from the tech and business community.
“We’d love to engage with this community. I say, ‘we,’ and ‘we’ are the Office of Digital Equity and Literacy,” said Woods. “So, reach out. We want to better understand their specific workforce needs, and we want to be able to work together.”
Interested in reaching out? Contact the office at email@example.com.