Supporting Citizen Wellbeing By Bridging the Digital Divide
The onset of the global Covid-19 pandemic in March 2020 was undoubtedly a stressful and chaotic time for all. Government leaders however had to work hard to keep their citizens safe, informed and connected, despite needing to navigate unchartered waters at the same time.
For Josie Scioli, Deputy City Manager, Corporate Services at the City of Toronto, a core driving force for her career has been a passion for people and transformation that inspires and supports the growth of future leaders. This ambition came to the forefront when the City of Toronto was forced to think fast and flexibly to ensure the wellbeing of the 2.9 million residents when the first Covid-19 wave hit.
Josie was integral to a program of work by the City of Toronto that looked to support their most disadvantaged citizens. The Digital Canopy project was initiated during the onset of the pandemic when residents were encouraged to stay home and most of the locations with free public wi-fi were shut down.
Suddenly, people who couldn't afford home internet faced barriers to receive public health information, government services or pandemic supports, attend school or work and could not connect with others online.
The City took swift action, partnering with the private sector to bridge these barriers, known as the digital divide. Private sector donations helped connect 22 large apartment buildings. A “Digital Canopy” was created, projecting Wi-Fi signal from rooftop antennas around building exteriors, making it available to as many units within each building as possible.
Since September 2020, ~ 11,000 residents have been provided with free in-home Wi-Fi access in communities most challenged by the digital divide (low-income households, older adults, Black and Indigenous peoples, and people with disabilities).
As Josie notes; "University of Toronto research results indicated that weekly COVID-19 cases reduced by 14.4% in Digital Canopy locations. The collaboration with the private sector on this initiative highlighted that, as a community, we go further, faster, when governments,businesses, and residents buy-in to a shared goal. This is a model that can be applied to many City priorities."