Linda Poon is a staff writer at CityLab covering science and urban technology, including smart cities and climate change. She previously covered global health and development for NPR’s Goats and Soda blog.
Computer repair isn’t cheap—so D.C.’s Office of the Chief Technology Officer is lending its own technicians to help residents fix their devices for free.
Marjorie Allen can’t imagine going about her day without her MacBook.
“I just need it for everything—making my appointments, talking to my doctor, finding out what’s going on with my neighborhood,” says the 73-year-old retiree, who lives in Washington, D.C. “I get alerts from D.C. about the snow or whatever else is going on in the city. It keeps me on top of things.”
But at the speed it was running, her laptop couldn’t keep up with her. Allen bought it in 2009, after returning to college for her bachelor’s degree in finance. Since then, it had slowed to a crawl. She says she can’t afford a new computer, and because she uses a wheelchair, going to a repair shop is more than a minor inconvenience. Allen did take her laptop to one in Upper Marlboro, Maryland—some 30 minutes outside D.C.— in 2012, but the trip proved both unsuccessful and arduous.
“We just never went back,” she says.
So last September, when Allen heard that D.C. was offering free tech support, she eagerly signed up. That month, the Office of the Chief Technology Officer (OCTO) piloted its “All Hands on Tech” program, setting up two repair events in which the city’s own technicians helped residents fix their devices. Volunteers from local nonprofits like Byte Back, which prepares adults for a career in technology, also came out to help. The events were held at libraries inside Wards 7 and 8, where some of D.C.’s poorest communities live.
America’s digital divide is essentially boiled down to three things. “Nationally, you will hear device access mentioned along with internet access and training as the three-legged stool of digital inclusion,” says Delano Squires, head of OCTO’s digital inclusion initiative Connect.DC. Yet there’s little benefit in having a computer that’s infected with malware, or a smartphone you don’t know how to set up. What residents like Allen needed was tech support. That became apparent to Squires, who leads All Hands on Tech, and his team as they ran their computer training programs. Many participants didn’t have a computer to practice at home, he says, but some did have older ones lying around that they couldn’t use.
The latest census survey estimates that roughly 12 percent of D.C.’s households own just one device, most commonly a smartphone or computer. Based on national trends, these are likely lower-income households, for whom replacing a broken device isn’t easy. In fact, about 80 percent of the 84 residents who attended the two All Hands on Tech events earned less than $50,000 a year. One-third made less than $10,000.
These days, even the most basic laptop can run upwards of $150, with higher-end models reaching into the thousands. The average selling price for a smartphone is $363. Repairs aren’t cheap either. Best Buy’s Geek Squad service charges at least $150 for spyware and virus removal, which, according to Squires, was the single largest issue among attendees. Meanwhile, the cost for data recovery starts at $200 and can go up to nearly $1,500—on top of a $50 diagnostic fee.
“We’re talking about residents who don’t have a lot of disposable income at hand to shell out,” Squires says. Often, their computers are too old to justify the repair costs: About 20 percent of the participants who brought in laptops had one that was made before 2012.
For Allen, who went to the second event at the Dorothy I. Height/Benning Library in Northeast D.C., it turned out that her MacBook’s hard drive needed to be cleaned (or defragmented, in technical speak)—something she was reluctant to do on her own.
“There was a lot of stuff that was duplicated, and old things that were clogging up space, so [the technician] went through all of it,” she says, adding that much of what was taking up space was old schoolwork.
The technician also answered questions about Allen’s phone and fixed the calendar app so she could sync her schedule with her husband’s. “She also was trying to teach me to do it myself,” Allen says of the disk defragment. “Though I wouldn’t want to take a test on it right now.”
Squires says it’s a relatively inexpensive program compared to some of Connect.DC’s other digital inclusion programs. Aside from paying the city technicians, most of the cost went toward advertising, which amounted to roughly $25,000. His team plans to host six events this year, starting in the spring, and he hopes to extend to other wards with low-income residents.
“Once we talk about it more, and do some more extensive advertising and outreach, I can easily see this being our most popular service,” he says. “Because all of us know someone who’s had a computer that wasn’t working properly at some point.”
Offering free tech support to the community isn’t a new idea in itself. In a callout to members of the National Digital Inclusion Alliance, which includes nonprofits and city agencies, nonprofits told CityLab that they offer similar programs. In Winston-Salem and Forsyth County, North Carolina, for example, the organization WinstonNet, made up of chief technology officers from various public and private institutions, hosts community tech nights four times a year. And in St. Louis, Missouri, the educational organization Oasis Institute offers one-on-one tech help to seniors through their Ask a Techie program.
But D.C. is one of a small handful of cities that offer publicly funded tech support programs. Elsewhere, San Francisco Public Library has been hosting a free Digital Device Drop-in event every Thursday for the last three years. Roughly 10 to 15 residents come in each night, according to the library’s program manager Katherine Eppler, and not everyone is there for repairs.
At any given time, she says, at least four or five residents come with with questions about their Lifeline phones, which are subsidized by the Federal Communications Commission for low-income families. Some ask about how to set them up while others who come complaining that the phone is too slow simply needed to free up storage space. “You can barely get a job without having some sort of phone,” Eppler says. “The problem is we’re really pushing a lot of our community toward cellphone use before they have any idea how to use a [smartphone].”
Not having a functioning device isn’t just about missed job opportunities. Alyssa Kenney runs the nonprofit DANEnet, which hosts monthly “Fix IT” clinics in Madison, Wisconsin (some clinics are funded by the city). For one mother, she recalls, getting her laptop fixed meant her son wouldn’t have to do homework at the library. “Here in the midwest, the sun sets at like 4:30,” Kenney says. “So for her, what she really wanted was her son not walking at night.”
As for Allen, having access to technology lets her connect with her adult children and her grandkids, who live in North Carolina, through video chat apps like FaceTime and Marco Polo. She’s been watching her 1-year-old grandson, who is learning to walk. “I wouldn’t be able to see that if I didn’t have this, because I can’t travel,” she says.
“We do need tech help,” Allen continues. “It’s very frustrating [when you don’t know] what to do or who to reach to for help; I don’t want just anybody having access [to my information], so it was good to be able to go to someone with D.C. and sit right there with them.”