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Media Coverage | Gerardo Interiano and Presley Gillespie: Coming together to bridge the digital divide

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By Gerardo Interiano and Presley Gillespie | Pittsburgh Post Gazette Op-Ed | April 10, 2020 | Read the full article

The COVID-19 crisis has proved how many students in our community lack access to the devices or the connectivity required to successfully participate in 21st-century education.

With Pennsylvania schools ordered to remain closed until the end of the academic year, Pittsburgh Public Schools students are going to be facing a new reality. Parents and caregivers, already sacrificing so much for their families during this time, will be further challenged to adapt to remote learning — for the long haul.

Complicating these logistics is the reality that tens of thousands of students in our community don’t have access to the devices or the connectivity required to successfully participate in the education of the 21st century. COVID-19 is lifting the veil on the existing digital divide and shining a spotlight on a reality that we as a society have ignored for far too long.

In the face of this challenge, the Pittsburgh-based self-driving technology company Aurora Innovation, along with the Pittsburgh Technology Council, Neighborhood Allies, the University of Pittsburgh and Computer Reach, are working together to close Pittsburgh’s technology gap and get families connected.

The digital divide needs to be addressed as a three-legged stool: devices, wrap-around tech support and connectivity. Within a short, one-week window, Neighborhood Allies kicked off a cross-sectoral set of solutions by working with area universities, technology companies, nonprofits and the foundation community to address these three elements.

Computer Reach is refurbishing laptops at breakneck speed. The University of Pittsburgh has set up an IT Help Desk, available to members of the public and to community-based organizations. Carnegie Mellon’s School of Computer Science is partnering with Meta Mesh Wireless Communities to deploy a mesh network across communities with the greatest need. Instead of putting a Band-Aid on the problem for the next two or three months, these organizations are seeking a solution to provide free community access to the internet once and for all.

With the help of Aurora and the Pittsburgh Technology Council, our organizations have brought on other partners — Google, Verizon, the Richard King Mellon Foundation and the Gismondi Family Foundation. Together we have already raised more than $200,000 for Computer Reach and Pittsburgh Public Schools to refurbish and purchase the devices necessary to help bridge the digital divides in our community. Today, we challenge other corporations, businesses and individuals to match our joint grant.

There will always be a discussion around who should fix this problem — the government, foundations or society at large. We urge everyone to look beyond this during such uncertain times. Pittsburgh has a unique opportunity to fix a problem here at home that exists across the nation. There are many things that we can’t control with COVID-19, but helping to get devices into these homes, and supporting their use, is an effort that we can address as a community. Please join us at beyondthelaptops.org.

Gerardo Interiano is Aurora Innovation’s head of government relations. Presley Gillespie is the president of Neighborhood Allies.

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