Tech Titans: The crossroads of humanity and technology

This year’s panel of IT leaders discusses the ongoing problem of equitable access to technology for underserved communities
2 readers like this.
CIOs are at a cultural crossroads

For the second year in a row, Tech Titans provided us the opportunity to pause and salute Black History Month. The 2023 Black History Month theme was “Black Resistance,” which explores how Black Americans have addressed historic and ongoing disadvantage and oppression.

Building on this theme, the Tech Titans panel focused on equitable access to technology for underserved communities, underlining the question: Can technology be a catalyst to improve the quality of life in these communities and, thus, resist the status quo?

A combination of public and private sector CIOs shed light on the need for collaboration across state, local, and federal government agencies as well as various private enterprises that provide services that impact the overall quality of life for residents.

“Technology is a human right.” –Tanya Hannah, CIO North America, Aon PLC

“You cannot escape technology – tech is intertwined no matter what we do; it has become a utility like water, heat, and electricity. Not having access to technology can be detrimental to having access to the essentials of daily life. We need to work together to ensure that everyone – especially the underserved and disenfranchised communities – have access to technology.”

“Fiber is the fourth utility.” –Michael Pegues, CIO City of Aurora, Illinois

Michael Pegues made the powerful point that telecommunication networks are the backbone of access. These networks must function equally well everywhere, including rural areas and underserved communities.

Pegues explained that his job as the CIO does not stop when he leaves the City of Aurora – a city that’s located 35 miles west of Chicago with a population of approximately 200,000 (Hispanic/Latino – 45 percent, Asian/Pacific Islander – 10 percent, Black/African American – 10 percent, White – 30 percent, and other races – 5 percent). Pegues looks at his CIO role as extending into the community beyond City Hall. While he commends the federal government (FCC) for taking steps to address digital equity, he also cautions of “digital discrimination.”

“We must look at the situation through a different lens and not be just driven by profits” –Kimberly LaGrue, CIO of the City of New Orleans, Louisiana

LaGrue defines digital equity as providing:

  • Education: Digital skills training is available without cost
  • Access: 80 percent of residents have internet in the home
  • Digital tools: Devices are available to underserved communities

Calling attention to the Digital Equity Dashboard, LaGrue pointed out today’s stark reality:

  • 33.5 percent of New Orleans households do not have a computer in the home
  • 65 percent of under-served families in New Orleans do not have home internet

Her observations bring to the fore “digital redlining” – the practice of creating and perpetuating inequities between already marginalized groups, specifically through digital technologies, digital content, and the internet.

But technology by itself is not the only deterrent, Hannah noted. Even if technology is available, the cost could be a challenge in such communities – especially when for those who struggle to provide necessities like food. Literacy in these communities is another key challenge.

Pegues characterizes digital redlining as a socio-economic problem at the crossroads of humanity and technology, which triggered a question about technology’s ability to combat digital redlining. While acknowledging that “old habits are hard to break,” Pegues also called out the possibility of detecting and addressing the algorithms that advance this practice.

The panelists and other IT leaders are continuing to work with their organizations and the larger ecosystem to move progress forward. Pegues and Lagrue shared some of their long-term initiatives:

  • Institutionalize this work and encourage cities to recognize it, legitimizing its purpose to help level the playing field
  • Obtain city resolutions to implement a strategic technology plan
  • As part of a multi-year plan, implement social innovation and kick off workforce development through institutions like the Aurora STEM academy

In closing, Hannah pointed out several calls to action for individuals and enterprises across the community at large:

  • Partnering through non-profit foundations to provide access, literacy, and devices to underserved communities
  • Working with K-8 students
  • Introducing apprenticeship programs
  • Volunteering at non-profit community colleges
  • Advocating for the cause of technology access for all

It’s often said that technology implementation should be driven by relevant business outcomes. But what if we start looking at implementing technology targeting human outcomes to better serve everyone equitably? In doing this, let’s look at these CIOs for valuable pointers.

[ Learn the non-negotiable skills, technologies, and processes CIOs are leaning on to build resilience and agility in this HBR Analytic Services report: Pillars of resilient digital transformation: How CIOs are driving organizational agility. ]

E.G. Nadhan is the Chief Architect and Strategist for North America at Red Hat. He provides thought leadership on various concepts including Cloud, Blockchain, Analytics, and the Internet of Things (IoT) through multiple channels including industry conferences, executive roundtables as well as customer-specific executive briefing sessions.