Newark, New Jersey, doesn’t have the same investment appeal and entrepreneurial reputation as other nearby cities. That hasn’t stopped companies such as audiobook giant Audible from opening up shop downtown, much to the pleasure of Mayor Ras Baraka. But while he’s happy for the jobs and development that comes with one company, Baraka is hoping to cultivate a homegrown tech community. That’s why his administration helped create a free coding and mobile app development class, which just started last month, based out of public housing properties. It’s a bet on the city, and one of a growing list of programs nationwide trying to bridge the tech divide.
According to Newark's Chief Information Officer Seth Wainer, the effort isn’t merely about helping a handful of residents or seeding new startups. It’s about bridging an access gap in today's economy, which will hold back any cities that aren’t making an effort to develop digital literacy.
"It’s about the survival of the city," he says. "Cities that offer a robust digital presence provide the needed infrastructure to get ahead. It drives population growth, investments, and wealth generation. These are important for cities, and they can’t rely on anybody else for help."
Wainer believes that access can lead to a payoff, which is why these classes are structured to reach those most in need. Utilizing curriculum developed by Gadget Software, a local software company, the classes, run by the Newark City of Code teen coding club, have already attracted 12- to 18-year-olds interested in learning basic skills. Classes are held in clubhouses and common areas on public housing property, and students learn via programs that can be accessed via a smartphone, for those without a home internet connection.
"I think everyone agrees that 21st century job skills are enmeshed in tech and computer literacy, so the better digital chops you have, the more likely it is you’re going to advance," says Wainer. "We’re trying to repurpose elite opportunities for the rest of the population."
While many take access to the internet and technology for granted, a significant portion of the population doesn’t have regular broadband internet access. Lee Rainie, the Director of Internet, Science, and Technology Research at the Pew Research Center, says broadband access has leveled off, and has been available to around 70 percent of the United States population, peaking in 2012 and now at 67 percent, as existing access issues aren’t being addressed, and many are simply relying on smartphone data plans to go online.
"The story is that access is leveling off and likely shifting," he says. "For some, it’s not about the wired home connection, it’s about the wireless smartphone connection. And there are lots of community and social service-oriented groups that are very active in trying to provide access to their communities."
These groups, including Generations on Line, which is trying to reach the elderly population, and YesWeCode, which focuses on urban youth, have been working to address digital literacy and technology skills issues in populations without as many financial resources. While coding classes and makerspaces have proliferated, many require access that some populations don’t have.
"The Maker movement, coding, building stuff, being creative: there’s enormous enthusiasm for preparing people for good jobs in the future," says Rainie. "And the job market is so rewarding for people with technological skills."
Wainer hopes as classes grow, they will make the clubhouses a locus for connectivity and help attract startup and business activity. Currently funded with a $35,000 investment from the city, as well as support from Prudential and Audible, he hopes to expand in coming years.
Wainer is sanguine about the program, but also aware of the challenges. Job placement can be difficult until there are more standards for accepting non-traditional classes and education. There’s an opportunity cost for many who have to pay for daycare or take time off work to attend. But he believes that alongside larger shifts in the economy, this kind of educational initiative isn’t just a necessary path for cities, but it’s one that can close gaps beyond just the access to technology.
"It’s kind of amazing the solution might be so simple," he says. "We’re far from the solution, of course, but can providing coding classes to low-income kids work? I wish there was more government money around to test this out, but I think it’s a question that bears asking."