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Public-Private Partnerships Build Digital Equity Ecosystem

In the city of Fresno and in Merced County, government’s work with a private company has helped to create an environment that enables the advancement of digital equity initiatives.

Two partnerships in California’s Central Valley — one with the city of Fresno and one with Merced County — offer the potential to enhance and evolve digital equity work in the region.

As digital equity remains front of mind for many government officials, partnerships offer promise for rural and urban areas alike.

As such, the recent launch of the Digital Empowerment Center in Fresno offers an example of how collaboration can enhance this work. According to Fresno Deputy Mayor Matthew Grundy, the center came about as a natural progression from the city’s existing partnership with Bitwise. (The company has furloughed all of its employees, at least temporarily, the Fresno Bee reported Monday.)

“I think the long-term goal is really to support micro- and small businesses to develop some digital literacy skills and web presence,” said Grundy.

Grundy said a website is critical for businesses now, citing a study that said small businesses that had no online e-commerce presence were twice as likely to have stopped operating during the COVID-19 pandemic, at least temporarily.

In order to help vulnerable businesses, the city used American Rescue Plan Act funding to create this center, to which Grundy says education is the key. The grant is for one year, set to end in October.

A classroom within a Bitwise building operates as the site of workshops. Teachers, both from Bitwise and external experts, offer sessions in both English and Spanish. Digital skills that might be taught in these sessions include the benefits of using digital payments, having a website and building an app, and how these things can be implemented to transform businesses, she said.

Grubel says the goal is to prove the viability of this center to support businesses; once that is proven, it can act as a blueprint and be tailored to other cities’ needs.

Fresno has historically been known for strength in agriculture, but Grundy says it’s seen an increase in both the manufacturing and technology sectors. As it grows, Grundy pointed out that Mayor Jerry Dyer has made a commitment to inclusive economic development — “keyword: inclusive.”

While the new center in Fresno works to support businesses, the city’s digital equity work started earlier, with one example being the creation of the Fresno Coalition for Digital Inclusion. As Grundy explained, there are many stakeholders in the area working to remove the digital divide.

“We think everyone should have an opportunity to do well in Fresno, and certainly digital inclusion is a really important part of that,” Grundy said.

Bitwise was able to join and build on that work, Grubel said. However, in Merced County, there was not such a coalition in place, so Bitwise worked to bring people together from different sectors to create the Merced Digital Empowerment Coalition. The Merced County coalition includes individuals and organizations across sectors, including the Merced County Office of Education and the Merced Indian Chamber of Commerce.

The county is working to understand how to deploy broadband infrastructure in a way that meets multifaceted digital equity needs of a diverse community.

“This is what’s going to help us continue to make sure that our economic standard is growing, our bitwiseunemployment rate is going down, and that we are preparing the youth of Merced County for all different types of jobs and all different types of opportunities,” Pedrozo said.

This story first appeared in Government Technology magazine, Industry Insider — California’s sister publication.
Julia Edinger is a staff writer for Government Technology. She has a bachelor's degree in English from the University of Toledo and has since worked in publishing and media. She's currently located in Southern California.