SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4) – The Salt Lake City Public Library is piloting a program for the nation called Digital Navigators, which provides devices, internet access, and computer literacy training to those who need it.

“The Digital Navigator program, it’s to help local residents get connected to free or low-cost internet services and devices and also help with basic computer skills and training, so residents call and then they can make a one-on-one phone appointment, and the digital navigators will help with that free or low-cost access to Chrome books, tablets, wifi, hotspots, and also more basic training and help with online privacy and navigating the internet,” Quinn Smith, Assistant Director of Marketing and Communications, tells ABC4.

(Photo by NICOLAS ASFOURI/AFP via Getty Images)

According to Smith, the program was a grant-funded opportunity. The grant in total is $411,000 and came from the Institute of Museum and Library services, Smith says.

The program was created to help close the digital divide that was made worse through COVID-19.

Shauna Edson is the library’s Digital Inclusion Coordinator who helped to bring the program to Salt Lake by applying for the grant.

“The Digital Navigators program was a response to COVID-19 and public computer labs closing down, so in Salt Lake City, the public library computer lab was one of the only places that people could go to access free computers and wifi, and so when that closed down…we wanted to explore ways that we could do the same type of work and provide support on a remote basis. We shifted to a call-in number where people could receive help over the phone, distributing devices through our holds to go, and then just connecting folks to resources and providing an ongoing relationship with the Digital Navigator where they could call back to get help with any digital skills they need,” Edson states.

For example, the program has helped people have needed technology to continue their jobs from home, complete schoolwork, and keep in touch with family members.

Access “to reliable internet and also just the most foundational understanding of technology and computers- that can be a gamechanger about whether or not you can apply for a job, whether or not you get a job, whether or not you hear about a job,” Smith explains.

She says that students, who have been attending school from home over the past year have been helped by the program as well. She says there have been students without access to computers and tablets who have been trying to write up school papers on a smartphone because of the lower price point.

“… it sounds pretty impossible.” she says.

The Salt Lake City Public Library is responsible for creating a model for this program and then sharing it across the nation to help other community organizations create similar programs, Edson says.

The initial goal was to work with 450 people in the community, and the library is already well on its way to accomplishing that goal, Smith says. As of mid-March, the library has already helped 400 participants through the program.

How does the program work?

Those who are interested in receiving access to devices and internet can call 801-524-8200.

“They send you an intake form, ask some questions, and a digital navigator follows up with you to connect you to any services you might need,” Smith explains.

The program has been run virtually, with Digital Navigators reaching out and teaching computer literacy skills and coordinating pickups over the phone.

Edson says through piloting the program, she has learned that many people were not being reached when people could come in-person due to time and transportation barriers. The program will continue through July, but the library is “looking to sustain this type of work beyond the pilot,” she states.

The library has focused on three areas of Salt Lake City through the program: Glendale, Rose Park, and Poplar Grove, Edson says. These areas were identified as “areas that had the least connectivity in their homes, areas that were heaviest hit with COVID-19.”

“We wanted this to be a bilingual project due to the number of people who speak Spanish in those areas,” Edson tells ABC4. She says that the three Digital Navigators the library hired are bilingual.

Melissa Rodriguez is one of the Digital Navigators hired by the library who works to connect members of the community to technology and resources.

She says a big part of the job is outreach and getting in contact with those who have filled out intake forms.

“… we do have a system where they call a phone number and from there, they gather information and distribute it to us, so it can take anywhere from where we can get them instantly within a couple minutes of them calling us or it might take us two days before we get back to them,” she explains.

Once she has gotten in touch with the individuals, Rodriguez explains that she works to figure out each individual’s needs, get to know them as best as she can, and work with their schedule.

She says she will ask questions like how comfortable they are with a computer, do they know how to build a resume, or do they have an email account?

“If we can’t help, we try to connect them to resources that can help them,” she tells ABC4.

Rodriguez says that through working with those in the community, the program has grown and evolved. For example, the library was handing out tablets and Chromebooks.

“… as the program progressed, we realized that people needed something that could handle more. Chromebooks might not meet needs if working from home.”

She says the library acquired desktops to hand out to those who needed them.

“We try to provide three specific services: accessibility to device, internet to be able to use it, and make sure they can interact with it properly, so computer training,” she states.

She says in terms of offering internet, some community members qualify for Xfinity Internet Essentials if they have a limited income. For those who don’t qualify, Rodriguez says she can offer things like internet hotspots or Lifeline, a discounted internet program.

Though Rodriguez is bilingual- she speaks English and Spanish- she says she has not had too much of an opportunity to speak Spanish on the job.

She says she would love to see more Spanish speakers reach out to her.

Rodriguez says a memorable experience she has had as a Digital Navigator happened was when a member of the community reached out to her asking for her to help an elderly neighbor who was isolated during the pandemic. He needed help with technology to stay in contact with family, she explains.

“So just seeing the community come together to help each other was an amazing thing,” Rodriguez says.

She says that the job can be emotionally draining at times.

“… they carry heavy stories with them, and those heavy stories build upon you. You get to know them so personally sometimes or you get to know how they ended up in a horrible situation so that they needed to be constantly reaching out to different organizations to see if someone will help them… at the end of the day you have to decompress,” Rodriguez states.

However, the work is also rewarding.

“When they come to you, they know how much easier it is going to make their life to get technology in their home. They’re like, ‘thank you, this is going to make my life so much easier,'” she says. “That’s all we want to do because our world is 90% technology these days.”

Edson says she has learned from the project that this work requires help from a community as a whole.

“I feel like it does require a whole community to work together to be able to reach folks who might not be connected digitally and provide support for individuals to meet their goals. It’s not something one organization can take on by themselves but really working with several community partners to fully be able to support individuals,” Edson says.