BCLA Perspectives

Digital access and equity in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside


One does not often make the connection between technology and the Downtown Eastside (DTES) of Vancouver. While it is true that the average DTES community member will not have the latest iPhone or tablet, the wake of technology’s rapid advancement is transforming the digital landscape at all socioeconomic levels. Project linkvan.ca is about challenging the misconception that DTES community members do not have access to technology. It is also about strengthening digital literacy in the DTES community to allow people to participate fully in their lives.

The Downtown Eastside Literacy Roundtable is a coalition of adult educators in the DTES who work in academia and agencies that offer and promote access to adult and family literacy education. Although diverse in their perspectives and educational contexts, Roundtable members share a believe that literacy as experiential, rooted in everyday lives and tied to broader institutional regimes. Reading and writing are only part of literacy but they are useful tools that create opportunities to learn and engage more. This group has been collaborating since 2006 to share skills, ideas, support and information

In recent years, recognizing that digital literacy is becoming central to people’s everyday life, the demand for learning opportunities has expanded to include access to digital literacies and resources for low-income residents, recognizing that digital literacy is becoming central to people’s everyday life. Indeed, governments and other institutions are increasingly pushing people online to offer more ‘efficient’ services, while also ‘cutting costs’ to service delivery. The consequence is that people are losing their basic rights to government services because they do not have the resources needed to access online programs.  Under-funded community service providers are increasingly drawn into filling this gap. This is one of the many inequalities that are entangled in technology uses and access in the DTES.

To address these issues, the Literacy Roundtable in collaboration with UBC Learning Exchange (UBCLE), identified and implemented a community-academic partnership to create linkvan.ca, a web-based app designed by UBC students and the Roundtable, with the participation of DTES community members. Linkvan.ca is designed to connect community members who have limited access to digital resources (the Internet, devices and skills), to community service-providers. This project is community driven with all phases being developed with the community, for the community and by the community, in collaboration with Roundtable partners to creative positive change. Linkvan.ca marries technology with innovative approaches to further strengthen digital literacy skills that lead to more equity and improved access to the digital world for vulnerable communities.

Connected to the development of linkvan.ca is an innovative approach to community technology education.  Rather than suggesting people seek out training in places where they felt vulnerable, we decided to bring training to the community. Since some of the community members might not be comfortable going to formal classes or workshops, members of the Roundtable and UBCLE in collaboration with Carnegie Learning Centre, Oppenheimer Park and Vancouver Public Library offer peer supported ‘pop up’ tech-cafes located in parks, local shelters and other places where people gather. The work of the tech-cafes offers outreach by peer educators, giving informal individualized technology education to bridge traditional learning sites with non-traditional gathering places. Through peer-to-peer learning, supported by community ambassadors who make people feel welcome, the project forges new relationships with adult learners through technology, thus addressing a significant barrier to digital equity.

This participatory technology project is the focus of ongoing user-experience interviews and explorations being carried out in collaboration with Simon Fraser University (SFU) with peer interviews. Initial results suggest limits of apps and other web-based service information to address persistent issues of inequality in the community since residents of the DTES experience various form of displacement that are exacerbated and mitigated by new technologies.

Other online resources are available but they are complex and often only accessible to those with strong digital and essential literacy skills. Linkvan.ca address this issue by providing an easy to navigate icon based platform designed for all literacy levels.  The app uses Google’s location services extensively, and allows us to provide users with a list of services that are sorted by proximity to the user’s current location. We use Google Maps API to show a map of the users chosen facility relative to their current position and allow them to get walking directions to that facility. In addition, service providers can take ownership of the content we provide about them by signing up to manage their “page” on the app. The analytics from the use of the app provides facilities feedback on what services are most in demand and what areas are hotspots for different services. This could help organizations, all levels of government and other stakeholders to make better informed decisions about resources and fund allocations.

We don’t believe that access to technology will lift people out of homelessness or transform their lives overnight, but we have learned that interactive and responsive approaches to designing online information about services is an act of social legitimation. User-experience interviews can be invitations to developing “technologies of the imagination” in which people “experiment with possible futures” and develop new literacies, rather than merely being told what services are on offer. It has not escaped our attention that millions of dollars and resources are dedicated to the automation of public services, yet almost none has been given to the innovations and improvisations that happen each day in local communities among people and communities striving for digital access. LinkVan.ca, in collaboration with digital rights groups and adult literacy education, is playing an important role in redressing this imbalance.

Willem Booth is an adult educator and coordinator of the DTES Literacy Roundtable.