Miami’s next big tech win could happen where there’s the least internet

Shel-Neisha Bromell is your typical millennial. She’s constantly posting on Instagram and Facebook. She giggles while scanning through Snapchat stories on her cell phone.

But when it’s time to do anything substantive, she’s stuck. She doesn’t have a computer or internet access at home. She simply can’t afford it.  

“I’ve been here every day this week,” she says, opening the glass doors of the Culmer/Overtown branch of the public library, a 95-degree, half-mile walk from her home. She’s scheduled her days around the library’s hours for pretty much her whole life.

“I was interested in doing an online class, but … I’m not sure how I’d manage it,” she admitted.

Ask any high-profile entrepreneur working in Miami why they chose here and they’ll cite the city’s diversity. But if you take a look at who has access to the two key tools of success in the digital economy — a computer of their own and a reliable Internet connection — you find that those minority communities championed as part of the city’s secret sauce are left behind. Way behind.

Source: U.S. Census Bureau, 2014 American Community Survey 1-Year Estimates

It’s easy to forget that. Co-working spaces abound, more and more accelerators and incubators are calling Miami home, and we’ve got at least a half-dozen coding bootcamps in the city’s booming urban core.

But in neighborhoods like Overtown, Liberty City, and Hialeah, there are many, many people like Bromell, whose only reliable internet and computer access might be a seven-year-old computer at a public library that closes most days at 6 p.m.

This is the digital divide.

A widening gap

That gap is created by a lack of access to computers, internet connection, and digital education, explained Moses Shumow, a digital media professor at FIU.

“We like to think of Miami being on the cutting edge … but you have communities where only 15 percent of the homes have internet on one side, and on the other you have people who have full access,” Shumow said. “At the high speed we’re moving forward in the digital age, this gap grows wider and those left out fall further and further behind.”

In Miami-Dade, the divide is greatest in parts of Coconut Grove, Liberty City, Little Haiti, Hialeah, Opa-Locka and parts of Wynwood, according to Maribel Martinez, the regional manager of EveryoneOn, a national non-profit organization that works to connect low-income communities with low-cost internet and computers. Lack of access usually correlates with a lack of income.

Last year the City of Miami was ranked the seventh worst city in the country for internet access, with 34.3 percent of homes lacking it, according to a report from the National Digital Inclusion Alliance, using data from a 2014 American Community Survey from the U.S. Census Bureau.  

Given that this number is an average between areas as different as Liberty City and Brickell, that figure is likely worse in the low-income and under-resourced communities. 

Hialeah, a city with less extreme highs and lows in income, was the fifth worst connected city in the country, with 36 percent of homes lacking access to the internet.

“If you dig into the digital divide issue, it’s a poverty issue and an access issue,” said Felecia Hatcher, the co-founder of Code Fever, which teaches underserved minority populations how to code.  “When you’re living under the poverty line, having wifi and access to digital tools is probably the least bit of your worries.”

Source: U.S. Census Bureau, 2014 American Community Survey 1-Year Estimates

Bridging the divide

Shumow and his students are trying to fix that, at least in one community. For the last year and a half, they’ve worked with the Miami-Dade Public Housing Authority in Liberty City to build a community wifi network in Liberty Square, the second oldest public housing project in the country. Nicknamed Pork ‘n’ Beans, it’s on the brink of a massive renovation.

Duplicating models in New York, Detroit, and Kansas City, Shumow is building a base antenna in the community square, then installing four access points, which ensures the internet network reaches all of Liberty Square.

In other parts of Miami-Dade,  EveryoneOn has partnered with major internet providers to create lower cost internet packages to sell to low-income families and teach customers basic digital skills.

While internet connectivity and computer access are important, the most critical part of bridging the divide is creating a strong educational component, according to Hatcher, the founder of Code Fever. Families need to understand the transformative power of technology to be willing to make it a priority in their tight budgets.

Most job applications these days are online, even for minimum wage jobs, as are applications for things like food stamps. But it’s also about upward mobility — if you’ve got a computer, you can easily build an online business with little additional capital. It’s a small tool that can lead to huge returns on investments.

“For us, this is our way of solving the poverty issue,” she said. “People need jobs and people need to start businesses and need to be empowered to understand the genius they have.”  

That’s why Hatcher and her husband, Derick Pearson, founded Code Fever. The group has been organizing and hosting weekend trainings, coding bootcamps, and pitch competitions all over South Florida.

Last year, Code Fever partnered with business incubator and accelerator EcoTech Visions to develop and teach a coding bootcamp in Liberty City. Digital Citizen’s Bootcamp was hugely successful, with more than 100 applicants for 25 spots. It was clear the demand for low-cost coding education was there.

The Knight Foundation just awarded the program $200,000 to meet that. EcoTech has now hired a full-time staff, and solidified the curriculum. It plans to train another cohort free of charge. Over eight weeks, students will learn programming languages, how to build a social media campaign, and how to use WordPress and Mailchimp, two applications commonly used in building online companies.

Graduates are encouraged to continue at CS50x Miami, a coding class developed at Harvard University that is offered at Miami-Dade College’s Idea Center, also completely free of charge.

Building an ecosystem

Ultimately it’s about building the scaffolding that allows people to keep pulling themselves up.

After attending a Code Fever bootcamp in Liberty City, Lashaevia Burns learned two coding languages. Eventually she became a Code Fever instructor. Then, with funding from the Awesome Foundation, she organized and created her own digital literacy class for older members of the community.

For two hours every Saturday for two months, Burns taught students over 45 about protecting their personal information online, desktop maintenance, and some e-mail basics. This was especially important for the aging population that must navigate applications for government assistance and benefits programs like EBT and social security, which are increasingly online only. Burns hopes to hold another class this August.

Editor’s note: The above paragraph has been corrected to accurately reflect the start date of Burns’ next class.

The key for Miami is to expand that system that kept providing a next step for Burns.

That’s important for upward mobility of underserved communities, but it also helps those who have plenty of resources. It expands the talent pool and helps Miami offer something unique — creators and users as diverse as the rest of the United States will be in the future, according to Matt Haggman, the Miami program director of the Knight Foundation.

While places like New York and Silicon Valley have to go back and fill gaping holes in diversity in their tech and startup space, Miami has the opportunity to build it in from the beginning. But the only way to do that is to devote resources to areas that have been historically devoid of them.

“The key in Miami is its diversity,” he said. “The enemy of innovation is isolation. The more we can create an environment where people of different backgrounds connect and collide, the richer the ideas, and the greater the impact.”