A person holds a certificate and T-shirt while standing in between two people in the same blue T-shirt that reads RNEL
Features & Articles

How a Pitt program in the Hill District is closing the digital divide in Pittsburgh

  • Technology & Science
  • Community Impact
  • Our City/Our Campus
  • School of Computing and Information
  • Swanson School of Engineering

Broadband access has become increasingly essential for work, education and innovation — but it remains out of reach for at least 18 million Americans.

One way the University of Pittsburgh is working to solve this problem is by joining more than a dozen partners in the Pittsburgh Digital Equity Coalition, which recently received the 2022 Tech Community Leader of the Year Award for its work. The group was called together by the mayor of Pittsburgh and Allegheny County executive to create a five-year plan to ensure the digital world is accessible to every person in Allegheny County.

Pitt was invited to join the coalition because of its community focused digital inclusion initiatives at Pitt’s Hill District Community Engagement Center (CEC) and efforts to bridge the digital divide during the pandemic and beyond.

CEC outreach coordinator and Hill District native Marlo Hall said Pitt is working to be a present listener and connector within the coalition. 

“During the pandemic, disparity was highlighted [with] pockets of people left floating about with limited resources, limited access,” said Hall of the digital divide — the gap between those who have affordable access, skills and support to effectively engage online and those who do not.

“Computer access, trainings and the ability to have somebody readily available to support you when you're trying to learn new technologies isn't something that's been embedded in communities like mine,” she added.

While access is a prevalent issue in the Hill, it is a national and global challenge.

A 2021 Pew Research Center article cited that “Blacks and Hispanics still lagged behind whites in broadband adoption,” and that the digital divide persists among households with lower incomes. This often disproportionately impacts people of color, Indigenous peoples, people with disabilities, people in rural areas and older adults.

However, the Hill CEC’s Digital Inclusion Studio seeks to change that. In partnership with Pitt Information Technology, the School of Computing and Information, the Swanson School of Engineering, Pitt Bio Outreach and several student organizations, and with support from Neighborhood Allies Digital Inclusion program, the studio has offered programs across the lifespan, including Information Technology 101 for high schoolers, adult programming, grant writing and some community courses through Pitt. All are designed to address needs expressed by Hill community members related to digital literacy and navigating information and communication technologies.

Also included is the S.T.E.A.M. Studio, which provides educational opportunities within science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics as well as skill development-oriented courses for those seeking a career change. S.T.E.A.M. Saturdays are a weekly children-oriented program for third through eighth graders.

“Across the board, our job is to remove barriers to access,” said Keith Caldwell, executive director of place-based initiatives in Pitt’s Office of Engagement and Community Affairs, who was previously on faculty for the School of Social Work. “This CEC is the front door to the University within the Hill District. Not only are all the programs free, but through the support of Neighborhood Allies, several of the programs provide adult students with a stipend that allows them to offset any opportunity cost that may have come from participation.”

On course

One eight-week course, Intro to Computer Programming for Adults, is a partnership with Pitt’s Rehab Neural Engineering Labs (RNEL) that provides Hill residents aged 18 and up with basic skills needed to operate in the digital economy.

The 15-person class met weekly on Wednesday evenings this fall with instructional leads Rohit Bose and Lucy Liang, both RNEL graduate student researchers.

Bose described the course, the CEC’s second introductory programming class and the first to focus on adults, as one part of RNEL’s ongoing efforts to bridge the gaps between science, those doing science and those less familiar with science. They also help people with little to moderate knowledge develop a foundational understanding of programming.

“Participants either wanted to learn [because] it’s a good skill to have, while others said, ‘My kid does programming, so I wanted to learn so I can help him or her,’” said Bose.

The first half of the course, which boasted a 2:1 ratio of volunteers to students, focused on learning Python programming language. The latter half saw students work on projects of their choosing that addressed problems or interests related to their daily lives. Topics ranged from ethical hacking to building music software that plays tunes based on the listener’s mood.

Charles Bennett, a programming student and 2009 graduate of Brashear High School, designed a password generator, he said, to simplify the automated password suggestions created by applications. At a Nov. 9 graduation ceremony, he applauded Bose, Liang, his fellow participants and the overall quality and atmosphere of the space and curriculum.

“They were all amazing,” said Bennett. “[Bose and Liang] had no problem breaking things down to make you understand it.”

He said the class “is a door that more people probably will want to walk through, because it'll give them more experiences they never knew they could be interested in,” and opportunities that don’t necessarily require a degree.

Students weren’t the only ones who walked away impacted.

Bose said getting outside of the lab left him feeling fulfilled. Liang was impressed by participants’ aptitude for the material and said she left with new life perspectives.

Added Caldwell: “Pitt’s Community Engagement Centers align University resources and activities with community goals and expertise.” He commended the trust that has deepened with the Hill community since the CEC there was started.

“This hyperlocal focus allows us to coalesce a lot of those activities in a very community engaged and community sanctioned way to potentially have a much deeper and more impactful experience,” Caldwell said.

For the CEC’s Hall, it’s about participants’ decreased skepticism of Pitt’s sincerity and intentions as a direct result of the programs.

“Our programming has been able to show people they’re capable, have the capacity to learn these skills and that it's not something that's just available to people in more affluent communities,” said Hall.

She said the CEC’s digital inclusion programs give Hill community members a chance to believe in not only the University but also themselves.

“Our participants from the Hill are sharp and witty and eager to learn and it’s really exciting to be a part of that process.”


— Kara Henderson, photography by Tom Altany