With more than 100 colleges and universities in greater Philadelphia, the area is one of the most education-rich cities in America. Yet more than 500,000 city residents fall below adult literacy levels. What's more, only 24% of city residents have college degrees and only a third of city residents are qualified to fill the positions that are available.
All of these stats, cited by Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter (inset photo), figured in the city's 2011 win of an IBM Smarter Cities Challenge Grant. A digital divide in the city starts with the fact that until recently more than 40% of city households lacked access to a computer or the Internet. Thus, a cornerstone of the city's plan was to create Digital On-Ramps to bring online education and training opportunities to youth and adults.
Working with cable provider Comcast, the city set up an Internet Essentials package including a laptop computer, modem, Internet access and training for $9.95 per month for qualified households. The city also established 77 public computing centers across the city, concentrated in neighborhoods with limited Internet access.
Access to the Internet is just a start. IBM's Smarter Cities team recommended developing an interactive, online guide to schools, courses and training programs. Scores of agencies and programs were found to be working on bits and pieces of the literacy challenge, yet they weren't collaborating or sharing data. IBM recommended creating a federated, cloud-based view of the populace built on data pulled together from multiple sources, including public schools and community colleges. The team also recommended engaging Philadelphia's business community, including trade associations, chambers of commerce and business councils to align courses and training programs with entry-level skills required in growing city industries including education, medical services and tourism.
"The Smarter Cities plan validated our concept, gave us an operational plan and helped us land on concrete, early-action projects," said Nutter. Suggested "quick win" projects included using predictive analytics to spot students in danger of dropping out of school to trigger intervention programs; developing a credentialing system and digital badges to recognize proficiency and provide a permanent electronic record of employable skills; and launching projects to better understand the needs of low-literate adults and to serve them with neighborhood-based adult-learning communities and tutoring programs.