Oakland, California’s New CIO to Tackle Digital Divide

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Tony Batalla led efforts to deploy a fiber-optic network in a neighboring city

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“In the most underserved areas of Oakland, there’s still a lot of opportunity to connect homes, to bring internet directly to residents,” he said.

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The chief technology officer in the neighboring San Francisco Bay Area city of San Leandro from 2014 to early this year, Mr. Batalla comes to the role with experience overseeing internet infrastructure projects. In San Leandro, he was responsible for managing the rollout of the city’s fiber-optic network, which supported citywide free Wi-Fi and high-speed business and residential internet services.

Most recently, he was information services director of California’s Santa Cruz County. He left after a four-month stint, citing personal reasons.

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Oakland is the most populous city in Alameda County, where nearly 100% of the population has access to one or more internet-service providers, according to the latest data compiled by the Federal Communications Commission. But access can vary with some older, multiunit residences in poorer neighborhoods not equipped for internet access, according to Patrick Messac, project director at #OaklandUndivided, a public-private partnership supported by Oakland and its public schools to help close digital-access gaps.

A lack of affordable internet services is also keeping some residents from getting online, Mr. Messac said, noting poorer neighborhoods, including West Oakland, Fruitvale and East Oakland, are most affected.

Mr. Batalla said he expects to work with a network of municipal organizations, nonprofits and private-sector partners to help expand digital access.

“That’s really a transformation for IT departments moving out of the ‘We fix your computer’ model to, ‘We’re actually in the community doing the work,'” he said.

His priorities also include connecting underserved communities with training and hardware, building on prior experience. In San Leandro, Mr. Batalla helped lead a partnership with the nonprofit Tech Exchange to donate refurbished computers to residents in need.

San Leandro Mayor Pauline Russo Cutter said Mr. Batalla’s ability to work with community groups ensured the implementation of her city’s fiber-optic network.

“At the forefront he was thinking about the social equity of our community,” Ms. Cutter said.

Richard Florida, a professor at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, said the so-called digital divide in which some can’t reap benefits of digital access is about more than internet access.

“The digital divide is an outcome of other structural conditions of concentrated disadvantage, concentrated poverty, a lack of good schools and neighborhood services and amenities,” he said.

Digital equity has long been an issue for US cities. Two new municipal tech leaders, New York City Chief Technology Officer Matt Fraser and San Jose CIO Khaled Tawfik, have cited expanding internet access and equity as a priority.

“Technology is an enabler,” said Mr. Fraser, adding that technology initiatives need to be driven by the needs of citizens. “Before we can innovate, we must first make sure we are providing easy access to essential city services to the people most dependent on those services.”

Write to Suman Bhattacharyya at [email protected]

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Credit: www.Businesshala.com /

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