Finding Our Way with the Help of Digital Navigators - Episode 442 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast

In August we first covered the National Digital Inclusion Alliance’s new Digital Navigator’s program, which provides a best-practices model for organizations looking to use local resources to help neighbors learn the skills and overcome their reluctance to getting online. This week on the podcast Christopher welcomes Paolo Balboa, Program Manager at the National Digital Inclusion Alliance and Shauna Edson Digital Inclusion Coordinator, at the Salt Lake City Public Library to dive deeper into the program and talk about lessons learned so far.

The group dives right into what digital equity means both in policy and practice, and how we can be more thoughtful about both. Paolo shares the history behind the idea of the NDIA’s Digital Navigator Program and how it came to fruition, helpfully, right at the start of the pandemic. 

Shauna talks about the challenges Digital Navigators confront head on in communities, from helping residents overcome lack of familiarity with new devices, to learning to navigate the web, to connecting with local resources. Both Shauna and Paolo stress that successful forward progress will come from the presence of ongoing programs staffed by fellow community members, and Shauna shares the progress made in Salt Lake City so far.

This show is 32 minutes long and can be played on this page or via Apple Podcasts or the tool of your choice using this feed

Transcript below. 

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Thanks to Arne Huseby for the music. The song is Warm Duck Shuffle and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution (3.0) license.


Paolo Balboa: The Digital Navigator is there to have a good understanding of the resources available in their area, as well as the understanding of how to get their community member to the resources that they need.

Ry Marcattilio-McCracken: Welcome to episode 442 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast. This is Ry Marcattilio-McCracken here at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. Today, Christopher welcomes Paolo Balboa, program manager at the National Digital Inclusion Alliance, and Shauna Edson, digital inclusion coordinator at the Salt Lake City Public Library. The group dives right into what digital equity means, both in policy and practice and how we can be more thoughtful about both. Paolo shares the history behind the idea of the NDIA's Digital Navigator program and how it came to fruition, helpfully right at the start of the pandemic. Shauna talks about the challenges Digital Navigators confront head-on in communities, from helping residents overcome lack of familiarity with new devices, to learning, to navigate the web, to connecting with local resources. Both Shauna and Paolo stress that successful forward progress will come from the presence of ongoing programs staffed by fellow community members, and Shauna shares the progress made so far in Salt Lake City.

Ry Marcattilio-McCracken: If you listen closely enough during the episode, you can hear Christopher once again tout his imperviousness to online scammers of all types. The rest of us on the team here at Muni Networks wait patiently for the day when he gets his well-deserved comeuppance. Now here's Christopher, talking with Palo and Shauna.

Christopher Mitchell: Welcome to another episode of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast. I'm Christopher Mitchell at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance in St. Paul, Minnesota. I'm excited. This is a show that I've been wanting to do for six months, since I first learned about the concept of Digital Navigators, and we're finally in a good place to talk about it with the right people. Let me introduce you first to Paolo Balboa, the program manager at National Digital Inclusion Alliance. Welcome to the show.

Paolo Balboa: Hey, Chris. Thanks for having me, happy to be here.

Christopher Mitchell: Yes, I'm very excited. We've had Angela Siefer on multiple times and I think she's a fan favorite, so you have super high pressure on your shoulders. We also have Shauna Edson, the Digital Inclusion Coordinator at Salt Lake City Public Library. Welcome to the show, Shauna.

Shauna Edson: Hi, Chris. Thanks, happy to be here.


Christopher Mitchell: Yes, and I'm also excited because, I have to say, I keep looking to Utah for the future of broadband. Utah is a very advanced state, technically. So I'm really glad that we were able to pull you in.

Shauna Edson: Well, we have fun things going on here.

Christopher Mitchell: Shauna, I think you had the idea so let me ask you the question first. Let's just give people a sense of what is digital equity?

Shauna Edson: For me, digital equity is everyone having easy access to use technology to communicate, learn, work, and play. All individuals and community have the information technology capacity needed for full participation in our society, civic engagement, economy, and access to essential services. Right now, that can look like remote learning, working remotely, talking to our friends and family, sharing meals over Zoom, all the things that we need to do to stay safe at home.

Christopher Mitchell: I really like that you included play there, because I feel like sometimes when we're talking about these very serious issues, it can feel like we shouldn't talk about something that is innately human, our desire to play. I think it's important not to forget that as part of digital equity.

Christopher Mitchell: Paolo, let me ask you, is there anything else that strikes you that we should mention as we're setting the ground, the foundation we'll build on for the rest of the show?

Paolo Balboa: Yeah, I think Shauna just absolutely nailed it on the head there. I think one of the words that she mentioned that stands out to me is the participation in society and democracy. The example that I tried out this year is that this year, this was a big year for civic engagement that had to happen online. Whether it was filling out your census online or registering to vote or re-registering to vote, those were all activities that required some element of digital equity, that needed that connection to reliable broadband, you needed a device to get on and you needed to have that digital literacy know how in order to be able to navigate those sometimes confusing government websites.

Christopher Mitchell: Now, if we go back about 10 years ago, I feel like that was kind of the beginning of a robust effort. The BTOP program from NTIA, part of the stimulus that put a lot of money into digital inclusion efforts. Now, we fast forward and I feel like the idea of the Digital Navigator is somewhat new, and so maybe, Paolo, I can just ask you to start by giving us a sense of what led to the creation of this Digital Navigator idea.


Paolo Balboa: I think that the idea of a Digital Navigator has been around since before six months ago, but the Digital Navigator, we assigned a name to it and we started to breathe life into this idea because of COVID. I mean, in March when COVID hit and everyone had to stay at home, some of the organizations that were already serving their community members, they had to figure out, "Okay, how do we continue to fulfill the mission of our organization when we have to do everything remotely?" This idea of a Digital Navigator came up because what the community learned is that all of this has to happen to be able to have a remote interaction, maybe something like a Zoom call or maybe something like a simple telephone call. With the example of a Zoom call that takes an element of digital literacy know how on the part of the community member to know and understand how to get to Zoom, how it works and how to adequately use it to be able to check in with our community organizations.

Paolo Balboa: For a Digital Navigator, they had to figure out, "Okay, what are some best practices for communicating with our community members over Zoom or over the phone?" A lot of these skills, I think, well, my background is in library so the first thing that I think of when I describe a Digital Navigator is this is a librarian. I think about the pre-COVID, before March, the idea of a reference librarian, which was someone who sits behind the desk at the public library, they're there to intake patron questions and guide them towards resources that they need. Frequently in those conversations, a patron comes through the library doors because they may not have the vocabulary to describe what they need. That organic conversation between a librarian behind the reference desk and a community member or a patron is the work of a Digital Navigator, except now it's happening over Zoom meetings or over the phone. But regardless, the outcome is the same. The Digital Navigator is there to have a good understanding of the resources available in their area, as well as the understanding of how to get their community member to the resources that they need.

Christopher Mitchell: Actually, it seems like a joke that is common among economists, in terms of the chicken or the egg nature of this, which is, "I'm going to teach you how to use Zoom. Okay, let's get on Zoom so I can teach you how to use Zoom."


Christopher Mitchell: Shauna, I wanted to ask about the ... When you first encountered this concept, I'm guessing it was one of those things where you had already been doing a lot of this work and thought of it. I'm curious if the term Digital Navigator helped to pull it together differently, or just what was it like when you first encountered the term and the idea of that approach?

Shauna Edson: The idea with Digital Navigator, it actually came to be between a conversation with myself and Angela and Bill Callahan over at NDIA. We were brainstorming together different ideas of what we could call this concept. We started working on our project with them in April, so it's been a long time coming. When we came up with the idea, we were brainstorming different names and lots of things came up. We looked at ideas of a case manager or just some other words, but what we liked about navigator was that it was more of a guide and a support rather than somebody taking on a significant role of being a teacher or doing something for somebody. It's the idea of supporting individuals to be able to do things themselves.

Christopher Mitchell: Excellent. Paolo, where did you come in terms of this? What is your role with the Digital Navigators?

Paolo Balboa: Yeah, sure. NDIA brought me on in late July. Previously, I was working for the New York Public Library in their Technology Training Program department, and before that I was working for the Cleveland Public Library and their version of technology training programs. I was a library educator and formal educator working primarily with adults. I had known of NDIA and known Angela and Bill and Shauna for several years, I think back to 2017, so I was already familiar with this work and knew that this was an organization that aligned with the stuff that I like to do. When I came on, I just got thrown into this Digital Navigators project right away. My background and experience with two separate big public library systems with curriculum development, delivery of content to students of all different backgrounds and interests and whatnot, I think that that is where I came into not only NDIA, but specifically this project.


Paolo Balboa: With Digital Navigators, it's one of the programs that I manage. What NDIA does and what I do, functionally, is support folks like Shauna on the ground who are doing this work with our communities. Shauna and her colleague, Justin, of course are going to have much closer relationships with folks in their communities, but NDIA thinks about, "Okay, how can we utilize or how can we make effective our national network of broad affiliates?"

Paolo Balboa: One of the things that we do is convene a working group every few weeks, of which Shauna and Justin are a part. We have topics in which we're addressing on the ground issues or problems that are coming up in our planning and development of various Digital Navigator projects. For instance, when we were trying to figure out like, "Okay, how do we normalize or standardize that organic conversation between a Digital Navigator and their community member when they're trying to figure out what the community's number need is," That was a pitch that we were throwing to the working group. We were saying like, "Okay, how do you guys do this?" Then does this look like a script, does this look like a form? How does it make the most sense to teach someone what this work looks like and what a good workflow is?

Christopher Mitchell: Shauna, it seems like this is something that you're still ... Every week, perhaps, there's new, exciting developments as people come up with new ideas of how to manage this sort of a thing. Is this still maturing that quickly?

Shauna Edson: Absolutely, yeah. Between our Digital Navigators that are working with individuals, the feedback they provide, the national work group that Paolo runs that he talked about, through the NDIA, has been so amazing to help us get feedback and bed ideas and really work out some of the logistical things that come up. Yeah, we're changing often. Our goal is to have a replicatable model at the end of September of next year.

Christopher Mitchell: I'm curious if you can tell us, what's the ... I'll ask you this next, Paolo, so you can think about it. But, Shauna, I'm curious, what's one moment where you just had an aha moment or just a moment of real levity when you were working with folks on this issue?


Shauna Edson: I think one of the big A-HA moments for me was some of the community-based organizations that we're working with have really close relationships with the community members coming into those organizations and really new to this idea of a Digital Navigator and providing this type of support, but they have staff members hired on to be Digital Navigators. Those individuals were just fearless. We gave them about a week worth of training and they just jumped right in and were immediately able to start supporting the folks that they were working with in this capacity. I think a lot of the focus that we place on this type of work is on technology skills, but I think a lot of it is on actual customer service, how we interact with individuals and how we listen and how we talk with them, and then having an amazing resource base, which libraries are great for.

Christopher Mitchell: Yeah, it seems like you can teach someone more easily about broadband and digital inclusion and the literacy skills much more easily than you can teach someone how to be compassionate and thoughtful and be able to, in many cases, just understand someone that may have literacy, may have language challenges, just someone who may be a recent immigrant who is still learning English. There can be, I'm sure, a lot of hurdles that require a good people skills.

Shauna Edson: Absolutely.

Christopher Mitchell: Paolo, let me ask you then, what's an aha moment or a moment of levity, if you can make us laugh?

Paolo Balboa: I think it's going to come back to the national working group that convenes every few weeks. This is just one of the things that I just enjoy about this work in general. Shauna and her colleague, Justin, and my colleague, Christie, were getting together and we were trying to figure out like, "Okay, what does this program look like, functionally? We've talked about conceptually what a Digital Navigator is, but how do we pin down the points here and make sure that we have a work plan for each of the Digital Navigators when they start providing service?"


Paolo Balboa: Taking questions to the working group, for instance, how are we standardizing the reference interview, how do we assess community members' skills without making them feel ashamed or embarrassed of their lack of skills, for instance, and just having that conversation with 15 to 20 other people who are all just completely aligned and who all have that base empathy that I think you need to be able to do this kind of work, I don't know, the working groups bring me so much joy whenever we get together because I'm just like, "These are my people." I don't have to do any of like the pre-description of what this sort of work is, we can just jump right into it and everyone's on the same page. Having everyone clicking together, for my part, just posing a prompt and then just listening to the conversation that comes for the super, super fascinating for me.

Christopher Mitchell: I want to say that I've always thought this work was important, but I don't think I appreciated just how much. I think that I assumed that the number of people that needed this kind of help was probably smaller than it was. I think if I honestly look back to two years ago, I probably would say that, for the most part, there's going to be some people who need digital inclusion classes and to do this sort of a thing to be comfortable with it, but fundamentally, if we just get prices into people's hands and we get them and we get them ongoing service costs low enough that we'll mostly be where we need to go. I think there's probably people out there who still believe that. Let me ask you, Shauna, why isn't that correct? Or what is the evidence that is not correct even?

Shauna Edson: I often think of the contrast between a teenager and when they get a brand new device ... Computers used to come with ... Well, everything used to come with instruction booklets with multiple pages that we had to go through to learn how to use it. That's not our world anymore. A teenager can pick up a brand new device they've never used before and just start playing with it and learning it and interacting with it and using it to meet their needs.

Shauna Edson: We work a lot with senior citizens in senior centers and multiple, multiple, multiple times we'll have somebody bring in a tablet and they'll say, "Oh, I got this for my birthday last year from my son. I don't know what to do with it. What do I do? There's no instructions, there's nothing that comes with it." I think between all sorts of different age demographics, there's several different levels of that kind of inherent knowledge that some people have and curiosity to interact with technologies, and some of us don't, myself included. Remember when you could wipe a hard drive easily on a computer and then you'd be in big trouble, so there's this fear that we have to overcome and we don't feel like you can safely explore and interact with it. I think that digital literacy component of teaching folks and encouraging folks to interact and play with their technologies to learn is just key.


Christopher Mitchell: That's such a good example. I can remember all the times that I ... If you can imagine for a second, the worst. I'm very fortunate to have had the parents that I had. When I was in junior high, I want to say, my dad was in the midst of fixing up a computer. This would have been in like '92 maybe, and so computers were kind of rare and my family was fortunate that my dad had gone back to college and actually got into computers. I was doing a report and I had my spiral ring notebook up close to it, and I nudged it and it made contact with the motherboard and it shorted the whole thing out, the brand new, expensive piece that my dad had been waiting for. He just lost tons of stuff.

Christopher Mitchell: Anyway, it's one of those things that like ... That's not something most people are going to do. It's never going to happen today, your tablet is not going to be exposed like that. But there's so many things that I can just think of over the past 30 years of my life of using this device that's gone wrong and I've been fortunate it doesn't scare me off, but I can see how for other people it would be very scary when something goes wrong like that.

Shauna Edson: Yeah, I think so. Overcoming that fear barrier is kind of the first step, and then we can go into how to set up a web account or navigate social services and things like that.

Christopher Mitchell: Right, and then the one I think of also is that people totally undervalue how often this population is a target of scammers. Scammers are not trying to convince me, thinking that they're going to fool me, because I'm the most brilliant person ever. No, just because I think they're looking for people who are more on the edge of society, people who aren't often of higher income. People like us just don't even experience that and know what it's like, and I think that's probably a major issue too.


Christopher Mitchell: Paolo, I'm curious. One of the things that I really want to make sure we talk about was that we cannot solve this problem by creating a joint strike force of the best 10 people in the country who go around doing presentation after presentation, right? We actually need this work to be done by people that are trusted in the community. Tell me why that is.

Paolo Balboa: We can't have someone parachute in, we can't have me parachute into such a small community and say like, "This is how you do your work." This work has to happen from people who are in the community because they know their community members best, right? They're of the community, they live there. They can have part of that initial conversation, and this work sort of comes from social work and case management, there must be a rapport built in order to get that baseline trust instilled in a community member with someone that they're going to be working with and talking with, hopefully multiple times, right? That Digital Navigator has to be from within the community.

Paolo Balboa: I think that the Salt Lake City Public Library Digital Navigator project is a perfect example, because they have three Digital Navigators who were working as Salt Lake City Public Library employees who are now working as Digital Navigators. They're getting other folks from community-based organizations who are hiring from within their communities. When you're a community member and you can just feel a little bit at ease, maybe you recognize the person that you're talking with or the person that you're talking with has a similar sort of background or they at least know the same city, that breaks down such a large, large barrier, because ultimately, again, the community member, your library patron, they want to trust you. That trust comes from a library, that trust comes from a community-based organization that they're already familiar with. It's super, super important that a Digital Navigator has that baseline understanding of their community and where they're coming from.

Christopher Mitchell: I would assume also it's important that they're there, because I know that I learn something in a class and I think I got it and then I go home and I realize I missed a piece of it and I need to go back and talk to someone that's going to help me walk through it, so it's not like a one-time, "Hey, you're educated," boom, never see you again.

Paolo Balboa: Yeah, for sure. One of the things that we really, really try to emphasize when talking about Digital Navigators is that this is a relationship. One of the phrases that we use is that there are repeated interactions between a community member and the Digital Navigator. What we mean by that is that we want the community member to feel comfortable just calling in for the first time and maybe saying like, "Hey, I heard you guys are doing this Digital Navigator program. What's that all about? Maybe I need help getting a Chromebook or something." We want them to feel comfortable calling back and saying like, "Hey, I talked to you last week. I have another question. Can you tell me about this?"


Paolo Balboa: Eventually, through over the course of several, several interactions, we want that community member, and this may be a little bit crass, we want that community member to not call back again. We want them to feel confident if a question pops up in their head, we want them to feel confident in knowing, "Okay, this is what the Digital Navigator walked me through. They did a good job narrating why they were doing it and now I think I'm going to try it on my own this time." That's the goal. We love having that human contact, but ultimately, that's one of the goals here. We want them to be able to do this on their own.

Christopher Mitchell: It reminds me of learning how to use Linux, again, way back a long time ago for me, and just try to do something and then restart the computer because I broke it, over and over.

Paolo Balboa: Right, exactly.

Christopher Mitchell: Shauna, one of the things that I think about is just probably seven, eight years ago, there was a sense of what is the role of the library in the future, we're going to eBooks. At this point, I mean, I'll say I love the library system, I probably read most of the books I read checking them out from a library I almost never go into, using one of the eBook services, but I mean, it's actually crazy to me that you would have libraries that aren't doing this. Just tell us a little bit about how this lines up with the mission of the library.

Shauna Edson: Libraries have been playing a significant role in addressing digital divides for decades. Where we are right now is kind of coming to claim space and some ownership in that role. Some cities have organizations that provide public computer labs. In Salt Lake City, the Salt Lake City Public Library has our main library and seven branches. There's only one other public computer lab in Salt Lake City. That's an essential service for community members to be able to come in and use those computers as well as get some one-on-one help. We've been also offering computer classes in our creative lab spaces. We offer classes for people who've never used a mouse or keyboard before do advanced things, like using the Adobe suite and sound editing. I think that role is shifting and changing, and libraries and library leadership is starting to take part in important conversations with municipalities on how we can work together as a community to address digital equity.


Christopher Mitchell: Yeah. In my own St. Paul, the library system is probably the part of local government that is the most concerned with and active on trying to resolve getting home access for people, let alone other issues of trying to make sure people have opportunities for education and literacy.

Shauna Edson: Yeah, libraries have stepped up a lot with some home access. A lot of libraries have hotspot lending programs, you can check out Chromebooks or laptops to use at home. the Salt Lake City Public Library, I was fortunate to receive funding from the Institute of Museum and Library Services to work on this Digital Navigator project, which really allows us to explore how we can do that work remotely when folks can't come into us and use our resources.

Christopher Mitchell: Great. I think the last question then, I'll start with you, Paolo, but Shauna, I want to give you a chance at this too, and that's this seems like an issue that you'll work yourself out of. At a certain point, the people who don't have the skills be ... We'll never run out of people who need some help, but I would expect that we'll see a dramatic reduction in the number of people that need this kind of help if you do your job well. Do you see that in the future, Paolo?

Paolo Balboa: I think that's an interesting way to think about it. Yeah, I mean, like I said before, the goal is that they don't need help anymore, so to your point, fewer people need help, but one of the things that's fascinating or interesting about what the pandemic has done in the digital equity, digital inclusion world is that we're seeing a lot of new faces, a lot of new types of organizations who are now interested in this work. It makes sense, they can't fulfill the missions of their organization unless they address this digital equity, digital inclusion element.


Paolo Balboa: I don't think that we'll ever run out of folks who need this sort of support. For instance, we're beginning to see new residents, migrants, refugees, and organizations that serve that particular community entering conversations about digital equity and digital inclusion. That's certainly a population that for worse has been forgotten about in the digital inclusion conversation, but now we're bringing them into the fold and figuring out like, "Okay, here's a new round of best practices for serving this particular type of population," and then how do we continue service, because the English language divide is massive here. That's a huge barrier that I'm actively grappling with in my work right now, how do we address that.

Paolo Balboa: To go back to the very beginning, digital equity is the goal. We want everyone to get to a place of having the skills and the understanding to fully participate in society, but that seems so far away, unfortunately. I think that programs like Digital Navigators and getting more folks who are acquainted with this sort of work and the language that we use to describe our work will only reveal new populations who need help. I think it's an ongoing and continuing process.

Christopher Mitchell: Yeah, that strikes me as a very realistic take on it. Shauna, I'm curious if you want to build on that at all, or if that's how you see it.

Shauna Edson: Yeah. I agree with everything Paulo said, is that we're always identifying new pockets of folks that need support. Then the other thing is technology is changing just as rapidly, well, more rapidly, we can't keep up with it. I think that there's always going to be a need for some digital literacy support and education as technology continues to evolve.

Christopher Mitchell: Thank you so much, Shauna and Paolo. This has been a great conversation and I think I really appreciate the work that you all are doing to move this forward, because I will just say that from the empirical evidence that I've seen, where $10-a-month connections are available, there's definitely more that needs to be done, not just to make sure people use the devices, but to make sure then that we get the benefits of telehealth and remote education and just making sure that people unlock all of the potential of the Internet. Then beyond that, also making sure people have some time to play. I'd like to end it there, and thank you both for coming on the show today.

Shauna Edson: Thanks for having me.

Paolo Balboa: Thanks for having us.

Ry Marcattilio-McCracken: That was Christopher talking with Paolo Balboa and Shauna Edson. We have transcripts for this and other podcasts available at Email us at with your ideas for the show. Follow Chris on Twitter, his handle is @communitynets. Follow stories on Twitter, the handle is @muninetworks. Subscribe to this and other podcasts from ILSR, including Building Local Power, Local Energy Rules, and the Composting for Community Podcast. You can access them anywhere you get your podcasts. You can catch the latest important research from all of our initiatives if you subscribe to our monthly newsletter at While you're there, please take a moment to donate. Your support, in any amount, keeps us going. Thank you to Arne Huseby for the song, Warm Duck Shuffle, licensed through Creative Commons. This was episode 442 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast. Thanks for listening.