Paper vs Online – Thinking About the Future, Will it Be Inclusive of POCs?

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Like many others much of my life has shifted to online interactions because of COVID. My work life has shifted to online work, which I am fortunate to be able to do. Today I logged several hours of meetings from my dining room table with two kids doing remote learning and sneaking YouTube videos when they thought the adults weren’t watching.

In one of my online meetings, a data learning cohort my organization is piloting, the facilitator asked about data storage. I briefly mentioned how pre-pandemic our data storage, namely surveys we had conducted pre-pandemic were mostly paper based which took us down a tangent of paper vs online data collection. We had offered both paper surveys and online surveys, but majority of the surveys returned were via paper. When we took this data back to the design team who helped collect surveys they said their respondents (majority POC families, immigrants, not English fluent) preferred the paper surveys for a lot of reasons – limited access to the internet, facilitators could walk through the survey more easily with families via paper, the paper surveys could be dropped off at people’s houses, and many other reasons.

I wonder as we return to pre-COVID life will the online ways of working continue, and if so, will it be inclusive of POCs who utilize old-school technology like paper?

Limits of Online Engagement

The technology divide was deeply exposed when COVID forced schools and businesses to shift to remote access, libraries and coffee shops to close where many people accessed cheap or free internet service, and many others who may have been able to afford online access were suddenly out of work. As communications shifted online, many people of color were left behind.

As we move forward with re-opening plans, I hope we design our post-COVID lives to include our families and neighbors who previously used paper and needed support to participate in civic life. If we value our communities of color, immigrants, limited English speaking neighbors, seniors, perhaps living without reliable electricity, and those without computers or internet access we’ll design ways of engaging that don’t rely upon internet-based technology.

As an example, many COVID testing, and vaccine clinics required people to schedule appointments online. Many of us with internet access expected this and knew how to navigate the online systems. Vaccine hunters knew how to access the online portal showing where vaccines were available and could scoop up appointments. Many organizations did impressive outreach – making calls, texting people to make sure they got signed up, door knocking to make sure their clients secured appointments for a COVID vaccine. But what if we didn’t have organizations who saw it as their mission to bridge that divide? The shift to online platforms has left people behind – we need to design the shift to online better, smarter, and more intentionally.

We also have to think about who has decision making control and power/agency as we shift to online platforms. With the shift to online platforms and new ways of working people of color are often not in control and do not have a great deal of say in how platforms are created.

Why Paper

While many of us have embraced online life, there are still pros to paper in some circumstances. Every few months I will hear someone say something along the lines “even XXX [fill in poor, immigrant, non/limited English, seniors, etc.] have smart phone,” therefore we don’t have to print paper copies. The answer is yes and no. While many may have a smart phone, not everyone keeps data plans or can connect their smart phones to the internet which we saw during the early days of the pandemic when libraries and coffeeshops (traditional places where people could access Wi-Fi) closed.

I’ve also seen where paper is superior because it allows people to have a written record which they can share with others, especially if they need help understanding what is on the paper. Seniors and people with limited English proficiency may use paper copies to ask for help understanding what is said.

Paper is also simpler. Having spent the past year helping my kids navigate online platforms, I can’t tell you how many times we’ve lost logins and passwords. My kids are now very digital savvy, but there was a learning curve and they still periodically need help. (Side note paper is not always superior when your kid loses the one piece of paper he wrote the Zoom meeting code on, tech came to the rescue since I had the code saved in a previous text thread). For people who are not digital natives navigating complex online registration, logins, and passwords is much more challenging then filling out a paper based registration form.  

Oldest Technology – People

As we move forward in a digital world, we need to remember that “old” technologies are still embraced. The oldest form of technology – human relationships is the most important and needs to be at the center of everything we do regardless of the platforms of online versus paper.

As I was writing this I thought about my work and how I most likely will continue with many of the online shifts my organization has made. In some ways I can’t see us going back to some of the older practices we were forced to let go of because of COVID. Like do I really need to print everything or commute to places for meetings? Meeting virtually has allowed us to engage in new ways and in many cases with new and more people. But thinking this through, I shouldn’t lose reaching out to people who aren’t online or easily reached through the ‘new’ ways of working. That work is on us and we can own that responsibility.

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I am writing from the ancestral lands of the 29 federally recognized and non-federally recognized tribes in now Washington State, including the Coast Salish people — Duwamish, Muckleshoot, Suquamish, Snoqualmie, and Native American organizations that have treaty rights and have been here since time immemorial. I give my thanks to the elders, Native and Indigenous colleagues and relations, and the land itself. Fakequity pays “rent” to Native organizations in Washington and Hawaii; a small action to hopefully repair and work to be in more justice based relations.