The moDAT story: key players and community leaders
For the People by the People. Those are the first lines marked in red under the “Our Story” section on the moDAT site. But what do those words mean and how did this machine-learning, cutting-edge technology come to life? This special edition blog takes a deep dive behind the scenes to show you where we we’ve been, where we are now, and how we got from there to here.
So, what is moDAT (mo’ Digital Advocate)? Answer: moDAT is the people’s digital advocate and navigator that meets a range of digital needs in your local community.
Who does moDAT belong to? Answer: You. moDAT is yours.
A project two years in the making, CEO of mohuman, Nishal Mohan, understood the urgent need for a digital navigator like moDAT after witnessing the catastrophe caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, which busted open the digital divide for all to see. As an immigrant from Guyana, Dr. Mohan experienced firsthand what it was like to grow up without technology. He now applies his lived experience to projects like moDAT, with the help of his team, which he affectionately calls the mohuman “Digital Rebels.”
One of those Digital Rebels is Andrea Guillen, Program Manager at mohuman, who oversees community engagement through codevelopment of digital services and technology. As an early Digital Rebel at mohuman, Andrea worked closely with Dr. Mohan and community leaders to coordinate efforts and cocreate a database of local organizations that are now featured on the site. Andrea also helped with various design aspects and edits that were essential to moDAT’s minimalist style.
When asked why she wanted to be a part of moDAT, she shared how the tool offers a lot of the same resources that her family sought growing up. “I have often been the go-to person in my family when it comes to creating profiles for banks and finances, teaching them basic PC or laptop commands, and all that ‘jazz.’ I’m very familiar with the digital inequities that exist among recent generations and even more so with older generations. I believe the platform has the capacity to combat some of these digital inequities, while also providing resources that people need in their daily lives,” she said. Andrea is excited about the direct impact moDAT will make on communities that resemble her own.
“I have often been the go-to person in my family when it comes to creating profiles for banks and finances, teaching them basic PC or laptop commands, and all that ‘jazz.’ I’m very familiar with the digital inequities that exist among recent generations and even more so with older generations.
-Andrea Guillen, Program Manager, mohuman
Like mohuman, the story of moDAT marks one of change and progress over time. mohuman’s mission to adapt and scale its model across all 22 Promise Zones emulates moDAT’s evolution from development to implementation. In fact, moDAT originally started as “Digifi Me” with a more limited scope involving places to find wifi, hotspots and devices for fee or at low-cost. Today, many ideas continue to circulate about how to expand listings and improve usability, with the main objective of promoting small businesses so they are represented with a digital face and easily found in their own community. For people in redlined digital inequity zones, this may not always be the case, which is why moDAT acts as a digital advocate. One community leader even stressed the efficacy of the tool by pointing out how it avoids the bureaucratic tape stuck on traditional sites, where digital space belongs more to the advertisers than it does to the people.
After reassessing the scope of its use, Andrea and Nishal felt the name “Digifi Me” did not match their brand. They searched for inspiration in familiar places. moDAT evokes wordplay for mohuman, which in turn is wordplay for modus operandi, the human movement in science and technology and the call for a more human-centered approach to address the digital divide. Andrea came up with moDAT after identifying that mohuman is driven by tech and the quest for more data, but also, just as importantly, more stories. Basically, more of all of that.
It’s also a sly nod to their fandom for The Notorious B.I.G. (If you don’t know, now you know).
Dr. Mohan knew that moDAT could not reach success if its architects did things the way they’ve always been done. The digital inclusion sector has historically set the unfortunate standard of deploying temporary solutions through a top-down approach. That’s why mohuman decided to do things a little differently. moDAT’s wide-ranging, holistic stack of digital services has the power to break these norms in a way that is self-sustaining. And while mohuman plans to roll out its community mesh network to individuals and families in the San Diego Promise Zone soon, its aim is not to be viewed as a free to low-cost internet service provider, but a digital services delivery platform and force for change to dismantle the digital divide for good. Now every CBO and resident is empowered as a digital navigator.
“I don’t view the digital divide as an internet problem. Installing internet service is the first step, but it’s not the end goal. mohuman works backwards (though I might argue it really moves forwards) to work alongside the community and listen to their needs, then adapt from there and create the best service that is tailored to those specific needs. Our model improves the conditions of communities, so they are transformed into digitally resilient, economically empowered conduits for change.”
-Nishal Mohan, CEO, mohuman
mohuman builds community before technology. You can think about that through the framework of old-school digital inclusion compared to new-school digital resilience. Instead of focusing solely on entry points into the digital realm, like digital literacy, digital devices, or access to internet (all of which are of course necessary to engage with our 21st century world), mohuman concentrates on the needs of the community first, before introducing anything else into the fore. Equity means removing the barriers that make something unequal. By forming equal partnerships with community-based organizations, a culture of trust, transparency, and accountability is fostered. This makes new technology like moDAT more than a quick fix, but a sustainable tool that leads to community reinvestment and revitalization.
Natasha Salgado, Community Engagement Coordinator at Logan Heights CDC, worked behind the scenes as an advisor on moDAT for months. She identifies with mohuman’s mission to put community before technology, which drew her to the cause. “Throughout the development of moDAT, my thoughts, feelings, and feedback were not only included, but valued. Because of that, individuals and families at Logan Heights have confidence that moDAT delivers not only access to digital services, but a pathway toward workforce empowerment,” she said. As a leading voice in San Diego for underserved communities, Natasha’s insight influenced important logistical features on moDAT to enhance category search options and result listings.
“Individuals and families at Logan Heights have confidence that moDAT delivers not only access to digital services, but a pathway toward workforce empowerment.”
– Natasha Salgado, Community Engagement Coordinator, Logan Heights CDC
Another major player in the construction of moDAT was Alexis Villanueva, Senior Program Manager for Economic Development at City Heights CDC. Alexis is vocal about the need for a digital navigator like moDAT at City Heights. “It’s been a tremendous honor for CHCDC to be at the table working alongside mohuman. Modat will change how communities engage with technology because it prioritizes community needs like resources, opportunities, and business development.
“Not FOR the community but WITH the community. Great job mohuman!”
-Alexis Villanueva, Senior Program Manager for Economic Development, City Heights CDC
mohuman is hacking systemic inequities by bringing digital resilience to underserved communities. moDAT is more than a tool. It’s the tipping point. Let’s make the internet more human. A lot more of that.