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Digital Access and Equity

When it comes to digital access, there are two parts of the equation:

  1. Does the infrastructure exist?
  2. Can (and will) people actually access it?

On the opening day of the 2017 Smart Cities Innovation Accelerator, we gathered for a session on Digital Access and Equity where panel and audience members discussed these ideas. Representatives from cities across the country chimed in to share which part of the access equation is a bigger issue, and how to overcome the challenges.

Setting Up Infrastructure

Although panel and audience members feel confident that their cities have a high degree of digital access, most admitted that there are dead zones, pockets of (typically) low-income communities where broadband and Wi-Fi access is not available. One nugget gleaned from the session is the importance of not assuming universal connectivity, but rather measuring it scientifically. Only then can you truly determine what percentage of your city’s population is in the digital dark, and which areas need infrastructure improvement.

Just like all scientific studies, you should start out by defining specifically what you mean by digital access.  It’s not just that people ‘can’ connect; true digital access must be defined in terms of its affordability, its quality (25 Mbps or better, 100 Mbps or better, etc.) and the availability of multiple choices.

As for measuring accessibility, cities like Los Angeles have used data from broadband maps and the American Community Survey. Meanwhile, in Miami they went out into the field, gathering tech carriers and engineers to travel the city, measure access, and pinpoint where gaps exist.

By identifying where the problem areas are (and how big of a problem accessibility is) the city can take steps to improve and establish infrastructure. Participants had several examples of how they have done this: adjusting antennas to improve signal, setting up free public Wi-Fi throughout the city, and working with providers to make home internet services more affordable. Getting creative with vendors and internet service providers can allow you to negotiate lower service fees and get donated components, service, support or architecture, thus cutting down costs to taxpayers.

Acceptance of Connectivity

The other side of the equation is whether or not people can (and will) access the digital world if connectivity is made available to them. Most city representatives agreed that this could be the trickier part of providing universal digital connectivity. Here are some reasons why they think this is a big problem, plus how they are handling it.

  •  of Interest: Some people just don’t think that they need the internet; they don’t see the value it provides and the benefits they could get from it. Cities facing this issue have held informational and training programs that stress the importance of the internet and benefits such as the ability to search for jobs online, to find a better job and raise your income, to apply to schools, and to access city services.
  • Affordability: Despite interest, the cost to obtain services may make it unaffordable to some households. The city of Atlanta has addressed the affordability problem by setting up special low rates with internet providers (e.g., $8.99/month for basic services). However, although this can solve the affordability issue, there is still the problem of how to make more low-income communities aware of these programs so they can take advantage of them. Several other cities are tackling affordability issues by targeting kids from low-income households with programs that provide free devices and internet service.
  • Digital Literacy: Even if a person is interested and can afford access, lack of knowledge may prevent them from utilizing services. There were many stories from cities that are tackling digital literacy problems with training programs at libraries and recreation centers so city residents can understand how to use the internet and what the internet can do for them.
  • Language Barriers: There are dozens of languages spoken in each major American city. Many people are non-native speakers or speak a different language than English, and this may make them hesitant about exploring and embracing the digital world. To address this issue, city officials, including those in Los Angeles and Philadelphia, have been mindful of holding training sessions in a variety of different languages, particularly the top languages used in the city.

By addressing these issues and targeting youth, cities are seeing a growing awareness and acceptance of digital connectivity in communities that have traditionally been a bit more resistant to technology. They have witnessed a snowball effect, where one person’s interest (for example, a kid who has received a free computer) makes dad want to get online, which makes grandma want to get online, which makes neighbors come over to learn about it, and so on. Small-scale city efforts can balloon into a ‘virtuous circle’ where people want to experience the benefits of being online but also want to get online so they can connect to their social network.

It’s All About Outcomes

While discussion about infrastructure and access was the focus of the panel, one theme that came up, again and again, was the importance of outcomes. More specifically, while cities are striving for digital inclusion, they should constantly be asking and measuring whether these efforts make a positive difference in the city.

For example, a city program in Atlanta has connected 2000 kids with free internet service. A year later, the city is wondering what impacts the program had. By gathering metrics such as attendance records, grades, and so on, they can see if the program produced positive outcomes for individuals, families, and schools. If results are promising, this may lead to an awareness campaign so the city can reach the families they haven’t connected with yet.

And the results of a digital inclusion project might not always be positive either. Panel and audience participants pointed out that technology can have good or bad outcomes, and even our efforts to close the digital divide can sometimes widen the gap. For example, public schools in cities like New York and Miami are starting to modernize the classroom by giving students devices to use for their coursework. However, those students who do not have access at home are, in essence, abandoned after they leave the school, forced to find libraries or other free access sites in order to get and complete homework. When they walk in the door the next day at school, they are already behind as compared to their classmates who have internet access in their own homes.

All the cities represented at the 2017 Smart Cities Innovation Accelerator are driven to close the digital divide and provide equitable access for their city residents. The overarching theme of this panel session was that in order for cities to do this, they must approach each project systematically: abandon all assumptions at the door; define key variables and goals; strategically plan your implementation; and last but not least, examine the data to evaluate your results and confirm that your project is producing positive outcomes.