Beyond Digital Inclusion – A Ten Point Plan for Digital Excellence.
Created 2007-05-04 12:05
This article will appear in the upcoming issue of Government Technology’s Digital Communities Magazine.
The Chicago Digital Access Alliance (CDAA) is a coalition of more than 40 communities, 70 non-profits, 50 churches, 100 small businesses, and 1000 individuals, and it is pointing the way toward a more digitally equitable future. As traditional public-private partnership models for municipal broadband have become increasingly contentious, in particular due to local community concerns about these models’ lack of effectiveness in addressing social and economic justice concerns, eyes are turning away from cities like Philadelphia and San Francisco and are looking more and more towards cities like Minneapolis, Boston, and St. Cloud, FL. As community organizers and residents become more knowledgeable about their broadband options, the “best” models of 2005 and 2006 just aren’t cutting it anymore.
As one of the core coordinators of CDAA, Michael Maranda sees his work as an outgrowth of earlier digital access initiatives, “The Chicago Digital Access Alliance was deeply inspired by the Community Benefits Agreement achieved by Minneapolis. We build upon our predecessors to honor them.” According to Maranda, “We drafted these principles under a frame of ‘Digital Excellence,’ and have been working hard at moving the discourse from Inclusion to Excellence…we want to set a higher bar. If Inclusion can be a way station en route to Excellence, we will be better off, but we need to be clear on where we want to go.”
The CDAA is holding decision-makers’ toes to the fire and demanding the city’s municipal broadband network be used as a tool to help address Chicago’s social and economic problems. “We won’t settle for a handout of a little hardware, a little connectivity, and maybe a little money to run some programs and put some sites up,” writes Maranda. “We’re not going to smile, say thanks, and go away quietly.”
From the Digital Divide to Inclusion to Excellence
In 2005, the Digital Divide was widely recognized as a fundamental problem affecting all aspects of contemporary civil society. Internet connectivity was proving incredibly beneficial to the citizens who had it. As network economics theorized and as reality was bearing out, as the number of internet users increased, the benefits that accumulated to network users were increasing super-linear – in other words, the networked whole was turning out to be far more than the sum of its parts. The darker side of this phenomenon was that the discrepancy in access between the connected and those left out of the telecommunications revolution was rapidly growing into a gulf that was actually exacerbating social and economic problems. Compared to their connected counterparts, the disconnected were rapidly losing ground when it came to things like access to jobs and educational opportunities, news, and social networks.
By 2006, a far more proactive stance was rapidly catching on. Digital Inclusion was not meant to simply be a PR catch-phrase, it was also a recognition that municipalities needed to do more than lessen discrimination – they needed to foster digital expansion. “I have felt that community and technology advocates were ready to take up the phrase Digital Inclusion largely because we’ve been neglected in the trenches for so long, that we just were ecstatic at being listened to at all,” says Maranda. “If we are being listened to, finally, let’s talk about the society we want, and about technology only in so far as it can be in service to us achieving that society.”
As a growing number of community organizers began to realize, “inclusion” wasn’t enough. “Digital inclusion has gained a lot of traction as a phrase, especially in Philadelphia, where Wireless Philadelphia has all but branded it to describe the social programs they are planning to close the digital divide. What we see in the online world is the result of a land rush where English-speaking white men had first crack at the virtual real estate. Digital inclusion is like saying poor people, people of color, and non-English speakers are allowed to shop in white neighborhoods,” writes Joshua Breitbart, Principal of The Ethos Group. “People talk about the entrepreneurial opportunities that will come from ‘closing the digital divide.’ They’re there, but anyone who is arriving now to the online world is working at a disadvantage to those who came before. We want to do more than just include people in the online world as it currently exists. We want that new involvement to transform that world. This is what I hope to imply with the phrase digital expansion.”
By 2007, forward-thinking leaders and municipal decision-makers are setting their sights still higher. As Maranda explains, “With Digital Inclusion there is danger of leaving our aim too low, and shooting ourselves in the feet. If [decision-makers] are listening now to community experts with experience in Digital Literacy, Access and Equity, let’s tell them where we really need to go. We can’t settle for digital inclusion as a charity model. We’re investing alongside others in our community, in our common future.” With Chicago’s Chief Information Officer, Hardik Bhatt, giving talks like his February 28, 2007 address to the Economic Development Council, “Towards Digital Excellence in Chicago: Crossing the Digital Divide with Wi-Fi and Other Programs,” the message is definitely beginning to sink in.
“Commons-based approaches, peer production, self-organizing networks, viewing the Internet as a governance model, open standards – we can trace the lineage of many of these elements back quite a ways – but the new technologies we have and the increased capacity for communication and exchange really makes for a quantum leap in what is possible,” says Maranda. With these thoughts in mind, CDAA laid out a ten point plan to promote Digital Excellence that provides a springboard for others looking to build networks that support social and economic justice in their own communities.
Principles of the Chicago Digital Access Alliance
1. DIGITAL EXCELLENCE IS AN INSTITUTIONALLY FUNDED PRIORITY FOR CHICAGO.
Activities promoting Digital Excellence are best shaped and supported through a sustained funding mechanism. A Digital Excellence Trust, guided by local constituents and practitioners in the field of Digital Literacy should advocate on behalf of the digitally under-served, offer programmatic support to establish local capacity and promote the vision of digital excellence.
As Richard MacKinnon, President of Austin Wireless, points out, “The best thing we can do as a community other than eliminating systemic exclusion is to understand the everyday needs of the digitally excluded and promote the solutions that may make their lives easier.” As Catherine Settanni, founder and Executive Director of the Digital Access Project and one of the main proponents behind the Community Benefits Agreement in Minneapolis, Minnesota, points out, it is not enough for political leaders to support digital excellence through their rhetoric; it has to become a funding priority. Settanni says, “In the past, we tried to influence grant-makers and foundations about these issues, in the hopes of educating decision-makers about the need to support digital inclusion efforts. Digital inclusion is seldom understood as a critical need, and so is seldom given the attention that housing, employment, health or educational achievement is when funding decisions are made.”
2. SOUND PLANNING, EVALUATION AND POLICY MEASURES ARE CRITICAL TO DIGITAL DIVIDE EVALUATION AND DIGITAL EXCELLENCE IMPACT.
Qualitative and quantitative processes must be established to gather baseline and ongoing data on Chicago’s digital divide, and guide the creation of new policies and practices to strengthen digital opportunities, thereby promoting digital excellence.
As an example of the often-overlooked, John Atkinson, Director of Wireless Ghana, points out that “Decision-makers at the higher levels even considered the use of open source software and hardware setups. There is a general air that such solutions are inherently not viable. So I believe there is a lack of education about the alternatives when it comes to these roll-outs.” Effective planning, evaluation and policy measures are not simply important for the viability of these project themselves; they also help educate potential detractors about the projects’ true impacts. “Decision-makers need to have a realistic benchmarks and timelines for results, while remaining flexible as events emerge on the ground. Many municipal systems declared ‘failures’ by opponents of community broadband enjoyed initial rates of return comparable with private sector start ups, but were not given time to achieve profitability,” states Harold Feld, Media Access Project’s senior vice president. “In addition, if the measure of success for a project is measured in some benchmark other than profitability (and I believe they should), these benchmarks should be declared up front and treated as equally important as revenue.”
Perhaps even more importantly, due diligence is vital for key decision-makers and their staff. As Atkinson stresses, “Policy makers need to educate themselves on these technologies so they can make the best decision when the time comes.” Otherwise, as Jim Baller, Senior Principal of the Baller Herbst Law Group, laments, cities will end up following in the sordid footsteps of national broadband policy. Baller remarks, “Congress is considering a fundamental overhaul of our communications laws, but it is doing so through a highly political process that is heavily influenced by vast incumbent lobbying budgets rather than by objective, coherent, long-term national planning for America’s future.”
3. UNIVERSAL ACCESS TO HIGH-SPEED CONNECTIVITY IS A PUBLIC RIGHT AND NECESSITY.
Universal broadband access for all citizens is a public right, not a privilege. Internet access must be available to ALL Chicago residents regardless of where they live, work or learn; furthermore, provision must be made for special access needs. Service upgrades and enhancements must be made available to all communities in an equitable manner.
Settanni emphasizes this point, saying, “Digital inclusion requires that all residents have equitable access to the social, civic, economic and educational opportunities that technology and the Internet provide. Seniors, low-income adults and youth, disabled or non-English speaking residents—those who might most benefit from access to these services—often lack adequate resources or skills to benefit from them. Digital Inclusion addresses the barriers to technology use among these constituent groups as a way to ensure a more equal playing field in these critical arenas.” “We should not leave aside concerns of social justice [and] the ability of traditionally underserved communities to speak in their own voices and enjoy opportunities hitherto denied,” cautions Feld. But on the other hand, we also need to ensure that the tools exist for communities to direct their own “digital destinies.”
4. DIGITAL LITERACY AND FLUENCY ARE FORMS OF HUMAN CAPITAL AND REQUIRE PUBLIC INVESTMENT.
Comprehensive training for digital literacy must be available in multilingual and varied learning formats. Digital proficiency must be promoted at neighborhood based locations, especially community technology centers, community based organizations and libraries, to strengthen resident understanding of new technologies. Training must be available in multiple formats to promote the inclusion of citizens who are fluent in other languages or disabled.
The United States needs to learn the lessons that pioneers in developing countries have already learned – digital literacy raises people’s standards of living. Atkinson recommends placing “an emphasis on being a part of the local community and building relationships within that context. Most people in a small town or village won’t trust a new technology because they have been betrayed by someone who tried to sell them on one before.” Many communities and neighborhoods in the US have similar feelings about the “solutions” they’ve been sold over the years to “improve” their lives. Deployers of broadband networks need to overcome what Settanni calls “persistent misconceptions about technology… [which] leads many decision-makers to focus on the cost effectiveness and ‘cool factor’ of technologies being deployed.” The problem often comes down to building trust – too many times, Settanni says, “[Broadband systems] serve the creative class and those already using DSL or cable broadband but fail to improve digital inclusion within underserved communities.”
5. LOCAL INFRASTRUCTURE IS NECESSARY FOR COMMUNITY-DRIVEN CONTENT DEVELOPMENT.
Content must reflect the ideas, identities and innovation of community residents and their respective neighborhoods. Local infrastructure must be established to allow for community control over content. Civic, educational and government web sites must be available for free to residents at ALL times through a Civic Garden accessible on the wireless splash page.
“Price points are one barrier to entry for the poorest community members’ use of a network, but so are software design, literacy levels, and misinterpretation of what a community needs from a network,” says Hannah Sassaman, Program Director of the Prometheus Radio Project. As a community organizer in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Sassaman points out, “I have yet to hear about a municipal wireless network that creates a robust upload/download speed or a software platform for community-produced music tracks, for example, and in Philadelphia, community-produced music abounds.” Community networks need to be about more than Internet Service Provision – they need to build community-wide Local Area Networks to house information, services, and multimedia on the network itself.
6. HARDWARE TOOLS MUST BE AVAILABLE TO ALL.
Computer hardware, whether new or refurbished, must be available to ALL Chicago residents free or at affordable cost, and non-predatory mechanisms must be put in place for the acquisition of this hardware for all consumers. Community-based organizations, libraries, and parks must be equipped and supported to provide free public use access.
Whether in Chicago or sub-Saharan Africa, access to computer hardware is rapidly becoming recognized as critical to civil society. “I see people learn languages online, and email or chat with loved ones globally; I see school teachers getting answers where their shabby textbooks fail, and school kids benefiting as a consequence,” states Atkinson. “People apply to schools, get jobs, and research visas. Possibly the biggest benefit is that people using computer workstation are constantly reading and writing.” Without hardware access, many residents will not be able to access the resources the community network could otherwise make available.
7. ENVIRONMENTALLY SUSTAINABLE BEST PRACTICES AND INNOVATIONS IMPROVE THE HEALTH AND WELL-BEING OF ALL NEIGHBORHOODS.
The tools of the information age must adhere to and support the highest levels of environmental and economic sustainability. The city should use the new network as a means to disseminate and capture information vital to improving the sustainability of our city, such as gathering air and water quality data and improving transportation choice. Economically and environmentally sustainable processes for disposal and recycling of outdated electronic materials should be supported by the City and technology vendors in all communities, particularly those low-income areas traditionally targeted for the potentially harmful disposal of used and toxic computer hardware. The City and technology vendors should support the creation of neighborhood-based recycling and refurbishing initiatives for environmental remediation and job creation.
“When someone like [Bill] Gates, or a city mayor, decides to push the availability of digital technologies into new communities, they quickly learn that the communities they partner with think about technology as it is relevant to the issues they already deal with in their lives,” states Sassaman. In Chicago, as elsewhere, environmentally sound practices are an important issue for a large and growing portion of the community. As Sassaman points out, wise leaders will recognize that “the social benefits of digital inclusion follow from what they learn in meetings with NGO and nonprofit directors who work on social issues in those communities – will a new wireless network, new robust laptops, help moms access their welfare benefits? Will they help kids access their schools? Elderly folks go shopping and access their health care?”
8. OUR FREEDOM TO CONNECT DEMANDS NETWORK NEUTRALITY AND ACTIVE MONITORING FOR EQUITABLE SERVICE.
Network Neutrality is grounded in Freedom of Speech. For all networks offering service in Chicago, the precept of network neutrality must be honored and all features of the network (bandwidth, services and enhancements) must be deployed so as to achieve universal and equitable coverage. The community must have the ability to monitor and verify data on coverage and quality of service, there must be mechanisms for remediation, and the city must take an active role to ensure compliance by vendor and subsidiaries.
Laird Brown, a coordinator of last year’s AirJaldi Community Wireless Summit in Dharamsala, India, sees equitable service as critically important for maximizing the robustness of digital communications networks and the diversity of uses in which they are utilized, “It puts another lane on the information highway. Without inclusion, all of the traffic is flowing one way. From a larger perspective, it means that the digisphere becomes more diverse and less of a monoculture. With regard to economic benefits, there is increased opportunity, if not exactly a level playing field. People [are] very enterprising and always manage to adapt to new opportunities.” One need look no further than AT&T’s blocking of specific conference call phone numbers last month to see how detrimental to open communications a non-neutral system can become.
9. THE GLOBAL ECONOMY WORKS FOR EVERYONE: ASSURE WORKFORCE DEVELOPMENT AND FIRST SOURCE HIRING.
Workforce development opportunities that emerge from the wireless network should be made available to neighborhood residents (including the hard-to-employ, youth, and physically challenged) that are identified, trained and employed through first source hiring opportunities and subcontracting opportunities for neighborhood-based businesses.
“As our manufacturing jobs increasingly move abroad to lower-income and lower-cost areas, we will see significant increases in plant closings, stressed local economies, and demands for federal and state aid – all of which will disproportionately affect our working classes,” cautions Baller. “To combat these trends, we must promptly reverse America’s precipitous free-fall in global broadband ranking, and we must act aggressively and intelligently to prepare our localities to thrive in the emerging information-based global economy. The stakes are too high, and the time is too short for America to leave this solely or even primarily in the hands of the private sector.” Feld agrees, saying, “Any system that relies on market incentives alone is going to face a real problem. There will inevitably be areas in which it is not profitable to deploy, or individuals who cannot afford to participate in the digital economy.” With the proper safeguards, incentives, and initiative, community broadband networks can become important incubators for economic empowerment and individual improvement.
10. IN STRONG NEIGHBORHOOD ECONOMIES, ENTREPRENEURS AND SMALL BUSINESSES THRIVE.
The network must provide mechanisms to expand existing small businesses and cultivate new opportunities in Chicago’s under-served communities. Small businesses and residents must have the resources, training and support to use the access afforded by the network to grow revenue and potential, including training in business development and eCommerce.
Angela Stuber, Executive Director of Grassroots.org says, discussing a paradox facing many institutions and organizations when it comes to technological investment, “Most small- and medium-sized nonprofits are busy providing services. Figuring out which technology tool to use and how to set it up is often a low priority. This is unfortunate since technology can increase an organization’s efficiency and productivity (i.e., provide the same services on less cash).” In much the same way, municipalities need to get beyond fears over public investment in up-front capital expenditures and realize that the returns on investment in broadband services help support the longterm economic stability of their neighborhoods and communities. Cities need to change the way they view public investment. As Sassaman relates, “We work with communities who have determined, on their own, that they want to build out and use a technology which is appropriate for them and their social, cultural, and political needs. Because the community aggressively pursues these technologies, they determine on their own how to conduct training, literacy, and outreach around those technologies in a sustainable way, in a way that can grow gradually. In municipal wireless networks, cities set benchmarks they must meet, for their own financial sakes and to serve investors and corporations, meaning that the needs set by community panels are secondary.”
Fundamental shifts in how cities, decision-makers, and community residents view broadband connectivity have already occurred. We are at a critical historical juncture, where policies, technologies, and economic necessities have aligned to support the widespread development and deployment of an entirely new generation of ubiquitous, mobile, and affordable communications. Mirroring the increasing importance of broadband worldwide, we have seen common understandings of broadband connectivity shift from “broadband as luxury” to “broadband for everyone.” Chicago Digital Access Alliance’s “Ten Principles for Digital Excellence” is an important benchmark for measuring a municipality’s commitment to fostering social and economic equality in this information age.
Sascha Meinrath is a regular contributor to GovTech’s Digital Communities and a co-editor of MuniWireless.com. Sascha serves as Vice President of CTCnet, a US-based network of more than 1000 organizations united in their commitment to improve the educational, economic, cultural and political life of their communities through technology, and also founded The Ethos Group, a telecommunications consulting firm focusing on maximizing the community benefits of broadband technologies. Sascha blogs regularly at SaschaMeinrath.com.