Category

Digital Inclusion

NEW REPORT: Growing Healthy Digital Equity Ecosystems

By Broadband, Digital Equity, Digital Inclusion, Publications, ResearchNo Comments

We are excited to announce the publication of our new Benton Institute for Broadband & Society report, Growing Healthy Digital Equity Ecosystems During COVID-19 and Beyond. This report presents findings from a survey of individuals representing a diverse group of organizations across the United States that have self-identified as being part of either a formal, informal, or emerging digital inclusion coalition. The purpose of our study was to better understand the role these coalitions have played in supporting what we are calling “digital equity ecosystems” in their communities during the challenges of the pandemic.

We define “digital equity ecosystems” as the interactions between individuals, populations, and their larger socio-technical environments that all play a role in shaping the digital inclusion work in local communities to promote more equitable access to technology and social and racial justice.

We believe the next administration, led by President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, can benefit from understanding the community-based tactics, particularly in poor communities and communities of color, that have emerged in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. In our new report, we show how digital inclusion coalitions have leveraged their communities’ digital equity ecosystems to address their communities’ broadband-related needs while facing significant barriers due to limited personnel, technological, and financial support for digital equity.

You can find the report and the related Benton Digital Beat article here.

Here is a summary of our main findings:

Digital inclusion coalitions established before the pandemic have responded to COVID-19 by focusing their efforts on information and resource sharing, networking, data collection, raising awareness about digital inequality, and developing new tactics to promote digital equity. These coalitions have worked to coordinate investments and develop new funding opportunities to support their existing work such as providing access to computers, low-cost internet service, and Wi-Fi hotspots for more vulnerable members of their communities. In our survey, 29% of respondents indicated that they were part of digital equity coalitions that formed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. These new and emerging coalitions have organized others in their communities, focusing on ways to provide access to the internet, digital devices, and digital literacy training for low-income individuals and families. Respondents described several factors that made it possible to respond in these ways, including: their existing relationships and collaborations, awareness of existing policy constraints, capacity and knowledge about how to best engage with key stakeholders (both inside and outside local government), as well as years of existing digital inclusion experience. Others cite new funding opportunities as key support for their response, with 52% of respondents indicating that their organization or community used CARES Act funding for digital inclusion activities.

The pandemic has introduced several new challenges for digital inclusion coalitions and has magnified a number of existing challenges. These challenges include obstacles to getting sufficient buy-in from broadband internet service providers to support their efforts, as well as barriers to working with local elected officials to make free and/or low-cost internet access a policy priority. Some coalitions cite the lack of infrastructure in rural areas, as well as insufficient resources, staff time, and funding to address the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. Additionally, respondents described social distancing rules as a challenge when many of their digital inclusion activities rely on in-person instruction and devices. Several respondents highlighted the challenge of balancing responses to the urgent, short-term needs that the pandemic presents—such as hotspot and device distribution for K-12 digital learning—with long-term, sustained investment in broadband access, adoption, and literacy.

Digital inclusion coalitions are finding ways to creatively solve problems to address their communities’ digital needs. These solutions include developing new and expanded partnerships, including partnering with community members; piloting new initiatives; collaboratively seeking new sources of funding; pivoting to online training in digital skills training and virtual tech help; sharing information and resources with their communities; and offering socially distanced, masked, and outdoor events. In addition, there are more stakeholders interested in digital inclusion initiatives than ever before, especially K-12 schools, health care providers, and local nonprofits. Two of our respondents indicated the importance of making connections between the COVID-19 pandemic, digital inequality, and racial injustice when developing digital equity solutions. Respondents indicated that several new tactics will continue even when the health crisis ends, including: virtual learning services; development of digital equity plans, expanding broadband infrastructure, raising awareness of digital equity work, prioritizing device accessibility and training in digital literacy, and promoting data-collection efforts.

Cities, counties, states, and national organizations have also played key roles in supporting local digital equity ecosystems. Cities, counties, and states have played significant roles in addressing digital inequality during the pandemic, such as making funds available for internet and device access, including free community Wi-Fi access points and free or discounted in-home internet access. Cities and counties have also worked with their public libraries to expand Wi-Fi hotspot availability. Statewide and multi-state coalitions have focused their efforts on the following: providing maps of free internet locations, compiling lists of low-cost internet deals, providing recommendations for COVID-19 task forces, creating online-resource webpages, informing people about digital equity, offering information on funding opportunities and state actions, and collaborating to share knowledge and resources. National nonprofits have worked to address digital inequality in communities across the United States through their work with local digital inclusion coalitions to promote literacy training in digital literacy, as well as device refurbishing and reuse.

Illinois Developing Broadband Leadership Series

By Broadband, Digital Equity, Digital Inclusion, Publications, ResearchNo Comments

On June 3rd, CI Lab Director Dr. Colin Rhinesmith presented at the fourth part of the University of Illinois Extension Developing Broadband Leadership Webinar Series, which focused on broadband adoption, affordability, and inclusion. This series was co-sponsored by the University of Illinois extension, the Illinois Office of Broadband, and the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society. 

Alongside special guest Illinois Lt. Governor Juliana Stratton and speakers Gigi Sohn (Georgetown Law Institute for Technology, Law and Policy), Debbie Alfredson (Deputy Director, Winnebago County Housing Authority), Karin Norington-Reaves (Chicago Cook Workforce Partnership), and Casey Sorenson (PCs for People), Dr. Rhinesmith presented on his 2016 Benton Foundation report, “Digital Inclusion and Meaningful Broadband Adoption Initiatives.”

As Dr. Rhinesmith highlighted the research in the report intended to provide evidence to help inform initiatives such as the FCC’s Lifeline Universal Service program, which at the time was being reformed to help provide a broadband subsidy to low-income consumers. Research questions guiding the study included:

What are the key characteristics of low-cost Internet and digital literacy training programs for vulnerable populations?

What indicators do broadband adoption programs use to measure the success of their programs?

After visiting eight community-based organizations across the country, Dr. Rhinesmith identified a four-part digital inclusion strategy common to these organizations. Part of this strategy includes making low-cost computers available in addition to low-cost broadband and digital literacy training. The presentation concludes with the reminder:

The full webinar has been recorded, and you can view Dr. Rhinesmith’s slides here.

New Co-Edited Special Issue in Social Inclusion

By Digital Equity, Digital Inclusion, Journals, Publications, ResearchNo Comments

The open access journal, Social Inclusion published a new special issue, titled “Digital Inclusion Across the Globe: What Is Being Done to Tackle Digital Inequities?” The issue was co-edited by Dr. Bianca Reisdorf (University of North Carolina at Charlotte) and Community Informatics Lab Director, Dr. Colin Rhinesmith.

As the abstract explains,

“There is a large body of research that has examined digital inequities, inequalities, and divides—i.e., those countries, communities, and individuals digitally left behind or disadvantaged. Whereas we know quite a lot about what is lacking and for whom, there is less focus on what works to alleviate these inequalities and divides in a variety of cultural contexts. This thematic issue brings together scholarship on digital inclusion initiatives and research from over 20 countries and in the context of numerous aspects, including different types of initiatives as well as different types of target audiences for these initiatives. Each article provides unique insights into what does and does not work in various communities, making recommendations on what could be done to improve the examined initiatives. We hope that the breadth and depth of articles presented here will be useful not just for academic audiences seeking to broaden their understanding of digital inclusion and ‘what can be done’ rather than focusing on ‘what is amiss,’ but also for policymakers and digital inclusion initiatives who are eager to expand and advance their digital inclusion work within their communities.”

The entire issue is open access and available for free on the Social Inclusion website.

TPRC Paper Selected for Capitol Hill Briefing

By Conference, Digital Inclusion, ResearchNo Comments

I am honored and excited to announce that my paper with Dr. Bianca Reisdorf, Assistant Professor in Media and Information and Quello Center Assistant Director at Michigan State University, has been selected as one of four papers to be presented at a special Telecom Policy Congressional Briefing as part of this year’s Telecommunications Policy Research Conference.

Here’s a snippet of the announcement via the Quello Center’s website:

Dr. Reisdorf will present findings from her work with Dr. Colin Rhinesmith, who is an Assistant Professor at Simmons College, and a Faculty Associate at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University. In their paper, titled Race and Digital Inequality: Policy Implications, they combined quantitative data analyses using Pew data, American Community Survey data, and FCC Form 477 data with qualitative data from a Benton Foundation study on digital inclusion initiatives in several cities across the US. The combination of these rich data sources brought forward deeper insights into what is keeping some of the economically hardest-hit communities offline and how policy can help increase digital equity. For example, quantitative analyses of data on Kansas City, MO, and Kansas City, KS,emphasized existing digital inequalities along factors such as race, income, and education, and showed that fewer fixed broadband providers offer their services in poor urban neighborhoods. The qualitative case study of digital inclusion initiatives across these neighborhoods, however, showed that local, well-designed digital equity programs have a positive impact in mitigating these inequalities. While federal policies can help to provide more infrastructure and service to hard-hit neighborhoods through programs such as Lifeline, local organizations and policymakers can provide context-specific on-the-ground support that builds on the resources and assets already available in the communities to allow meaningful broadband adoption.

Visit the TPRC website to learn more about this year’s conference in Washington, D.C.

 

New Benton Foundation Report

By Digital Inclusion, Evaluation, ResearchNo Comments

I’m excited to announce the release of a new report co-authored with Angela Siefer, Director of the National Digital Inclusion Alliance, and published by the Benton Foundation, which highlights and seeks to address the core outcomes-based evaluation needs of the digital inclusion field. Here is an excerpt from today’s report release available at Benton.org:

In recent years, government agencies, private foundations, and community-based organizations have increasingly sought to understand how programs that promote digital inclusion lead to social and economic outcomes for individuals, programs, and communities. This push to measure outcomes has been driven, in part, by a larger trend to ensure that dollars are being used efficiently to improve lives rather than simply to deliver services. A new report, published by Benton Foundation, describes the challenges facing community-based organizations and other key stakeholders in using outcomes-based evaluation to measure the success of their digital inclusion programs and offers recommendations toward addressing these shared barriers.

Download the full report here.

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