Over the past year, my team and I at the Digital Equity Research Center at METRO co-led a participatory action research project with Tech Goes Home (TGH). The purpose of the study was to develop a theory of change for TGH, as well as an analysis of the challenges and opportunities facing community-based organizations in conducting equity-focused program evaluations as part of their their digital equity work.
We hope the findings from our study will help to inform state and federal policymakers as the NTIA’s Internet for All grant funding rolls out over the next five years.
The Benton Institute for Broadband & Society published this summary that I co-wrote with Sangha Kang-Le (TGH) and Malana Krongelb (DERC). The article includes the following recommendations based on the findings from our participatory action research project.
For digital equity organizations, key recommendations include:
Allocating time, money, and intentional effort to capture insights and expertise from community members;
Engaging evaluation participants in their native languages; and,
Working with funders to balance reporting requirements with participants’ privacy and self-defined measures of success.
Policymakers play a critical role in supporting this work and should prioritize:
Set aside funding that organizations can use to conduct evaluation;
Technical assistance on effective program evaluation; and,
Allowing government funding to be used to compensate community members for their expertise.
(Image above by Becca Quon originally published on the Digital Equity Research Center website)
MMC’s Social Media Editor, Nari Sawalha created this fantastic image (below) to be included on social media to help promote the article.
Here is the abstract for the article.
Previous studies have examined the benefits and challenges of using mobile phones to support people experiencing homelessness. However, few studies have considered how mobile Wi-Fi hotspots support unhoused individuals and couples through public library lending programs. This paper seeks to address a gap in mobile communication scholarship by contributing insights from a qualitative study of library patrons who checked out mobile hotspots from the Boston Public Library in Massachusetts, USA. The findings show that although mobile hotspots provided many benefits for public library patrons in general, these devices facilitated mobile communication with a different sense of urgency for six people experiencing homelessness who also happened to be in romantic relationships. More concretely, the study found that mobile Wi-Fi hotspots reduced stress and anxiety for unhoused patrons because without the devices, patrons without fixed residences worried they could not be found; that hotspots kept unhoused patrons more connected, and therefore safer, in their tents despite the cold weather and a lack of electricity; and that unhoused patrons were concerned about their devices getting stolen because of their precarious situation. Although the unhoused patrons who participated in this study also shared their recommendations regarding how mobile hotspot lending programs in public libraries could be improved, they also mentioned that the benefits of hotspot availability far outweighed their challenges. The findings have implications for those working to address homelessness, including community-based organizations, government agencies, and policymakers who seek further insights into the positive role that mobile hotspot devices can play in supporting positive health outcomes for individuals and couples experiencing homelessness.
At the Digital Equity Research Center this year, we had the opportunity to lead a research project to gain a deeper understanding of the challenges and opportunities related to issues of digital equity and justice for residents across the state of Maryland. The study was commissioned by Economic Action Maryland. As their website explains, “Working at the local, state, and federal level, Economic Action Maryland unites individual advocates, poverty, civil rights, labor, and other public interest groups to press for policies that protect vulnerable Marylanders.”
It was a privilege to be able to work with Economic Action MD to help advance their work on digital equity and justice issues for residents across the state.
Here is a bit from the Executive Summary from the report:
“This report presents findings from a study of the digital equity and justice challenges facing Maryland residents, as well as opportunities and policy recommendations to address these challenges. The research focused on gaining a deeper understanding of the landscape of issues related to providing universal broadband access and achieving digital equity and justice for all residents in Maryland during a moment of both unprecedented federal funding available to states through the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and the potential for increased digital harms through both technological and market forces. The goal of this study is to inform Economic Action Maryland, and similar organizations, in their work to identify effective programs, practices, and policies that can be used to develop a digital equity policy agenda to advance justice and empower people across the state. The findings in this report are drawn from the analysis of qualitative data gathered during focus group sessions with a total of 61 participants in Baltimore City and across the state. In addition, interviews were conducted with 24 experts in Maryland and across the nation to gain their insights for the research.”
I am proud of this report, because I believe it is one of the few research studies that have sought to connect issues related to digital equity and digital justice for those most impacted by digital inequalities and those who work to support them.
Many thanks to the following individuals for their support with helping to make this research possible: Olga Akselrod, Stephanie Alphee, Jane Brown, Andrew Coy, Charlotte Davis, amalia deloney, Barbara Eucebio, Brandon Forester, Nicholas Garcia, Candace Hernandez, William Honablew, John Horrigan, Urmila Janardan, Christopher Kingsley, Leslie Margolis, Tacha Marshall, Jonathan Moore, Samantha Musgrave, Becca Quon, Chris Ritzo, Sabrina Roach, Houman Saberi, Claudia Wilson Randall, Hannah Sassaman, Marceline White, Akina Younge, Olivia Wein, and Corian Zacher.
The Federal Communications Commission’s Task Force to Prevent Digital Discrimination held a public listening session at Medger Evers College in Brooklyn yesterday. As part of the event, the FCC invited several speakers from a diverse group of organizations representing communities impacted by digital discrimination to provide their comments that could be included in the public record as part of the FCC’s inquiry.
As the FCC’s event page describes (and lists the speakers invited), the purpose of the listening session was to “gain additional information and understanding from affected communities, state, local, and Tribal governments, public interest advocates, and providers about challenges, barriers and experiences in ensuring all people of the United States benefit from equal access to broadband.”
Here are the remarks that I delivered along with the presentation that Becca Quon, Program Manger at the Digital Equity Research Center created for the event:
My name is Colin Rhinesmith, I am the Founder and Director of the Digital Equity Research Center located at the Metropolitan New York Library Council.
The Digital Equity Research Center is an applied research center that assumes digital inequality research must include analyses of historical injustice, systemic racism, and other structural inequalities in order to understand and address the root causes of the digital divide. This is one of the reasons why I am so glad the FCC is focused on understanding and defining Digital Discrimination as part of its work.
I am here today not only to share research findings from our work and others’ work to help inform the FCC in how it thinks about Digital Discrimination, but also to underscore the importance of key indicator collection and measurement data needed to advance digital equity and justice here in New York City and throughout the state.
In doing so, I want to highlight a report, titled ‘Achieving Digital Equity in New York.’ The report was published in 2021 by my colleague Lauren Moore, the Assistant Commissioner for Libraries and the State Librarian of New York.
The report identifies ‘the disproportionate access to digital resources that can be traced back to a wealth gap that has existed since 1950.’ The report goes on to say that ‘Historically, resources have gone to higher-income neighborhoods. This disproportionality continues today. Poverty and historical and structural racism are also at play; lack of or underinvestment in poor Black and brown communities such as the Bronx continues, resulting in many residents not having access to the internet at home.’
Not only should the FCC consider this history in its study of Digital Discrimination, it should also look at how the agency can help provide additional support specifically to areas of the country that have been discriminated against.
In response to this historical and technological discrimination, the FCC should help to create and support thriving digital equity ecosystems. The State Librarian’s report emphasizes that digital equity ecosystems require ‘the coordination, cooperation, and the intentional capacity-building of the many organizations supporting digital inclusion across New York.’
The report presents findings from a participatory research project with thirty-two digital equity and digital justice coalition leaders from across the United States, including several here in New York, who contributed their ideas to inform the framework. This work also responds to our State Librarian’s call for coordination and capacity-building by providing measurement tools to assist local coalitions in gathering data for planning, improvement, and advocacy purposes.
In its outline for collaborative change, our State Librarian’s report recommends shifting the focus of the work to address and prevent Digital Discrimination from digital equity to digital justice, stating,
‘It’s impossible to separate the root causes of digital inequity from the root causes of racism, opportunity gaps, and other systems of oppression.’
Based on these findings, which are echoed by research undertaken by our Center, I urge the FCC to move beyond using individual consumer-level indicators, such as internet speeds and quality of service measures alone in their inquiry. Rather, the FCC should undertake a more holistic community-level approach using equity indicators, such as those identified by the City University of New York’s Institute for State and Local Governance. I believe this approach to data-driven and equity-focused policymaking can assist the FCC in its efforts to combat digital discrimination while also using tools to learn about the conditions for disadvantaged groups, the disparities influencing their members, and whether those disparities are improving among specific sociodemographic communities, indicators provided by CUNY’s institute.
In closing, I applaud the FCC for leading this important work and hope the agency will see the Digital Equity Research Center as a partner in helping to create and sustain healthy digital equity ecosystems here in New York and across the country.
I am incredibly honored and excited to announce that I have just signed a contract for my new book to be published by the University of California Press in 2025!
The title of the book is Digital Equity Ecosystems and will be published as part of the UC Press Technology Studies list.
The book builds on the past 7 years of my own research, including research with others, that has investigated the interactions between individuals, populations, communities, and their larger sociotechnical environments that all shape the work to advance digital equity and social, economic, and racial justice. More concretely, Digital Equity Ecosystems will provide an examination of the formation, structure, and function of digital equity coalitions across the U.S., as one unit of analysis, and their implications for research, practice, and policy using a digital equity ecosystems approach.
As I wrote in my proposal to UC Press,
Through a comprehensive review of theories and concepts across the fields of information, communication, technology, and public health studies, as well as by presenting original case study research of digital equity coalitions in communities across the U.S., the book explains why a digital equity ecosystems approach to digital inequalities is so urgently needed now, particularly during a time of unprecedented national investment in response to the social, technical, and racial inequalities exposed during the COVID-19 pandemic. The book also underscores the urgency of this approach not only to bridge the digital divide, but also to strengthen civil society and the future of democracy.