Recently, in our Community Informatics Lab at Simmons University we have started a new research project to investigate what we are calling Digital Equity Ecosystems. This project builds on the excellent work of researchers and practitioners in the Digital Equity Lab at The New School, National Digital Inclusion Alliance, Detroit Community Technology Project, and others. We define digital equity ecosystems as the following:
Digital Equity Ecosystems are interactions between individuals, populations, communities, and their larger sociotechnical 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.
Our research in this area seeks to understand the impact of COVID-19 on individuals and families without household internet access and how digital inclusion coalitions across the nation have responded in turn. The goal of the study is to provide data and evidence to help local, state, and federal policymakers in the U.S. develop more effective digital equity strategies nationwide.
Findings from the study will also be useful for key stakeholders working to promote economic and racial justice in communities struggling with poverty during COVID-19 and after the pandemic ends. This is because, as we know from scholars such as Seeta Peña Gangadharan, Chris Gilliard, Virginia Eubanks, and many others who have noted that, the digital divide is rooted in systemic injustices and structural inequalities in our society. Therefore, we are keenly focused on the social, rather than the technological, solutions to digital inequality. We believe that a social ecological approach using participatory methods rooted in community knowledge and expertise is the pathway forward in this approach.
The publication of the first phase of our research to be published in 2020 is supported by the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society.
Sharon Strover, Brian Whitacre, Alexis Schrubbe and I have a new journal article in Media, Culture & Society. The article, titled “The Digital Inclusion Role of Rural Libraries: Social Inequities Through Space and Place” features findings from our two-year research grant (award #RE-31-16-0014-16), funded by the U.S. Institute of Museum and Library Services to examine how rural libraries address the challenges of Internet connectivity with hotspot lending programs.
Here’s a link to the abstract, which is also included below:
“A great deal of scholarship on broadband deployment and federal policies has positioned rural America through a deficit framework: rural parts of the country have older populations (and therefore not tech savvy), are poor (and therefore justifiably ignored by the market), too remote (therefore outside of legitimate profit-making enterprise), and losing population (and therefore significance). This research examines rural Internet connectivity through the lens of local libraries lending hotspots for Internet connectivity. Qualitative data gathered in 24 rural communities in Kansas and Maine undercut simplistic notions regarding how communication systems operate in environments ignored by normative market operations. Financial precarity and pressures from social and economic institutions compel rurally based individuals and families to assemble piecemeal Internet presence and connectivity. The public library plays a crucial role in providing Internet resources and stands out in the rural environment as a site that straddles public trust and local.”
In our new article, titled “The Ability of Pay for Broadband” in the journal Communication Research and Practice, my co-authors Dr. Bianca Reisdorf, Madison Bishop, and I introduce a term that we are calling broadband workarounds based on the findings from our research. The concept builds on research by the late Les Gasser who I had the privilege of working with during my doctoral program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Here is an excerpt from our article, which is freely available online for the next four weeks:
“Despite significant barriers to broadband access, there is evidence that low-income individuals and families, as well as the community-based organisations who serve them, will go to great lengths to access broadband. These factors indicate that individuals and families in low-income areas understand the value of broadband but simply cannot afford it – a sentiment that was reflected in interviews, focus groups, and the survey. Participants described what we are calling broadband workarounds, which are broadband-related activities such as splitting the cost of broadband with neighbours, using a friend’s home internet connection, and relying on public computing sites such as libraries and other community technology centres. Similar to Gasser’s notion of ‘work-arounds’ (1986) as ‘adhoc strategies to solve immediate and pressing problems’ (p. 216), we use the term broadband workarounds to describe the everyday strategies that participants described to address the cost-related barriers to broadband. Local digital inclusion organisations, including public libraries, work to alleviate the need for broadband workarounds by creating and connecting people to low-cost broadband options. A focus on these local community assets as a starting point for broadband policy can sharpen awareness of the innovative solutions that already exist in low-income areas.”
UPDATE (6/19/19): After sharing this blog post via Twitter today, John Horrigan responded in this tweet by noting that he had called “online access at the library part of a ‘workaround ecosystem'” for work he did a few years ago with Monica Anderson at the Pew Research Center, which can be found online here.
I am excited to announce that my new paper, titled “The Ability to Pay for Broadband,” which was co-authored with Bianca Reisdorf (UNC Charlotte) and Simmons SLIS alum Madison Bishop (Plymouth Public Library) was just published in a special issue on “Digital inequalities and inclusion” guest edited by Justine Humphry (The University of Sydney) in Communication Research and Practice.
Today, the Benton Foundation published our blog post, which provides a brief summary of our published article and its findings. Here’s a snippet from the Benton Foundation’s website:
“According to recent National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) survey data, roughly 28 million households in the United States still do not use the Internet at home (Goldberg, 2019). In its survey, the NTIA also asked why households did not use the Internet at home, with 58 percent citing a lack of interest as their main reason for being offline and every fifth household (21%) stating that it is too expensive. Out of those who cited cost as their main reason for not having home access, half had annual household incomes lower than $25,000 (Goldberg, 2019). But an aspect that is often missing from Internet use survey data is the complexity of potential reasons why households might think they have no need or no interest in home Internet access and how this is often closely intertwined with their ability to afford a home Internet connection.
In our recent paper, published in a special issue of Communications Research and Practice, we present findings from two separate studies on digital inclusion in the United States that sought to gain a deeper understanding of the ability of low-income individuals to spend their money on wired broadband internet connections at home. We believe the findings from the studies can be useful to policymakers, practitioners, and other stakeholders interested in developing effective digital inclusion and broadband adoption policies.”
Our article is available open access for a limited time via the journal’s website at Taylor & Francis Online.
I am excited and honored to announce that I will be co-editing a special issue in an upcoming issue of the peer-reviewed open access journal Social inclusion with my colleague, Dr. Bianca Reisdorf (UNC Charlotte). The title of the special issue is “Digital Inclusion Across the Globe: What Is Being Done to Tackle Digital Inequities?“
Here is a snippet from our call for papers:
“In this thematic issue, we invite papers from across the globe that examine digital inclusion—the process of trying to address digital inequities, inequalities, and divides. What initiatives have been or are being applied in different countries, regions, cities, or communities to foster digital inclusion and with what effect? The scope of this call is purposely broad to include all types of communities. For example, submissions might discuss digital inclusion efforts with vulnerable populations, such as prisoners and those formerly incarcerated, disenfranchised youth, refugee or immigrant populations, and other marginalized groups and communities. We invite papers from across the globe and especially welcome papers addressing digital inclusion in the Global South and BRIC countries. We also invite papers using any methodology (qualitative, quantitative, mixed methods, and so forth) to examine digital inclusion across various contexts and communities.”