The Necessity of Digital Equity and Care Work

HandsIn our 2017 article, titled “Creating Caring Institutions for Community Informatics,” Dr. Miriam Sweeney (University of Alabama) and I explored the potential affordances of applying a feminist ethics of care approach to public libraries and community technology centers–the places where people go when they are unable to pay for the Internet at home.

In our paper, we argued the following: 

“An ethics of care framework has several possible affordances for infomediary practices in these institutions, including highlighting the gendered power dynamics that define and shape existing practices; distributing care work and making existing care work visible; and envisioning a more holistic and ethical approach to engaging diverse publics.”

We translated Tronto’s (2010) seven warning signs for “bad care” in public institutions into seven positive guidelines for providing “good care” in public libraries, community technology centers, and other community-care spaces. We then contextualized these guidelines for the institutions that people rely on, and increasingly during the pandemic, particularly for those who cannot afford the high cost of broadband.

These seven positive guidelines include the following main points:

  1. All humans need and deserve care
  2. Needs are contextually and culturally defined
  3. Care is a process, not a service or commodity
  4. Expertise is situated and distributed
  5. Caring is a relational process wherein people may assume many, and simultaneous, roles
  6. Caring is a routine part of every aspect of professional practice
  7. Care work is a shared responsibility; the equal distribution of care work is a political act

As the Biden Administration, members of Congress, and the Federal Communication Commission continue to push important legislation and federal programs forward to address the digital divide, I believe there is an urgent need to develop new ways of thinking about digital equity that embrace some of the ideas presented above.

This work urgently joins more recent and growing calls within the fields of social work, public librarianship, and related areas that intersect with these fields that demand we consider the ways in which economic inequality and racial injustice continue to keep digital equity out of reach for millions of Americans. This is because, as we argued in our 2017 paper, “interventions that are narrowly focused on providing individual access to technology are inadequate for addressing the structural forces that continue to shape the allocation of resources along the axes of race, class, and gender,” and other social identities.

In other words, our feminist ethics of care in digital equity work must be intersectional.

Last year, Susan Kennedy and I argued the following in our article for the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society:

“To inform this work, the next administration should develop a digital equity and racial justice task force that brings together social workers, public librarians, community organizers, and other community-care practitioners to develop strategies and tools to promote digital and racial equity in communities most impacted by the pandemic.”

Federal policymakers will not be able to address the digital divide without addressing its root causes, including economic inequality, racial injustice, and other systemic social issues.

The time is now to bring together care workers with digital equity practitioners, researchers, and policymakers to ensure that federal policies and programs connect to those who need broadband the most.

(Photo above by Brenda López Espinosa available under a Creative Commons license)

Broadband Measurement System for Public Libraries Launched

Murakami Viz
(Image above from Murakami-Viz in use at the Pryor Public Library in Oklahoma)

After two and a half years, I am incredibly excited to announce that we have successfully launched our broadband measurement system with and for public libraries across the U.S.!

Thanks to a grant (award #LG-71-18-0110-18) from the U.S. Institute for Museum and Library Services, and in partnership with Measurement Lab (M-Lab) and Internet2, our Measuring Library Broadband Networks (MLBN) research initiative has launched our open source broadband measurement system that public libraries can use to measure the speeds and quality of service of their broadband internet connections.

Here is a snippet from our new blog post, written by Chris Ritzo (M-Lab) announcing our broadband measurement system:

As we close out the calendar year, we’re focused on that future where we can measure and understand broadband access and quality using a variety of measurement tools. We’ve invited our participating libraries to review their test data in Murakami-Viz, and look forward to their feedback on it and our program in general in the coming year. M-Lab is continuing to develop Murakami as a tool that enables structured data collection using our platform, as well as using other measurement initiatives and tests.

We believe this announcement is timely given this week’s press release from the U.S. Senate announcing provisions for broadband in the Bipartisan COVID-19 Emergency Relief Act of 2020 with emergency assistance for community anchor institutions and connectivity.

For public libraries interested in gathering real-time and longitudinal data on the speeds and quality of service of their broadband internet connections, please visit our project website to learn more about how communities can participate in this open source broadband measurement initiative.

On behalf of our MLBN team, I want to thank our partners, including the many public libraries from across the country that offered their time and insights to help inform the development and implementation of our project.

Stay tuned for more project updates and our final evaluation on our MLBN project website.

MLBN Explainer Video

Here is a fantastic video, produced by Carson and Jessikha Block, that provides an overview of our Measuring Library Broadband Networks (MLBN) project. It’s a wonderful description of our research, which is funded by a two-year grant from the U.S. Institute of Museum and Library Services (award #LG-71-18-0110-18). to learn more about our research, please visit our project website at http://slis.simmons.edu/blogs/mlbn/

New Article in Media, Culture & Society

Media, Culture & SocietySharon 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.”

New Paper Published in Lecture Notes in Computer Science

My colleagues, Chris Ritzo, Georgia Bullen, the late James Werle, and SLIS doctoral student, Alyson Gamble, and I have a new paper published in Lecture Notes in Computer Science. The paper, titled “Participatory Development of an Open Source Broadband Measurement Platform for Public Libraries” was published as part of the iConference 2019 Conference Proceedings.

Here is the abstract for our paper:

“Public libraries need access to reliable, automated, and longitudinal data on the speed and quality of service of their broadband Internet connections. Having such data at a local, granular level is essential for libraries to understand how their broadband infrastructure can meet their communities’ digital demands, as well as inform local, state, and national broadband planning efforts in the U.S. This paper contributes a participatory research methodology and an information system design proposal to investigate how public libraries can utilize broadband measurement tools to achieve these goals. The purpose of the research is to assist public libraries in gaining a better understanding of the relationship between their network infrastructure and digital services. The paper concludes with a brief discussion of the expected findings from our project, which builds upon existing research that examined how broadband measurement tools can be utilized in public schools.”

To learn more about our research, please visit our project site.