Community Technology and Digital Equity

Benton Institute for Broadband & Society

Community Tech New York (CTNY) logo

Monday, July 31, 2023

Digital Beat

Community Technology and Digital Equity

To aid both state broadband policymakers and local communities as they create state visions of digital equity, the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society's Visions of Digital Equity Project engaged six community contributors. These individuals bring diverse perspectives to the issues surrounding digital equity, from Alaska to Texas, covering rural, urban, and tribal challenges, highlighting issues of digital accessibility and digital justice. Over the past few weeks, we have highlighted their voices in a series of essays.

The insights of these community contributors informed a set of principles to guide the work of creating visions of digital equity. On August 1, the Benton Institute will release these principles.

Community Technology NY (CTNY) offers an alternative vision of technology in which under-resourced communities and neighborhoods have direct control over their digital communications, allowing them to be owners and maintainers, not just consumers, of that technology.

CTNY has critical expertise in facilitation, data gathering, analysis, strategic planning, and training. CTNY’s mission is to facilitate and support healthy, resilient, and sustainable community digital ecosystems, rooted in digital equity and digital justice.

CTNY creates multiple engagement avenues for any coalition or the community, training residents to be Digital Stewards who maintain and sustain their community’s network. We facilitate landscape analysis, needs assessments, and technical training, to identify the needs of the community. And we work with Digital Stewards to identify viable and sustainable solutions to address those gaps and provide wraparound and support services.

Building, training, and empowering coalitions in these communities is an essential foundational activity. Three representative communities illuminate a range of experiences:

  • A coalition of local organizations in the Bronx collectively addressed digital inequities and advocated for innovative, sustained, and community-generated solutions.
  • An initiative in Buffalo designed, planned, installed and maintained a community network to provide broadband connectivity to households in an under-resourced community using emergent technologies.
  • An initiative in Brooklyn brought together community healthcare providers, schools, and a tech nonprofit together to create more effective outreach and service coordination to their focus communities.

These efforts began with coalition member organizations, local partners, community-based organization representatives, advocates, agencies, and funders coming together regularly. In Brooklyn and Buffalo, listening sessions with community members helped us to understand the true nature of the challenges residents were facing. In Brooklyn, a landscape analysis, needs assessment, and simple surveys led to designing a multilingual, layered approach that incorporated the major languages of the community. Welcoming, centrally-located listening sessions addressed a range of topics in entertaining ways including table exercises with visual icons, snacks, and a raffle. The sessions included a map exercise in which participants could identify what services or resources they needed—and where. No personal demographic information was collected so that participants felt comfortable engaging. All activities were conducted in the primary languages of the community to help facilitate engagement.

Broadband Internet Access as an Essential Right

Broadband internet access is a basic human right—and an essential utility like heat, water, and power. 

But the pandemic further exposed the deep divide between those who have access to reliable broadband services and those who do not. Students (and some teachers) did not have stable and reliable broadband access for remote learning. Some school districts didn’t have secure and robust platforms for learning. Workers in service organizations looking to pivot careers, didn’t have that broadband access to take online professional development training. College students weren’t prepared to study from home. And in a household of multiple adults and students trying to get online at the same time for job search, work, and school, most didn’t have the bandwidth or the digital devices to do so. City, state, and federal social services moved online with many people reliant on those services unaware or unable to access them. Senior populations without access to (or knowledge of) tech resources were isolated socially and from critical services. People with medical conditions or physical limitations unaware or unable to avail themselves of new telehealth services experienced declining health and further isolation. New services weren’t available in the healthcare systems servicing those communities.

Our priority is always to address—in under-resourced communities—the barriers of access, affordability, and adoption (including digital literacy training) along with economic opportunity. The many facets of digital equity are interrelated. In each of our initiatives, we shined a spotlight on community advocacy, protection, engagement and education, crafting community-generated solutions, building sustained positive impact, and creating broadband solutions including access to digital devices.

The goal is to bring secure, high-speed, resilient, reliable internet access to these communities, supporting work, education, and job searches from home.

The future will be more and more digital, and many people in these under-resourced communities are falling exponentially behind other communities as the systems advance and evolve. Breaking this cycle is imperative before it is too late.

Community Challenges

Different segments of unconnected populations need varied approaches to broadband adoption. More senior members of under-resourced communities like Buffalo often live in older homes with electrical wiring not ready for high bandwidth technologies. Many of these older adults are new to our digital reality and distrustful of things in this space. Training has to incorporate computing basics. Immigrant populations in communities like Brooklyn need multi-lingual, culturally responsive community engagement and training. Working-class families in communities like the Bronx require vetted resources to address needs around advocacy, access government social services, and a connection to local school systems.

Another major hurdle to broadband adoption is fear of technology which is perceived as difficult to learn. Large communities of immigrant populations are challenged by language and that has an impact on digital literacy, as well as targeted tech profiling and tech predation. Aggressive scams target vulnerable populations who may have insecure status, and money is extorted from them. Nearly everyone has access to and is comfortable with a mobile phone, but primarily for communication and taking photos. Not as a gateway to essential resources.

Critical wraparound services are high impact needs that members of these communities have. Wraparound services are critical services which “wrap around” individuals who are often more focused on survival—food insecurity, housing, job searches and career pivoting, bills, healthcare/medical needs, childcare/child support, and, during the isolation of a pandemic, wellness—than digital services. Some people don’t feel technology is essential because they have an individual (member of the family) who uses it for them—or they aren’t aware of a need to use it.

Some comments we heard during listening sessions:

  • “For remote learning and health appointments and seniors or people without experience with devices, [they] don’t know how to set up the appointments and can’t click on links. Would be helpful to get more training to prepare.”
  • “I won’t use mobile services. I feel better about my computer.”
  • “We need an information hub, so that everyone in the community can come to one space and be up to date about local news and info.”
  • “Subway Wi-Fi is a main source of internet since I cannot afford internet at home.”

Explaining Digital Equity

Engaging others in this work depends on who those stakeholders are, what they currently do, and what their capacity is. The answer starts with a better articulation of what digital equity is. Everyone should have a path to opportunity, regardless of their social class, status, or finances.

For those who do not feel internet access is necessary, it is important to identify and help navigate to the services and resources that they could receive with that access. With this knowledge, these people can help their family and neighbors understand the benefits of broadband, too.

People need to make meaning of the technology in their lives and community engagement can help with Why it matters, how it matters, and how technology can be utilized for their current survival needs, and how they can utilize it in their daily lives without massive disruption.

The work of advancing any community, now and going forward, has a digital component— from using technology to keep groups connected to accessing critical services. Organizations that have long done that work, but without a digital component, are now important partners to show how digital tools can support the people they serve.

Lessons Learned

Too often there is a dearth of aligned, invested, and committed partners—and it is discovered too late in the process. With the billions in funding now being directed towards digital equity, many organizations are putting their oar in the water. Not all are committed to community benefit—or have an understanding of what that means. Some have offices within these communities, but are not knowledgeable, engaged, or invested allies.

One frustrating element of digital equity can be that some practitioners get the digital aspects of the work, but not the equity aspects. Some will tell the community what it needs—and how— rather than asking and listening. Others may provide access solutions without also providing the resources needed to effectively utilize that access to connect to the essential support services that community members need.

Some practitioners measure the effectiveness of a project solely by the number of households with internet access even if that access isn’t reliable or the people in the household don’t know how to use it. At times there are limiting frameworks for measuring impact solely for funder satisfaction. There is too much emphasis on quantitative outcomes. While measuring households connected is important, if those households don’t have devices, or literacy, it is more of a surface result than an actual sustained impact.

Solutions require a culturally responsive approach to the ongoing, iterative process of digital equity and justice. We need to facilitate systems that address the barriers of access, affordability, availability, and adoption, as well as the essential wraparound support services necessary to sustain these efforts. For multilingual solutions, machine translations are often artificial. Translations without context won’t land, so it is important to vet the translation provider. We received strong positive feedback on our translations that uncovered mistakes. We were advised that some people don’t trust translators. If community members can be utilized (and compensated) for that effort, the results would be more trusted. 

It is imperative to meet people where they are. Communicate respectfully, honestly, and engagingly. Listen more and speak less. Make sure inquiries are culturally responsive and appropriate. The phrasing of questions can predetermine the answers. With open, honest questions there needs to be receptivity to open, honest answers. No matter how long we have been in this work, there is more to learn.

Measuring Social Impact

Collect qualitative as well as quantitative measures to tell meaningful stories of impact, while providing context to any data captured emphasizing digital access, literacy, inclusion, and community wellness and engagement. Be open to the possibility that an intervention could have a positive or negative or disruptive impact on the social fabric of a community and the well-being of the residents.

You will know digital equity efforts are successful when there is home access and community access available without impassable gateways; when programs create community benefits.

You will know when digital equity efforts are successful when you reach people who are not yet knowledgeable or comfortable with devices and networks. And when these people not only learn and understand, but can teach others within their community.

You will know when digital equity efforts are successful when programs have a sustainability model to continue forward including access to funding for invested, community-based organizations.

Community Tech New York (CTNY) believes that building community networks builds community power. Since 2011, CTNY has collaborated with local organizations in New York City, New York State, and other US sites to create community-owned internet infrastructure. CTNY's approach is grounded in the Detroit Digital Justice principles of access, participation, common ownership, and healthy communities.

CTNY works as consultants and educators. We partner with local organizations to co-design and co-create digital ecosystems that support resilience, equity, and self-determination. CTNY builds long term relationships in line with a community’s social infrastructure, rather than offering short-term tech solutions. CTNY doesn't come into a neighborhood, build a WiFi network, and leave–it supports groups building out their own projects suited to holistic community needs, created with shared principles, and maintained for generations.

More in this Series

The Benton Institute for Broadband & Society is a non-profit organization dedicated to ensuring that all people in the U.S. have access to competitive, High-Performance Broadband regardless of where they live or who they are. We believe communication policy - rooted in the values of access, equity, and diversity - has the power to deliver new opportunities and strengthen communities.

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Kevin Taglang

Kevin Taglang
Executive Editor, Communications-related Headlines
Benton Institute
for Broadband & Society
1041 Ridge Rd, Unit 214
Wilmette, IL 60091
headlines AT benton DOT org

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