Digital Equity Planning in U.S. Cities

This article contains preliminary findings of research being led by Brandon Brooks of Queens University, supported by Colin Rhinesmith of Simmons College and the Benton Foundation, and Angela Siefer of the National Digital Inclusion Alliance. The Benton Foundation is the publisher of these preliminary findings.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has recently tasked its Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau with the development of a plan to identify and work to address non-price related barriers to digital inclusion.(1) Here, we share strategies that local/regional governments can implement in their digital equity planning process.

We are currently investigating the digital equity planning processes in Austin, Portland (OR), and Seattle -- three U.S. cities with their own established stand-alone plans. We have interviewed local government officials and other key stakeholders as well as reviewed city-level policy and planning documents. We have several preliminary findings which we suggest the FCC and cities can pursue in efforts to promote digital equity.

Centralized Coordination

The development of digital equity plans in Austin, Portland, and Seattle were each coordinated by a central office within the city government. In our interviews with local city officials, we learned that in addition to the central office, a central figure or champion was important in driving the planning efforts. A local government office lends legitimacy and lasting power beyond a single champion and that champion provides leadership through the continued effort. This process of creating and centralizing a plan within an established office appears to increase the likelihood of plan completion.

In 2011, the City of Portland released Connecting to Our Future: Portland’s Broadband Strategic Plan. The Broadband Strategic Plan included a recommendation that the city develop a digital inclusion strategic plan. With an official mandate, Portland’s Office for Community Technology (OCT) pulled resources from multiple city departments to engage the community in development of a digital inclusion plan.(2) In 2014, OCT held a Digital Inclusion Summit. The summit was supported and attended by elected representatives Mayor Charlie Hales and Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury. Mary Beth Henry, former Director of OCT, defined herself as the “facilitator” of the Digital Equity Action Plan. According to Henry, the elected officials were champions who ensured the Digital Equity Action Plan had the necessary support while OCT “facilitated” the creation of the plan (that is, OCT got it done).

Seattle’s Digital Equity Initiative was put into motion by Mayor Edward B. Murray, the Department of Information Technology, and the Office of Civil Rights. The initiative was in response to digital technology use and literacy gaps, which were documented in the City of Seattle Department of Information Technology 2014 Annual Report. The initiative is a three-part plan to measure the state of digital equity in Seattle, design a plan to address those gaps in digital equity, and execute the digital equity plan. The direction and guidance for the plan are housed within the city’s Department of Information Technology, which includes its digital equity initiative. Seattle has a long history of community technology-focused work. A wide range of community stakeholders decided to focus on digital equity, lending the initiative legitimacy.

For cities that do not have community technology offices, other departments can advance the creation of a digital equity plan. For example, in Austin, the city’s Innovation Office facilitated the process for creating the digital inclusion strategic plan. According to Austin’s Rondella Hawkins, the city tasked the Office of Telecommunications and Regulatory Affairs with the creation of the plan, but the Innovation Office facilitated the process. Additional city departments, as well as other local organizations such as businesses, public health, nonprofits, the library, and neighborhood groups, will be important partners in the creation of a plan.

Involvement from the Ground Up

A potential risk in coordinating plans through a central city office is that inherent power structures can disadvantage some populations who have been traditionally excluded from the digital environment. In the cities we examined, they created a more inclusive planning process by engaging those without access to broadband at home, as well as a diverse group of organizations including industry partners, educators, and nonprofits from a variety of sectors.

As David Keyes, Seattle’s Digital Equity Manager explains,

We identified different stakeholder groups and created a matrix of stakeholder groups. Then we asked who could represent these groups. We worked with the organizations to make sure there was community and racial diversity in that participation. We developed a digital equity action committee, and we had about 25 people involved in that group. It included a really broad range of folks from [the] tech software industry, Internet service providers, schools, libraries, and a variety of community- and faith- based organizations that were providing technology services. We also started an internal team across departments. We had participation from 13 different city departments to look at what [they] were doing and how it related to the work of our department.

Keyes’ department then brought the teams together to have dialogue between the internal and external groups and to develop more specific strategies and goals for digital equity.

The City of Portland Office for Community Technology held three workshops for community organizations, representing nonprofits, education, the technology industry, public housing, business, and local government. Workshop participants’ ideas and dedicated engagement in the planning process generated the community­-based actions at the heart of Portland’s plan.

Of course, neighborhood organizations with direct connections to the city may be better able to impact change than organizations not connected to the city at all. Traditionally-excluded communities are always at risk of being left out of any planning process. Their involvement in a truly successful digital equity plan, then, is paramount.

The Importance of Research

All three city digital equity plans referenced the Institute of Museum and Library Services (2012) Building Digital Communities: A Framework for Action. This framework encourages engagement across all sectors of the community so that "all people, businesses, and institutions have access to digital content and technologies that enable them to create and support healthy, prosperous, and cohesive 21st century communities.” Our interview participants described the IMLS report as being an important guiding framework for their digital equity planning processes. The IMLS report gave substantial guidance to the cities in defining digital inclusion, determining the primary goals and initiatives within the plans, and providing baseline measures for understanding digital equity nationwide.

In addition to the IMLS report, each of the three cities engaged in their own research, which is referenced not only in the plans themselves, but also in our interviews with local officials. For example, the City of Austin conducts, in partnership with the University of Texas at Austin, the Austin Digital Assessment survey every three years. The most recent survey was done in 2014. According to Rondella Hawkins, Telecommunications and Regulatory Affairs Officer at the City of Austin, that survey will be used as benchmark data to understand the larger impact the digital inclusion plan will have on Austin residents. Data from the survey was used to identify the specific population of non-Internet users in Austin, which at the time was significantly lower than the rest of the country. Only 8 percent of Austin residents did not have a home Internet connection at the time. Data like this helped to guide the digital equity planning process to target a smaller portion of the city with higher amounts of resources.

To inform their Digital Equity Action Plan, Portland commissioned a report that “provides an analysis and summary of key national research findings on Internet and smartphone use and the results of five locally conducted focus groups.” The focus groups targeted specific demographic characteristics unique to Portland including Spanish, Chinese, and Vietnamese speakers, people with hearing disabilities, and African­-Americans. OCT made use of a small government grant dedicated to engaging historically-underrepresented populations.

The City of Seattle gathered data in multiple ways, which can be found in Phase One of their Digital Equity Initiative. It convened internal and external stakeholder groups, interviewed people active in digital inclusion, reviewed other city’s digital equity plans, inventoried digital equity programs in the city, and also conducted a series of community round tables. According to Keyes, community members were invited “to have round table discussions about challenges, what they thought needed to be addressed, where there were opportunities, and what they thought good strategies would be” to develop an appropriate digital equity plan.

Planning and Policy Recommendations

Based on our preliminary examination of the digital equity plans created by the cities of Austin, Portland, and Seattle, and through our own interviews with local policymakers, we offer these recommendations to federal policymakers, local governments, and other key stakeholders interested in creating effective digital equity plans:

  • Local governments should employ a central planning and coordination office with legitimate authority to facilitate digital equity planning.
  • Local planners should ensure that traditionally-excluded groups are included in digital equity planning.
  • Local decision-makers should use research from a variety of sources to inform digital equity planning.

We offer these preliminary findings and recommendations as key insights to assist local, state, and federal policymakers in creating effective digital equity plans.

  1. For definitions of digital equity and digital inclusion please see the National Digital Inclusion Alliance.
  2. During the process, the name was changed to a Digital Equity Action Plan.

About the authors

Brandon Brooks is primarily interested in the ways governments and citizens engage one another through communication technologies. His primary focus at the moment is on the intersection of digital equity, organizations and policy. Basically, how can we design policies that enable digitally equitable environments for community members and organizations? He is currently working on this problem through understanding economic mobility and fiber infrastructure and the effects this has on digital equity practices within Charlotte, NC. He is an Assistant Professor of Digital Media Studies in the James L. Knight School of Communication at Queens University of Charlotte. He received his Ph.D. in Media and Information Studies from Michigan State University.

Dr. Colin Rhinesmith conducts original Benton research as well as advises the foundation on new research opportunities. Rhinesmith is an assistant professor in the School of Library and Information Science at Simmons College and a faculty associate with the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University. His research interests are focused on the social, community, and policy aspects of information and communication technology, particularly in areas related to digital inclusion and broadband adoption.

Angela Siefer is the Director of the National Digital Inclusion Alliance (NDIA). Angela envisions a world in which all members of society have the skills and resources to use the Internet for the betterment of themselves and their communities. Since 1997, Angela has worked on digital inclusion issues with local community organizations, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, state governments, and the Schools, Health & Libraries Broadband (SHLB) Coalition. This work led Angela to co-found the National Digital Inclusion Alliance, a unified national voice for local technology training, home broadband access, and public broadband access programs. A profile of her written work is at

By Colin Rhinesmith.