The Impacts of COVID-19 on Digital Equity Ecosystems
Wednesday, November 18, 2020
The Impacts of COVID-19 on Digital Equity Ecosystems
COVID-19 has turned the floodlights on digital inequality in rural, tribal, and urban communities across the United States. As Benton Senior Fellow Jonathan Sallet has noted, because of the pandemic “we need to inject a new sense of urgency into implementing equitable broadband policies.” In support of that goal, we provide evidence in our new report, Growing Healthy Digital Ecosystems During COVID-19 and Beyond, to show how digital inclusion coalitions across the country have responded to the triple challenges of the pandemic, growing economic inequality, and racial injustice facing poor communities and communities of color without access to broadband internet at home.
In our new report, published by the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society, we present findings from a survey of individuals representing a diverse group of organizations across the United States that have self-identified as being part of either a formal, informal, or emerging digital inclusion coalition. The purpose of our study was to better understand the role these coalitions have played in supporting what we are calling “digital equity ecosystems” in their communities during the challenges of the pandemic.
The National Digital Inclusion Alliance defines “digital equity” as “a condition in which all individuals and communities have the information technology capacity needed for full participation in our society, democracy, and economy.” In our report, we define “digital equity ecosystems” as the interactions between individuals, populations, and their larger socio-technical 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.
We believe the next administration, led by President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, can benefit from understanding the community-based tactics, particularly in poor communities and communities of color, that have emerged in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. In our new report, we show how digital inclusion coalitions have leveraged their communities’ digital equity ecosystems to address their communities’ broadband-related needs while facing significant barriers due to limited personnel, technological, and financial support for digital equity.
In our report, we present a snapshot of what our survey respondents described as their most significant challenges and innovative responses to the pandemic back in late August and early September 2020.
Here’s a summary of our main findings:
- Digital inclusion coalitions established before the pandemic have responded to COVID-19 by focusing their efforts on information and resource sharing, networking, data collection, raising awareness about digital inequality, and developing new tactics to promote digital equity. These coalitions have worked to coordinate investments and develop new funding opportunities to support their existing work such as providing access to computers, low-cost internet service, and Wi-Fi hotspots for more vulnerable members of their communities. In our survey, 29% of respondents indicated that they were part of digital equity coalitions that formed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. These new and emerging coalitions have organized others in their communities, focusing on ways to provide access to the internet, digital devices, and digital literacy training for low-income individuals and families. Respondents described several factors that made it possible to respond in these ways, including: their existing relationships and collaborations, awareness of existing policy constraints, capacity and knowledge about how to best engage with key stakeholders (both inside and outside local government), as well as years of existing digital inclusion experience. Others cite new funding opportunities as key support for their response, with 52% of respondents indicating that their organization or community used CARES Act funding for digital inclusion activities.
- The pandemic has introduced several new challenges for digital inclusion coalitions and has magnified a number of existing challenges. These challenges include obstacles to getting sufficient buy-in from broadband internet service providers to support their efforts, as well as barriers to working with local elected officials to make free and/or low-cost internet access a policy priority. Some coalitions cite the lack of infrastructure in rural areas, as well as insufficient resources, staff time, and funding to address the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. Additionally, respondents described social distancing rules as a challenge when many of their digital inclusion activities rely on in-person instruction and devices. Several respondents highlighted the challenge of balancing responses to the urgent, short-term needs that the pandemic presents—such as hotspot and device distribution for K-12 digital learning—with long-term, sustained investment in broadband access, adoption, and literacy.
- Digital inclusion coalitions are finding ways to creatively solve problems to address their communities’ digital needs. These solutions include developing new and expanded partnerships, including partnering with community members, piloting new initiatives, collaboratively seeking new sources of funding, pivoting to online training in digital skills training and virtual tech help, sharing information and resources with their communities, and offering socially distanced, masked, and outdoor events. In addition, there are more stakeholders interested in digital inclusion initiatives than ever before, especially K-12 schools, health care providers, and local nonprofits. Two of our respondents indicated the importance of making connections between the COVID-19 pandemic, digital inequality, and racial injustice when developing digital equity solutions. Respondents indicated that several new tactics will continue even when the health crisis ends, including: virtual learning services, development of digital equity plans, expanding broadband infrastructure, raising awareness of digital equity work, prioritizing device accessibility and training in digital literacy, and promoting data-collection efforts.
- Cities, counties, states, and national organizations have also played key roles in supporting local digital equity ecosystems. Cities, counties, and states have played significant roles in addressing digital inequality during the pandemic, such as making funds available for internet and device access, including free community Wi-Fi access points and free or discounted in-home internet access. Cities and counties have also worked with their public libraries to expand Wi-Fi hotspot availability. Statewide and multi-state coalitions have focused their efforts on the following: providing maps of free internet locations, compiling lists of low-cost internet deals, providing recommendations for COVID-19 task forces, creating online-resource webpages, informing people about digital equity, offering information on funding opportunities and state actions, and collaborating to share knowledge and resources. National nonprofits have worked to address digital inequality in communities across the United States through their work with local digital inclusion coalitions to promote literacy training in digital literacy, as well as device refurbishing and reuse.
Based on our report, we believe there are several federal policy recommendations that we can make moving forward. On their transition-team website, President-elect Biden and Vice President-elect Harris have made it a priority to promote universal broadband. In order to achieve this goal, we argue that the new administration must connect its economic recovery agenda to its work to promote racial equity. Here are four steps that the new administration should take to make their economic recovery and racial equity priorities a reality:
- Make broadband affordable for low-income communities of color. The Biden administration must make low-cost, high-speed, and reliable broadband accessible to poor communities of color as quickly as possible. As our study has shown, digital equity ecosystems are working to connect individuals and families to the broadband connectivity and digital services they need to be successful in school, work, and the rest of their lives. Low-cost broadband internet access service can help to address the urgent problems of the pandemic, rising unemployment, and growing racial injustices facing low-income communities of color.
- Support second chances for economic success through digital literacy programs. The next administration should make federal funding available for programs that support formerly incarcerated individuals through digital literacy programs. Many public libraries and community technology centers across the country already do this important work often in resource-constrained environments due to the pandemic. As the next administration works to reduce the number of people incarcerated in this country, additional funding should be made available to community-based organizations working to provide care for individuals and their families who have had experiences with the criminal justice system.
- Ensure care workers receive training and support to help promote digital and racial equity. As we found in our study, many digital equity ecosystems include health care and human services organizations. We believe additional federal funding opportunities should be made available for community-based organizations that understand the important connection between care work and efforts to promote digital and racial justice. 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.
- Make federal funding opportunities available for digital inclusion organizations. Community anchor institutions, such as public libraries, have been on the frontlines of efforts to promote broadband access particularly in low-income communities of color. This need has been made abundantly clear during the COVID-19 pandemic, as individuals and families have gathered in public library and school parking lots to gain internet access. However, many of these organizations need funding to support robust broadband infrastructure, public computing access, and digital literacy training programs to address their communities’ increasing digital demands. In order to get our economy back on track, the new administration should make federal funding available to support community-based organizations in their work to support digital equity ecosystems.
Digital inequality is not a technological problem. Rather, its roots lie in hundreds of years of systematic oppression and racial injustice. We know that the COVID-19 pandemic in the U.S. has disproportionately impacted individuals and families living in poverty who also happen to be Black, Latinx, and Native American. Policymakers need to better understand the depth and nuances of digital inequality and the role of racial injustice in this reality in order to solve this problem. As two of our survey respondents noted, racial justice is a critical part of their coalitions’ work to promote digital equity. Digital inclusion coalitions, working together with academic researchers, can use their combined strength as a collective to influence policy at the local, state, and national levels. Community-based organizations have been doing this work for many years. Now is the time to come together, at the start of a new administration, and work to promote and sustain healthy digital equity ecosystems for all.
Download Growing Healthy Digital Ecosystems During COVID-19 and Beyond from Benton Institute for Broadband & Society
Colin Rhinesmith is an Associate Professor and Director of the Community Informatics Lab in the Simmons University School of Library and Information Science. He is also the Editor-In-Chief of the Journal of Community Informatics. Rhinesmith has been a Google Policy Fellow and an Adjunct Research Fellow with New America’s Open Technology Institute. He was also a Faculty Research Fellow with the Benton Foundation (now the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society) and a Faculty Associate with the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University. Rhinesmith received his Ph.D. in Library and Information Science from the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he was an Institute of Museum and Library Services-funded Information in Society Fellow and a Research Scholar with the Center for Digital Inclusion.
Susan Kennedy is the Project Coordinator for the Community Informatics Lab in the Simmons University School of Library and Information Science. She was formerly a Graduate Research Assistant for the Institute of Museum and Library Services-funded Measuring Library Broadband Networks project. Kennedy received her MLIS from Simmons University and BA in Philosophy and Music from Bennington College. She is excited about the intersection of community informatics research and public librarianship, especially how public libraries and their communities can support digital equity and inclusion, information and civic literacy, and combating disinformation.
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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