The Keyes to Digital Inclusion: An Interview with David Keyes, Digital Equity Manager, City of Seattle

The Keyes to Digital Inclusion:
An Interview with David Keyes, Digital Equity Manager, City of Seattle

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Robbie’s Round-Up for the Week of May 30-June 3, 2016

The following is an edited interview with David Keyes, Digital Equity Manager of the City of Seattle. The conversation took place during the Net Inclusion Summit May 18-19, 2016 in Kansas City, Missouri. At the summit, Keyes was the first recipient of the Charles Benton Digital Equity Champion Award for his work championing a holistic approach to closing the digital divide. In this interview with the Benton Foundation’s Robbie McBeath, Keyes discusses his career path, the digital equity work being done in Seattle, and highlights best practices that policymakers can adopt to increase digital inclusion.

How did you end up doing the work that you are doing, because not every city has a Digital Equity Manager? What was your career path to that position?

So I started working in social work in communications and helping people, and then communities, find their voice. And I was very interested in neighboring community development within that. And I did some work in public access television, in helping put classes online, and law and media, and educational TV production. Then I started some work in Seattle around advocacy, around public participation and cable franchising, and got involved with that alongside the city looking at what they called an "information utility," basically public broadband in the mid-90s. And then as the city was starting to do more and look at how to do public access computing spaces and participation, I got an opportunity to be sort of the first "community technology planner" for the city. And that was in 1997.

Were you aware of other cities doing that at that time?

I think I was the first city position in the country. There was work that was going on around the same time, I think in Boston. Grand Rapids, Michigan, may have started to do something with their access center. There was certainly also the start of a public computing network going on at the time, but in terms of cities actually seeing that as part of their mission and planning, I was pretty early.

I think the one other comment about that that's sort of interesting is the fact that the city started to say, "Who is the person in an area that can do an assessment of what resources are in the community, who knows how to integrate it with other kinds of service delivery, and equity and inclusion practices?” So, that was kind of an important step. Who's responsible for this field? And who can be the orchestrator of bringing those resources together and identifying that locally?

In the March Lifeline Order, the Federal Communications Commission recognized that digital inclusion is a next step for broadband adoption and the Commission is in the early stages of drafting a digital inclusion plan. How do you think the work that you've been doing in Seattle could contribute to a plan? Are there best practices that you've identified that can be replicated by other cities?

I think there's a few different levels. One is the importance of supporting and bringing together networks of expertise and strategic planning. So, we have a local technology advisory board. We had started a statewide digital inclusion council. There's the National Digital Inclusion Alliance. So one piece to take from that is the investment in coordinating and strategic investment groups and that that's something that can go from a micro to a macro level, in terms of the FCC-local. The other is one of those things those inclusion councils can do. The council can reach and link service providers with Internet and digital literacy providers and researchers together. But I think that there is a need to continue to expand the research base.

I think another thing that we've done that's replicable is we've taken some of our telecom/cable dollars and put it into a technology matching fund grant program. And that's been adopted by Austin (TX), and a couple of other cities. And we actually use our advisory board to help make decisions about those grants and that enables us to partner with smaller organizations to deliver digital literacy and broadband adoption training and facilitation. And so we write that in contracts and that’s a really huge potential because then there's local knowledge base, there’s small ethnic immigrant or refugee organizations, or disability organizations who are trusted ambassadors. So for us as a city, it's a mechanism, it’s a partner. We've also done some consortium grants with some of those groups, but I think that's also a model in terms of some efficiencies to get money out, but also how do you get small, trusted ambassador groups to actually participate where they may not otherwise be able to apply for federal grants. And they're doing some of the work for the outreach on the Internet service provider, low-income thing, so it's similar in some ways. Some of them that we work with have also done some of the outreach on health care [insurance] sign up, so there's a model there, from a health care initiative to be able to apply to this.

I forgot to mention two of the things in terms of the models. The Internet capacity of the community access sites is really important, too, to properly serve folks. So, we have negotiated in our cable franchise for free Internet connections for nonprofit community access facilities. We have about 250 sites around the city that have free broadband as a result of that and they're able to put that money into service delivery. So part of a strategy around digital inclusion is ensuring that they have the capacity to be able to train and facilitate also.

It sounds like Seattle has a really good cable franchise contract for meeting digital equity goals. So you would encourage using the leverage that cities have in their cable franchises?

Having those policy goals helps you drive to be able to take advantage. So from the FCC perspective, it’s about “Where there are opportunities to look at telecom reinvestment into digital inclusion?” In a broader scope, that's something to look at because you have agreements, licensing, equipment fees, settlement agreements, mergers, spectrum sales, and leases. So there's a variety of potential mechanisms for some of that reinvestment. And, obviously, to give the recognition in part -- it’s a partnership. It enables people then to use "this product" and connect to government and connect to lots of other things.

Is there a message that you've heard today that surprised you, that relates to digital inclusion? Or, is there a particular message that you want to get out there that you've been saying, and thinking is not heard loud enough? 

One of them, for me, is that the digital inclusion work is not just the job of technologists. Where that coordination and investment cuts across federal agencies, cuts across local and state departments and agencies, so the work on broadband adoption is as much as a responsibility and opportunity for the economic development as it is for the human services department as it is for arts and cultural departments in different places or the Department of Justice.

I think another message that keeps getting repeated in the digital inclusion effort is this piece about if you just use connectivity data, you're missing the gap. You can look at how many people have some level of access and gain a bit of a baseline there, but the disadvantages are greater now for people who don't have access than they used to be. And if you look at "micro-communities," say somebody who's disabled, or an African-American senior, or a kid who can't afford a data plan, that gap is bigger now.

And then there's been some discussion also that isn't always recognized, talking about nonprofits briefly, but small and disadvantaged businesses is another long-term part of the digital divide. Some of them are helped when you help their families.

If you had unlimited resources, how would you structure and organize the work that you do? One of your colleagues mentioned that if an $800 million barge crashed against the shore, then Seattle could do municipal fiber. So the thinking is, what are some ideal ways in which you would have your position operate to fulfill your mission statement?

I think that it takes investment and the confidence that people are investing to attract other investments. So I think an important part is to demonstrate that digital inclusion efforts are worth investing in and can result in positive change.

So in terms of that, really building a marketing campaign and broadening the investment consortium so that it’s a stronger mix of policy that leads to funding streams, private and corporate, and philanthropic investment, and private individual investment as well.

The other thing that comes to mind is having enough people power. It’s having enough staff to be able to keep the networks rolling and to be able to do the legwork it takes to nurture the partnerships to work, both across government departments, and public/private community, public/private nonprofit partnerships, and be able to do technical assistance for people in digital literacy training and adoption methodology. So, a sort of fund of mentors or experts to be able to come and be that advisory corps. It's one thing to have AmeriCorps or something hop in to help, but also to have the expert advisory corps that can actually spend the time on it and document, and then assist with evaluation and longer-term impact. There's been a little bit of work around the economic impact of doing broadband adoption and digital literacy, but not a lot really.

The last thing that comes to mind for me is to have a ‘digital inclusion-social justice’ innovation program. There's a lot of great stuff happening around hackerspace, makerspaces, let's put a gigabit in here, but what doesn't necessarily happen is... I think we have a lot of road to go in terms of the meeting of the service delivery and innovation, and service delivery and the tech industry, and the sort of grassroots digital literacy/digital access movement. It’s about connecting people to do some of that problem solving, because we've got an incredible wealth of people in these communities who are learning tech, who could be giving feedback to companies on new products they're developing, or who could be helping work with technology innovators to help solve the "How does a disabled person get around?", or "How does a kid connect to their schoolwork or after school programs?" So I think there's some great linkages there. And kind of a piece of that innovation fund is also supporting digital equity innovation centers in disadvantaged neighborhoods. So we think about “equitable development” also, and there are some spaces, but the majority of company-innovation spaces and where companies are located are in these economic development zones and not necessarily in low-income neighborhoods down the street. So kids don't have to go cross town to get exposure to careers that they could be having. And so it's part of digital inclusion, to think about what does it look like to have equitable urban planning that supports the digital, equitable environment.

Quick Bits

Weekend Reads (resist tl;dr)

Events Calendar for June 6-10
June 8 -- Spectrum Management Advisory Committee Meeting, NTIA
June 8 -- It’s So Hard to Get Good Digital Help These Days!, New America Panel
June 9 -- Technological Advisory Council, FCC
June 10 -- Consumer Advisory Committee, FCC

ICYMI From Benton
benton logoUntold Stories Matter, Too, by Michael Copps
benton logoLessons from the 2016 Net Inclusion Summit, Robbie McBeath

By Robbie McBeath.