Lessons from the 2016 Net Inclusion Summit

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Robbie’s Round-Up for the Week of May 23-27, 2016

On May 18th and 19th, I had the pleasure of attending the first (and hopefully annual) Net Inclusion Summit, hosted by the National Digital Inclusion Alliance (NDIA), at the beautiful Kansas City Public Library. Policymakers, academics, city officials, librarians, advocates, citizens, and corporate representatives came together to discuss one of the most important and growing topics in the field of telecommunications policy: digital inclusion. The flurry of activities -- panels, workshops, and speeches -- all revolved around how to expand access, adoption, and use of broadband. There were so many great individuals and organizations gathered there. Through their conversations, there emerged several lessons learned and many important questions raised over how to best increase digital inclusion.

Digital inclusion is becoming an increasingly important subject for policymakers. The Federal Communications Commission’s recent Lifeline Order (see: paragraphs 379-384) includes a call to develop a comprehensive plan to “better understand the non-price barriers to digital inclusion.” As the the FCC notes, “Lowering non-price barriers to digital inclusion is an important component of increasing the availability of broadband service for low-income consumers.” The Lifeline Order was a profound step for digital inclusion, as the FCC demonstrated it understands there are additional, serious barriers to broadband adoption besides affordable wires. The main idea for the plan: have the FCC receive input from on-the-ground practitioners working on digital inclusion and incorporate their expertise, with academic studies, to form a digital inclusion plan. The plan's ultimate goal is to increase digital literacy, relevancy, and broadband adoption nationwide.

The Net Inclusion Summit was a huge opportunity to provide input for the federal plan. Concurrent sessions -- so many it made it difficult to pick just one session to attend at a time -- addressed crucial issues surrounding digital inclusion. Panels covered the FCC’s Lifeline decision, increasing digital equity for low-income housing, municipal leadership strategies, and more. Gigi Sohn, Counselor to FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, provided a keynote speech highlighting the FCC Lifeline Order, discussing recent FCC regulatory victories, and asking for comments as to how public officials can do their job better. Adrianne Furniss, Executive Director of the Benton Foundation, presented Seattle’s Digital Equity Manager, David Keyes, with the first Charles Benton Digital Equity Champion Award, for David’s work championing a holistic approach to closing the digital divide. “The work of the Digital Inclusion heroes in this room – and their colleagues around the country – is the next step for low-income consumers, seniors, immigrants and many more to fully participate in our increasingly digital society,” Adrianne said.“I know my father is beaming – somewhere – today … not for the honor of an award in his name, but because a community hero is being recognized for making lives better by empowering them through communications, and for providing the essential tools for full participation in society.”

The summit demonstrated how many amazing “Digital Inclusion Heroes” there are working to promote digital equity. From Connecting for Good (Kansas City), to the Google Fellowship program, to the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s ConnectHome initiative, so many agencies, organizations, and individuals across the country are doing outstanding work to break down barriers to access to technology and harness opportunities to empower citizens and communities. Having such a diverse group of practitioners and policymakers connect with each other in the gorgeous Kirk Hall of the Kansas City Public Library was a blast. In particular, the “lightning round” session afforded organizations three minutes to summarize their mission and impact. The cumulative effect of their presentations was a visual mosaic of the network of people and ideas focused on digital inclusion – and a better understanding of the depth and breadth of the field.

So many people came to the conference with open ears. Most attendees also served as presenters, but the general atmosphere of the conference was an eagerness to listen and learn from the success of others. This was especially clear during a pre-conference workshop on Outcomes-Based Evaluations, hosted by Dr. Colin Rhinesmith. (Shameless plug: you can read Colin’s Benton-published research). Breaking into small groups, practitioners discussed the importance of having outcomes-based evaluations for digital inclusion work, as well as the challenges in drafting a theory of change or logic model that describes impact. Participants realize that there are organizations and government agencies that are sitting on huge amounts of research data. NDIA could gather evaluation results from different sites and act as an aggregator of research, evaluation tools, surveys, and best practices. The workshop exemplified the value of convening: sharing what works, learning from others, and collectively moving towards a more focused, effective framework for future good.

Everybody at the conference was involved in digital inclusion work, but from different angles. Often people were engaged in work that harmonized beautifully with others, with people connecting like long-lost relatives. Other times, slight variations in the framing of issues or practices created unresolved dissonance -- parallel circles with people orbiting the same goal, but never quite finding a conclusive agreement.

To be clear, the discrepancies in response to different issues around digital inclusion was not a bad thing -- it highlighted the necessity of the convening and underscored the opportune moment in which this conference was held. Disagreements over the terminology and language of the field produced one of the most important lessons learned from the conference: the need to unify definitions. Words and phrases like “Digital Inclusion”, “Meaningful Broadband Adoption”, "Digital Equity", and “Access to Technology” mean different things to different people. And this makes sense: technology and social structures are both very dynamic, so the lexicon is bound to change and adapt over time. Additionally, the need for definitions is important because the words we use have power -- the power to reinforce social structures and color the world in a way that could perpetuate inequity. The conference amplified the message that it is crucial for practitioners and policymakers to take care in crafting the language used when discussing digital inclusion, to ensure that all parties have the same frame of reference as we work to apply best practices across diverse communities.

I don’t mean to discount many of the strong agreements about successful practices that were shared at the conference. The importance of partnerships was frequently echoed -- digital inclusion crosses into many fields (education, media, healthcare, transportation, etc.), so many practitioners mentioned the important role of municipal leaders to bring people from the community to the table. Similarly, the need for local champions to drive the mission of digital inclusion forward was echoed throughout the conference.

Most importantly, the summit raised many questions to explore in the months ahead. In addition to “How do we develop a unifying framework for the words and phrases used in discussing digital inclusion?”, it became clear there is a need to balance a national framework with local goals and initiatives. Having a national framework for achieving digital inclusion focuses energies and resources, but it is at risk of being too rigid and ignoring local best practices. Similarly, local communities benefit by developing frameworks and partnerships that best serve their local communities, but are at risk of being small, band-aid like approaches scattered throughout the country, failing to take advantage of the resources and communal work happening nationwide.

The issues raised at this summit are key for the future of NDIA. The conference reaffirmed the importance of digital inclusion and the need to convene to discuss best practices. It is paramount that NDIA continue to serve as a bridge between policymakers and practitioners. The conference demonstrated there is truly fantastic work being done across the country, so we need to be sure that public policy contains this input.

I want to commend NDIA, the Kansas City Public Library, and everybody involved in coordinating this first ever Net Inclusion Summit. There will be much more to come as we unpack the best practices that came out of the summit. Stay tuned for more articles, and as always,

We’ll see you in the Headlines.

Quick Bits

Weekend Reads (resist tl;dr)

ICYMI from Benton
benton logo"Digital Inclusion Heroes", Adrianne Furniss
benton logo"Cities, Technology, the Next Generation of Urban Development, and the Next Administration", Blair Levin

By Robbie McBeath.