Digital Divide: Inequities of a Tech-Crazed Society

In the digital era, access to technology means everything. Unfortunately, millions of Americans currently live without modern digital resources. This digital divide translates to huge opportunity gaps, making it one of the most important social justice issues of our day.

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Image by Andy Thies

Let’s face it. Most of us practically live on the internet. From online shopping and paying bills to video chat and job hunting, the internet has effectively become the crossroads of modern life. Though this is not news to many, the degree to which this reality holds true increases with every passing day.

Social media is now the dominant forum not only for personal relationships but professional networking. Higher education institutions continue to transfer more and more coursework to online platforms. Every moderately high-skilled job in this country requires at least a basic proficiency in technology such as word processing and even coding.

Technological progress is great, but what does it mean for those on the outside? In the United States, an estimated 25% of people live without access to broadband internet. To many, this number may seem high, and it most certainly is. If you are reading this article, there is a good chance you do not belong to this group. Many of us have never even considered that there could be such a large proportion of society without access to this basic modern amenity. We 75% have access to the world: opportunity, information, engagement. Meanwhile, those on the outside remain obstructed from enjoying these same advantages. Opportunity stagnates and vital information falls silent. This is the reality of a digital divide.

When Google decided to unveil its fastest-in-the-country gigabit fiber-based internet in Kansas City MO-KS, the energy was palpable. City leaders saw a path towards creating a veritable tech hub in the middle of the country while residents welcomed the prospect of near-instant download and streaming speeds.

The system by which Google introduced these extensive fiber connections involved a gauge of geographic public commitment. In other words, neighborhoods in which enough residents committed to the service were in turn granted with priority of Google Fiber’s development (becoming known as “Fiberhoods”). This even went as far as to grant public institutions in these communities – libraries, schools, and public buildings – free access to gigabit internet. Thus, only neighborhoods that really wanted Google Fiber would get it. Makes sense right?

The caveat was that neighborhoods with low commitment rates would not see fiber infrastructure for the foreseeable future. This may seem like an obvious consequence, but the implications are far from simple.

Graphic by Andy Thies and Braden Anderson
Graphic by Andy Thies and Braden Anderson

Kansas City, MO is a notoriously divided town. The city has yet to really recover from the days of institutional segregation, redlining, and white flight. The result is an urban landscape where the vast majority of wealth is concentrated on the city’s racially homogenous west side as well as north of the Missouri River (“The Northland”). Meanwhile, in Kansas City’s East Side (as well as urban Kansas City, Kansas), poverty is rampant and the racial makeup is almost completely flipped between whites and African Americans (about 1:4) compared to the rest of the city (3:1). What’s most fascinating though, is that this divide occurs along nearly-straight line age-old geographic boundaries, most notably Troost Avenue. Much of Midtown Kansas City sees median household income hovering around $50,000-$75,000. However, just a stone’s throw away, those values plummet often times below $15,000 east of Troost.

It is not hard to guess which neighborhoods went for Google Fiber.

The city faced the prospect of west and north side schools and libraries being given exclusive access to extraordinary internet capabilities while the East Side was left with sub-par access with which to begin. The situation that ensued would redefine the way Kansas City looked at itself as a prospective digital leader in the country. No longer was the focus solely on developing tech infrastructure for the benefit of city boosters. Thousands of people in the Kansas City area already lacked access to basic broadband and digital literacy resources. It became clear that in order to move forward, the digital divide must be bridged.

Tom Esselman is the CEO for Kansas City-based non-profit, Connecting for Good. His organization’s sole mission is to promote “digital inclusion” within the community, an issue it considers to be one of the most important social justice issues of our day. By working with neighborhoods and individuals, Connecting for Good is bridging the digital divide in Kansas City from the ground up.

According to Esselman, nearly 70% of all Kansas City Missouri Public School students live in homes without internet, and only 20% of low-income, minority residents have internet at home.

“Without this basic utility, it is virtually impossible to participate, much less achieve success in activities like homework and job searches,” says Esselman, “As a result, the more people affected by the Digital Divide, the more our communities are vulnerable to social instability and economic depression.”

Though Connecting for Good works hard to provide internet connections to residents in need, it’s about more than just wiring a few houses.

“It’s not enough to have an available internet connection in your home or neighborhood,” says Esselman, “Without an appropriate device, and people to help provide the training—and insights into the relevancy of being online—internet connectivity on its own matters little. Impact must be measured beyond mere adoption rates.  It’s about Education—focusing on the Who, What, and Where of providing the essential learning; and it’s about Employment—focusing on both the hard and soft job skills, and the navigation insights to mold and nurture low-income residents into becoming true digital citizens; and it’s about Economic Impact of families and communities caring and creating opportunities for themselves and their families; and it’s about the Environment—focusing on warm and welcoming places to donate used computer electronics to be put to good use with those just entering the digital world.  The true Digital Dashboard for inclusion needs to incorporate the impacts of these 4 E’s—and must be punctuated with success stories to illustrate in human terms why this work is so important.”

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Digital Divide in Kansas City MO-KS (Map by Andy Thies, Braden Anderson, and Greg Smith)

Progress in Kansas City is as real as the issue. Aaron Deacon, Managing Director at KC Digital Drive (501(c)3), explains how Kansas City, along with a few other pioneering cities have begun to show that a difference can be made.

“Five years ago, almost no one in the country could get residential gigabit fiber at any price; there are a handful of cities now (including Kansas City), and a very small handful of large cities, where even residents in low-income communities have this option. That’s pretty amazing,” states Deacon.

Though several smaller cities – including Chattanooga, TN and Provo, UT – have invested in a comprehensive “fiber future”, Kansas City is on the cutting edge for big cities providing equitable coverage. This progress has been the result of intensive work on the part of numerous organizations as well as events that bring together representatives from some of the country’s most progressive digital cities. However, challenges still remain as the line between digital divide and social divide is blurred.

“As more and more goes digital, the line between digital inclusion work and everyday social service work increasingly overlaps,” says Deacon.

What does the future of digitally inclusive cities look like? Likely, it will include both equitable internet access as well as building upon new technologies that help citizens connect better with their communities. Across the United States, cities are making a push toward becoming “smart cities”. This initiative, driven and enthusiastically supported by the Obama administration, seeks to embed technology within all aspects of city services. It’s part of an overarching federal initiative to encourage technological growth while ensuring equitable access through programs such as ConnectHome.

Though smart city projects are often spearheaded by local government, the growth largely depends on partnerships with companies. In Kansas City, big companies such as Google, Sprint, Cisco, AT&T, Time Warner Cable, and Comcast invested in concerted efforts to bring affordable access to next-generation internet networks, both for city services as well as residents.

“They are all recognizing the need to partner with community organizations who possess the ‘empathy factor’ in understanding and assisting low-income residents to sign up for internet service,” says Esselman.

For these companies, the benefits are numerous. In addition to providing an important social service (thereby boosting company reputation), the tech industry is gaining potential customers. When a company like Google or AT&T invests in poorer areas of a city, each new internet connection means a potential lifelong internet consumer. Furthermore, by connecting new demographics to a tech-driven network, the limitless array of opportunities – to connect, to gain knowledge, and most importantly to spend money – open up to consumers. This has even lead companies to invest in internet infrastructure in developing countries as well as American cities.

Bridging the digital divide has become one of the fundamental social issues facing our society today. With so many invested parties – governments, non-profits, companies – the momentum for digital inclusion only shows signs of increasing. Hopefully, the future of American cities will see an equal playing field for digital access as well as economic and social opportunity.

 

If you would like to learn more about Connecting for Good and KC Digital Drive and the vital work they do in the Kansas City community, please visit the links below:

Connecting for Good: http://www.connectingforgood.org/

KC Digital Drive: http://www.kcdigitaldrive.org/

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