Sunday, July 14, 2019

Digital deserts in Baltimore

The Annual Data Day organized by the University of Baltimore and its Neighborhood Indicators Alliance aptly opened with a keynote address about equity in the information age or about where no data are to be had. Typically the problem is called the "digital divide" and has been a topic of discussion ever since the Internet became an important factor in everyday life.
Broadband adoption by income groups, Baltimore and nation
(Graphic: John Horrigan)

Not surprisingly, the fault lines for those divides fall along the same demarcation lines where poverty begins, housing vacancy is high, food deserts exist and liquor stores are abundant. Also not surprising, digital adoption and literacy in Baltimore is lower than in peer cities. In fact, Baltimore ranks #261 out of 296 cities in number of households with home Internet access.

While nationally nearly two thirds (59.3%) of households earning under $20k have access to broadband Internet, in Baltimore the rate is only a tad more than half (52.5%). Even among households above $75 k annual income Baltimore's adoption rate is only 91.5% versus 95% nationally. Reasons for lack of broadband Internet can range from no available network (Baltimore famously has only one cable provider and no -alternative) to not enough money for a subscription or not being digitally literate. Rarely people who can afford and operate digital access opt out of it as a personal decision.
Whereas the digital divide debate concerns technology scarcity for certain population segments, addressing the costs of digital exclusion is about developing people's capacity to manage today's abundance of digital resource (John Horrigan). 
U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. 2016.
John Horrigan who talked about this at the opening event of Data Day at the Federal Reserve of Richmond on Baltimore's Sharp Street. The Federal reserve is involved because broadband penetration has been recently (2018) made part of the Community Reinvestment Act of 1977.
Recently the Federal Reserve, which monitors CRA lending at member banks has suggested that improving local broadband would qualify as CRA investment as long as the projects benefit the target parts of the community. This decision will make it easier for banks to make loans to local broadband providers in their community. (source)
The hardship of not having Internet access became vividly clear when panelist Terrell Williams spoke. He is an organizer and co-director of Turnaround-Tuesday, an organization giving ex-offenders a re-entry opportunity into regular life. Terrell set anybody straight who may be harboring the notion that the smartphone is the great equalizer since it has a much wider penetration than computers and can access the Internet outside broadband. But smartphone access to the web has many limitations. "Try to fill out a job application on a cellphone" Terrell suggested, "try to set up a document or write a vita on your smart phone". True, things more complex than checking one's bank account can quickly become very vexing even on a well appointed smart phone with many apps. True, smartphones can be hotspots for computers and thus circumvent lack of broadband access as well. But linking a laptop via hotspot exceeds most people's abilities and quickly drains the data allowances of the more affordable cellphone plans.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, those with the lowest incomes are most likely to cite cost as the main barrier to having broadband access at home. A series of studies shows that low-income households tend to recognize the value and relevance of connectivity, and their ability to pay, rather than their willingness to pay, is the main reason for not having home broadband service. Among this population, affordability barriers include not only monthly subscription costs but also devices and hidden fees; access to low-cost computers was often just as important to these households as access to low-cost Internet options. (Source)
Broadband adoption, city comparison, rustbelt and east coast cities
versus tech and sunbelt cities (Graphic: John Horrigan)
In her opening talk at the main Data Day event, BNIA director Seema Iyer spoke about the importance of networks and how they grow exponentially. She put it this way:
“Less is exponentially less”. If we are not connected, there is so much less opportunity. Seema Iyer, BNIA
Iyer put the full value of broadband access and Internet literacy on the networks that such access allows to join. While the well to do are complaining about how the digital devices control their lives and ploy for ways to escape from them, poor people know first hand how deprived they are without easy Internet access. Life has not only become almost impossible without it, from paying bills to job applications and doing school homework, but without the network people have much fewer opportunity to make themselves heard or advance.

Turnaround Tuesday offers laptops and basic training for those who need to do a job or credit application or do any of the many chores that can't be done in person or via snail mail anymore. Libraries offer computers and sometimes training. But what really is lacking is digital training, affordable broadband and easy to use computers. At Data Day it became clear that many resent the Comcast monopoly in Baltimore and wished there would be a municipal broadband or WiFi option. There has been much talk about the children sitting on the sidewalks in front of their school to mooch  a WiFi signal so they can do their homework (the homework gap)
The homework gap
In what has become known as the homework gap, an estimated 17 percent of U.S. students do not have access to computers at home and 18 percent do not have home access to broadband internet, according to an Associated Press analysis of census data.(Denver Post)
 Comcast provides a little known low cost service called Comcast Internet EssentialsKatherine Karmen Trujillo, Deputy Director of  Libraries Without Borders spoke about an initiative to bring digital access to laundromats in the context of a "wash & learn" initiative in Baltimore. Baltimore Housing has recently provided 500 tablets with Internet service to residents. The agency is spending $120,000 to cover the cost of $10 monthly high-speed data plans for two years per tablet. T-Mobile provided the tablets for free. A significant and useful drop in the desert.

In spite of those promising efforts, overall there has been little progress in overcoming promote the Baltimore's data deserts.

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

The presentations about "Digital Access and Equity in Baltimore" can be accessed here

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