Launched in March, the lab is designed to uncover and address “structural inequities that persist and evolve as technology transforms our cultural, social and political systems,” it says in its mission statement. The lab’s mission also lays out examples of its work, including practicing applied research, bringing together stakeholders and creating opportunities for those interested in forging equitable technology ecosystems moving forward.
The lab’s founder and co-director is Maya Wiley, a nationally renowned expert on racial justice and equity who is also The New School’s senior vice president for social justice and the Henry Cohen professor of urban policy management at the New School’s Milano School of International Affairs, Management, and Urban Policy. Wiley has a background in New York City municipal government, having served as counsel to the mayor from 2014 to 2016, during which time she led efforts to expand affordable broadband access and to advance human rights and gender equity. A significant portion of this work involved scaling up community-based models of digital infrastructure that had proved essential during Hurricane Sandy. Wiley has a history of bringing major attention to digital equity issues, having penned articles in The Nation about the work.
Joining Wiley as co-director of the lab is Greta Byrum, who founded and led the Resilient Communities program at New America, during which time she worked to bring the training, tools and equipment needed for storm-hardened mesh Wi-Fi to communities in New York’s flood plains, among other work related to digital equity.
In a recent phone conversation, Byrum said both she and Wiley have been working on digital equity and digital inclusion efforts since before that nomenclature was widely used to describe it.
“The Digital Equity Lab is new,” Byrum said, “but both Maya and I have been in the game for a while.”
The lab has spent much time analyzing the landscape of ongoing digital equity and inclusion efforts, both in New York City and throughout the rest of the country. This study has found that there are many such efforts underway, even if they don’t always coordinate with each other.
“What we found is there’s sort of a gap that’s around bringing together these different groups of people who are working in parallel but maybe not speaking the same language,” Byrum said.
These groups might include but are not limited to scholars, researchers, community organizations, grassroots efforts, policymakers and agencies that find themselves working on these efforts even though they aren’t part of their core mission, such as public libraries, which are the frontline in many communities for digital inclusion work.
“All these groups may not understand what they’re doing as digital equity all the time,” Byrum said, “…and so I see our value add into the ecosystem that we can convene all these different kinds of groups and find a way to create a language that everybody can share and start to develop strategic priorities, such as, what are we as a field?”
The field itself is increasingly nuanced as more public services migrate online and many government agencies begin to use algorithms and data-driven governance. Years ago, digital equity was often cast as a simple question of who had a computer with Internet access and who didn’t, or something similar. Now, the field has become much broader, encompassing questions of technology familiarity, broadband access, data-driven work with inherent biases and many others.
The lab, for example, is interested in exploring the idea of automated decision-making, something that more progressive municipal governments such as New York have begun to turn to. While such programs may present many benefits for government, there are equity questions around community familiarity, accountability and consent. The lab is interested in answering questions, Byrum said, such as how do you ensure governmental algorithms purchased from vendors don’t have unanticipated risks and harms for vulnerable communities?
“There are all these questions that are really new for lawmakers,” Byrum said, “and where we feel like we can play a role in helping equip them to make decisions and also helping to create paths of dialogs between city governments and their constituents.”
Indeed, the group has already been working with local government leaders. At its inaugural symposium in March, two of the speakers were prevalent municipal CIOs, including then-New York City Chief Technology Officer Miguel Gamiño and San Jose, Calif., CIO Shireen Santosham.
Coincidentally, the laboratory launched the day that the story about Facebook and Cambridge Analytica broke. The timing is actually fortuitous.
“It’s really a key moment where there’s a public conversation happening because people are asking, what’s going to happen here?” Byrum said. “Are we waking up to this dystopia where technology is being used to surveil or make decisions about our lives that we can’t appeal or really understand? Or are we going to use this moment to have a conversation about how to take back consent?”
Zack Quaintance is a staff writer for Government Technology. Prior to that, he spent five years working in daily newspapers, and another five years working in the tech sector. He lives in Northern California.