The Chicago Digital Access Alliance (CDAA) -- a coalition of more than 40 communities, 70 nonprofits, 50 churches, 100 small businesses and 1,000 individuals -- is pointing the way toward a more digitally equitable future.
Traditional public-private partnership models for municipal broadband have become contentious, mostly due to community concerns about these models' ineffectiveness in addressing social and economic concerns. Thus heads are turning away from cities like Philadelphia and San Francisco, and looking toward cities like Minneapolis, Boston and St. Cloud, Fla. As community organizers and residents become more knowledgeable about their broadband options, the "best" models of 2005 and 2006 just don't cut it anymore.
As a core coordinator of the CDAA, Michael Maranda sees his work as an outgrowth of earlier digital access initiatives.
"The Chicago Digital Access Alliance was deeply inspired by the Community Benefits Agreement achieved by Minneapolis. We build upon our predecessors to honor them," Maranda said. "We drafted these principles under a frame of 'digital excellence,' and have been working hard at moving the discourse from inclusion to excellence -- we want to set a higher bar."
The CDAA is demanding the city's municipal broadband network be used to help address Chicago's socioeconomic problems. "We won't settle for a handout of a little hardware, a little connectivity, and maybe a little money to run some programs and put some sites up," Maranda said. "We're not going to smile, say, 'Thanks,' and go away quietly."
Bridging the Gap
In 2005, the digital divide was widely recognized as a fundamental problem affecting many aspects of contemporary civil society. Internet connectivity proved beneficial to those who had it, and as the number of Internet users increased, network users gained benefits too. The networked whole turned out to be far greater than the sum of its parts.
But this phenomenon widened the discrepancy between those with Internet access and those left out of the telecommunications revolution. Compared to their connected counterparts, the disconnected were rapidly losing ground when it came to things like access to job and educational opportunities, news and social networks.
By 2006, a far more practical stance caught on. "Digital inclusion" wasn't meant to simply be a public relations catch phrase. It was also a recognition that municipalities needed to do more than lessen discrimination -- they needed to foster digital expansion. "I have felt that community and technology advocates were ready to take up the phrase 'digital inclusion' largely because we've been neglected in the trenches for so long that we were ecstatic at being listened to at all," Maranda said. "If we are being listened to finally, let's talk about the society we want, and about technology only insofar as it can be in service to us achieving that society."
But a growing number of community organizers began to realize that "inclusion" wasn't enough.
"'Digital inclusion' has gained a lot of traction as a phrase, especially in Philadelphia, where Wireless Philadelphia has all but branded it to describe the social programs they are planning to close the digital divide," wrote Joshua Breitbart, principal of Ethos Group, on his blog. "People talk about the entrepreneurial opportunities that will come from 'closing the digital divide.' They're there, but anyone who is arriving now to the online world is working at a disadvantage to those who came before. We want to do more than just include people in the online world, as it currently exists. We want that new involvement to transform that world. This is what I hope to imply with the phrase 'digital expansion.'"
Today forward-thinking leaders and municipal decision-makers are setting their sights higher. "With digital inclusion, there is danger of leaving our aim too low and shooting ourselves in the feet. If [decision-makers] are listening now to community experts with experience in digital
literacy, access and equity, let's tell them where we really need to go," Maranda said. "We can't settle for digital inclusion as a charity model. We're investing alongside others in our community, in our common future."
With Chicago CIO Hardik Bhatt giving talks like his Feb. 28, 2007, address to the Chicago Economic Development Council, the message is definitely beginning to sink in.
"Commons-based approaches, peer production, self-organizing networks, viewing the Internet as a governance model, open standards -- we can trace the lineage of many of these elements back quite a ways," Maranda said. "But the new technologies we have and the increased capacity for communication and exchange really make for a quantum leap in what is possible."
With this in mind, the CDAA outlined a 10-point plan to promote digital excellence that provides a springboard for others to build networks that promote social and economic justice in their own communities.
Chicago Digital Access Alliance Principles
1. Digital excellence is an institutionally funded priority for Chicago.
Activities promoting digital excellence are best shaped and supported through a sustained funding mechanism. A digital literacy trust, guided by local constituents and practitioners should, advocate for the digitally underserved. It could also offer programmatic support to establish local capacity and promote the vision of digital excellence.
"The best thing we can do as a community other than eliminating systemic exclusion is to understand the everyday needs of the digitally excluded and promote the solutions that may make their lives easier," said Richard MacKinnon, president of Austin Wireless.
It's not enough for political leaders to support digital excellence through rhetoric; it has to become a funding priority, said Catherine Settanni, founder and executive director of the Digital Access Project and one of the main proponents behind the Community Benefits Agreement in Minneapolis. "In the past," she explained, "we tried to influence grant makers and foundations about these issues, in the hopes of educating decision-makers about the need to support digital inclusion efforts. Digital inclusion is seldom understood as a critical need, and so it is seldom given the attention that housing, employment, health or educational achievement is when funding decisions are made."
2. Sound planning, evaluation and policy measures are critical to digital divide evaluation and digital excellence impact.
Qualitative and quantitative processes must be established to gather baseline and ongoing data on Chicago's digital divide, and guide the creation of new policies and practices to strengthen digital opportunities, thereby promoting digital excellence.
For example, John Atkinson, director of Wireless Ghana, points out that, decision-makers at the higher levels never even considered the use of open source software and hardware setups. "There is a general air that such solutions are inherently not viable," he said. "So I believe there is a lack of education about the alternatives when it comes to these rollouts."
Effective planning, evaluation and policy measures are not simply important for the viability of the projects themselves, they also help educate potential detractors about the projects' true impacts. "Decision-makers need to have realistic benchmarks and timelines for results, while remaining flexible as events emerge on the ground," said Harold Feld, senior vice president of the Media Access Project. "Many municipal systems declared 'failures' by opponents of community broadband enjoyed initial rates of return comparable with private-sector startups, but were not given time to achieve profitability."
In addition, Feld continued, if the measure of success for a project is assessed using some benchmark other than profitability -- and he believes they should -- these benchmarks should be declared up front and treated as equally important as revenue.
Due diligence is also vital for key decision-makers and their staff. "Policymakers need to educate themselves on these technologies so they can make the best decision when the time comes," Atkinson said.
Otherwise, cities may end up following in the sordid footsteps of national broadband policy, said Jim Baller, senior principal of the Baller Herbst Law Group.
"Congress is considering a fundamental overhaul of our communications laws," he said, "but it is doing so through a highly political process that is heavily influenced by vast incumbent lobbying budgets rather than by objective, coherent, long-term national planning for America's future."
3. Universal access to high-speed connectivity is a public right and necessity.
Universal broadband access for all citizens is a public right, not a privilege. Internet access must be available to all Chicago residents regardless of where they live, work or learn; furthermore, provision must be made for special access needs. Service upgrades and enhancements must be made equally available to all communities.
"Digital inclusion requires that all residents have equitable access to the social, civic, economic and educational opportunities that technology and the Internet provide. Seniors, low-income adults and youth, and disabled or non-English speaking residents -- those who might most benefit from access to these services -- often lack adequate resources or skills to benefit from them," Settanni said, adding that digital inclusion addresses the barriers to technology use among these constituent groups as a way to ensure a more equal playing field in these critical arenas.
Feld had additional concerns.
"We should not leave aside concerns of social justice [and] the ability of traditionally underserved communities to speak in their own voices and enjoy opportunities hitherto denied," he said.
We also need to ensure that the tools exist for communities to direct their own "digital destinies."
4. Digital literacy and fluency are forms of human capital and require public investment. Comprehensive training for digital literacy must be available in multilingual and varied learning formats. Digital proficiency must be promoted at neighborhood location -- especially community technology centers, community-based organizations and libraries -- to strengthen resident understanding of new technologies.
The United States must learn the lessons that pioneers in developing countries have already learned -- digital literacy raises the standards of living. Placing the digital literary emphasis on being a part of the local community and building relationships within that context is vital to combat preconceived notions of technological betrayal, Atkinson said.
Many U.S. communities and neighborhoods, Settanni noted, have similar feelings about the solutions they've been sold over the years that were supposed to improve their lives, but didn't.
Deployers of broadband networks need to overcome what Settanni calls "persistent misconceptions about technology," which she says lead many decision-makers to focus on the cost- effectiveness and 'cool factor' of technologies being deployed.
The problem, Settanni said, often comes down to building trust.
5. Local infrastructure is necessary for community-driven content development.
Content must reflect the ideas, identities and innovation of community residents and their respective neighborhoods. Local infrastructure must be established to allow for community control over content. Civic, educational and government Web sites must be available for free to residents at all times.
"Price points are one barrier to entry for the poorest community members' use of a network," said Hannah Sassaman, program director of the Prometheus Radio Project, "but so are software design, literacy levels and misinterpretation of what a community needs from a network."
As a community organizer in Philadelphia, Sassaman said, she has yet to hear about a municipal wireless network that creates a suitable upload/download speed or a software platform for community-produced music tracks, for example. "And in Philadelphia," she said, "community-produced music abounds."
Community networks must be about more than just Internet service provision -- they need to build communitywide local area network to house information, services and multimedia on the network itself.
6. Hardware tools must be available to all.
Computer hardware, whether new or
refurbished, must be available to all Chicago residents for free or at affordable cost. Additionally nonpredatory mechanisms must be put in place for the acquisition of hardware for all consumers. Community-based organizations, libraries and parks must be equipped and supported to provide free public use access.
Whether in Chicago or sub-Saharan Africa, access to computer hardware is rapidly becoming recognized as critical to civil society.
"I see people learn languages online, and e-mail or chat with loved ones globally; I see school teachers getting answers where their shabby textbooks fail, and school kids benefiting as a consequence," Atkinson said. "People apply to schools, get jobs and research visas. Possibly the biggest benefit is that people using computer workstations are constantly reading and writing." Without hardware access, many residents will not be able to get valuable resources.
7. Environmentally sustainable best practices and innovations improve the health and well-being of all neighborhoods.
The tools of the Information Age must adhere to and support the highest levels of environmental and economic sustainability. The city should use the new network to disseminate and capture information vital to improving the sustainability of our city, such as gathering air and water quality data and improving transportation choice. The city and technology vendors should support the creation of neighborhood-based recycling and refurbishing initiatives for environmental remediation and job creation.
"When someone like [Bill] Gates, or a city mayor, decides to push the availability of digital technologies into new communities, they quickly learn that the communities they partner with think about technology as it is relevant to the issues they already deal with in their lives," Sassaman said.
In Chicago, as elsewhere, environmentally sound practices are an important issue for a large and growing portion of the community. As Sassaman suggested, wise leaders will recognize that the social benefits of digital inclusion follow from what they learn in meetings with nongovernmental organizations and nonprofit directors who work on social issues in those communities. "Will a new wireless network, new robust laptops, help moms access their welfare benefits?" she said. "Will they help kids access their schools? Elderly folks go shopping and access their health care?"
8. Our freedom to connect demands network neutrality and active monitoring for equitable service.
Network neutrality is grounded in freedom of speech. For all networks offering service in Chicago, the precept of network neutrality must be honored and all features of the network -- bandwidth, services and enhancements -- must be deployed to achieve universal and equitable coverage. The community must have the ability to monitor and verify data on coverage and quality of service. There must be mechanisms for remediation, and the city must take an active role to ensure compliance by vendors and subsidiaries.
Laird Brown, a coordinator of last year's AirJaldi Community Wireless Summit in Dharamsala, India, views equitable service as critically important for maximizing digital communications networks and the diversity of ways in which they are utilized.
"It puts another lane on the information highway," Brown said. "Without inclusion, all of the traffic is flowing one way. From a larger perspective, it means that the digi-sphere becomes more diverse and less of a monoculture. With regard to economic benefits, there is increased opportunity, if not exactly a level playing field. People [are] very enterprising and always manage to adapt to new opportunities."
One need look no further than AT&T's blocking of specific conference-call phone numbers in March 2007 to see how detrimental a nonneutral communications system can become.
9. The global economy works for everyone: Assure work force development and first-source hiring.
Work force development opportunities that emerge from the wireless network should be made available to neighborhood residents -- including the hard-to-employ, youth and physically challenged -- who are identified, trained and employed through first-source
hiring opportunities and subcontracting opportunities for neighborhood-based businesses.
"As our manufacturing jobs increasingly move abroad to lower-income and lower-cost areas, we will see significant increases in plant closings, stressed local economies and demands for federal and state aid -- all of which will disproportionately affect our working classes," cautioned Baller. "To combat these trends, we must promptly reverse America's precipitous free-fall in global broadband ranking, and we must act aggressively and intelligently to prepare our localities to thrive in the emerging information-based global economy. The stakes are too high, and the time is too short for America to leave this solely or even primarily in the hands of the private sector."
Feld agreed. "Any system that relies on market incentives alone is going to face a real problem," he said. "There will inevitably be areas in which it is not profitable to deploy, or individuals who cannot afford to participate in the digital economy."
With the proper safeguards, incentives and initiatives, community broadband networks can become important incubators for economic empowerment and individual improvement.
10. In strong neighborhood economies, entrepreneurs and small businesses thrive.
The network must provide mechanisms to expand existing small businesses and cultivate new opportunities in Chicago's underserved communities. Small businesses and residents must have the resources, training and support to use the access afforded by the network to grow revenue and potential, including training in business development and e-commerce.
A paradox faces many institutions and organizations when it comes to technological investment, said Angela Stuber, executive director of Grassroots.org.
"Most small and medium-sized nonprofits are busy providing services," Stuber said. "Figuring out which technology tool to use and how to set it up is often a low priority. This is unfortunate since technology can increase an organization's efficiency and productivity."
In much the same way, municipalities need to get beyond fears about public investment in upfront capital expenditures, and realize that the returns on investment in broadband services help support the long-term economic stability of their neighborhoods and communities. Cities must change the way they view public investment.
"We work with communities that have determined, on their own, that they want to build out and use a technology that is appropriate for them and their social, cultural and political needs," Sassaman said. "Because the community aggressively pursues these technologies, they determine how to conduct training, literacy and outreach around those technologies in a sustainable way that can grow gradually. In municipal wireless networks, cities set benchmarks they must meet, for their own financial sakes and to serve investors and corporations, meaning that the needs set by community panels are secondary."
Fundamental shifts in how cities, decision-makers and community residents view broadband connectivity have already occurred. Right now we are at a critical historical juncture -- where policies, technologies and economic necessities have aligned to support the widespread development and deployment of an entirely new generation of mobile and affordable communications. Mirroring the increasing importance of broadband worldwide, we have seen common understandings of broadband connectivity shift from "broadband as luxury" to "broadband for everyone."
The CDAA's "Ten Principles for Digital Excellence" is an important benchmark for measuring a municipality's commitment to fostering social and economic equality in the Information Age.
Sascha Meinrath is a regular contributor to Government Technology's Digital Communities MuniWireless.com. Sascha aLSO serves as vice president of CTCnet, a U.S.-based network of more than 1,000 organizations united in their commitment to improve the educational, economic, cultural and political life of their communities through technology. Sascha blogs regularly at SaschaMeinrath.com.