What’s New in Civic Tech: Pew Launches State Broadband Index

Plus, an audit at NYU assesses the privacy risks posed by a fast-spreading gunshot detection solution; Soofa deploys its local newsfeeds in three Boston neighborhoods; Wi-Fi 6 is coming to cities soon; and more!

by / August 1, 2019
Most of the bond debt small governments incur is for telecommunications projects, including expanding broadband access to rural Americans. Shutterstock

Pew Charitable Trusts’ broadband research initiative has launched a new 50-state interactive tool that can be used to learn more about broadband policies. 

Dubbed the State Broadband Policy Explorer, the tool is exactly what it sounds like. Users can sort through policies related to broadband based on state and category. There is also a functionality that shows how prevalent certain policies are across the nation. Pew created the tool in the course of doing other research related to state’s taking action on broadband. 

The tool is free and can be used by anyone. Kathryn de Wit, manager of Pew Charitable Trusts’ broadband research initiative, said the group envisions it as being of great use for researchers, journalists, legislative staffers, community group leaders and pretty much anyone else interested in the subject matter. 

The conversation around broadband access generally gets framed in terms of federal or local actions, but as Pew officials note, all 50 states now have at least one policy aimed at governing broadband deployment. The work being done by states includes but is not limited to creating broadband deployment programs, setting guidance on competition and regulation, and establishing funding and financing mechanisms

This marks the first time that all of this information has been collected in a centralized location.

Moving forward, Pew plans to update the tool again by the end of the year, as de Wit notes that 2019 has been an active session in state legislatures nationwide for new broadband-related policies. There are also plans to eventually publish a trend analysis related to the tool, with other research coming out of the project as well. 

In terms of key takeaways, de Wit noted first and foremost that state policy matters in this area. 

“It really does provide a powerful framework for providers and communities to respond to,” she said, also noting that it answers key questions such as how does a state define broadband access, what incentives and funds are available, and more. 

She also noted that there are more than 700 data entries in the tool, which indicates that broadband access policy is an area where states are doing quite a bit. Those data entries fall into five key areas: task forces; key terms; funding and financing efforts; governing infrastructure access; and clarifying who can and cannot provide broadband. 

Perhaps the key overarching takeaway is that state policy related to broadband access is consequential. This much is made evident by the other areas of government that the tool shows broadband access policy connects to.

“States are not only saying broadband is important,” de Wit said, “they’re saying broadband is important to things like education and economic development and health care.”

NYU Audit Assesses Privacy Risk of Gunshot Detection Solution

The Policing Project at the New York University School of Law has released a new privacy audit related to a gunshot detection solution that is being installed in communities across the country with the goal of alerting police and first responders to gun violence.

The solution is the work of ShotSpotter Inc., whose gunfire detection and location tech is now used by more than 90 cities nationwide. The solution works by monitoring sounds, and what the recent privacy audit found is that the risk of it inadvertently conducting voice surveillance is “extremely low in practice.” Still, the audit also suggested more actions ShotSpotter could take to further enhance its privacy protections, and those actions have now been taken by the company. 

The audit was conducted at the request of ShotSpotter, and as the Policing Project notes in the summary of its findings, it agreed to do the assessment out of a belief that police departments and the communities they serve better understand existing safety technologies like ShotSpotter, before investing in any new technology. 

In the service of its audit, the Policing Project requested and received access to all operations of ShotSpotter’s gunshot detection service, as well as full editorial control over its report. It’s all a good faith move on ShotSpotter’s part, one that shows how confident the company is in its own privacy protections.

What is perhaps also important to note here is that the Policing Project hopes this sort of audit becomes a standard for companies like ShotSpotter that handle data of any type and work with police.

“We believe this type of open audit and assessment — whether performed by us or by others — should become the norm for companies selling technologies to governments and policing agencies,” the project wrote in its findings. “We hope other policing technology companies will proactively embrace their responsibility in protecting individual liberty.”

Soofa Deploys Local Newsfeeds in Three Boston Neighborhoods

This week, the gov tech company Soofa deployed a dozen neighborhood newsfeeds in three Boston neighborhoods.

Soofa worked with the city, the Engagement Lab @ Emerson College, and Supernormal to temporarily install the feeds, which appear on digital Soofa Signs in areas with heavy walkability. The signs are being billed as both a way to disseminate new information and to teach people things about their neighborhoods that they may not already know.

The work was done as part of Boston’s Beta Blocks process and developed through the city’s Office of New Urban Mechanics. The Beta Blocks initiative is a tech-heavy campaign to incorporate citizen-centric oversight into the local government’s use of new technologies. 

Soofa is the first tech startup to work within the Beta Blocks project. What will happen next is that Beta Blocks will invite community members to share perspectives on how this work and other new urban technologies should be used where they live. Their opinions will go to Soofa and the city, who will take it into advisement as they continue to evolve their work.

Wi-Fi 6 is Coming

Finally, this may sound a bit cryptic, but: Wi-Fi 6 is coming.

Indeed, as the public and private sectors alike continue to grapple with the deployment of super-fast 5G connectivity, the next evolution of high-speed Internet access has come into sight. As news reports note, Wi-Fi 6 will be available toward the end of this year, and what it is is a combination of 5G and new wireless technologies, allowing users to connect to the Internet in congested areas without sacrificing speed or battery life.

So yes, you may have 5G now, but the next big thing is on the way, kind of like when you buy a new cellphone just as the next model is being previewed.

Zack Quaintance Assistant News Editor

Zack Quaintance is the assistant news editor for Government Technology. His background includes writing for daily newspapers across the country and developing content for a software company in Austin, Texas. He is now based in Washington, D.C. He can be reached via email.

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