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What's New in Civic Tech: Illinois' Two Broadband Efforts

Plus, the Federal Communications Commission has committed an additional $1 billion to the Emergency Connectivity Fund program, California looks to improve its procurement processes for tech services, and more.

Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker
Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker
TNS/Chicago Tribune/E. Jason Wambsgans
Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker has announced the launch of a pair of projects aimed at improving connectivity across the state — the Connect Illinois Broadband Map and the Illinois Broadband Lab.

The Connect Illinois Broadband Map is in part exactly what it sounds like — a map of broadband availability in the state. It also, however, features different interactive components. For example, users can click on a connection speed, and the map will subsequently display the areas in the state where connections at that speed are available. The map features other data layers as well, including the locations of libraries and universities and the boundaries of economic development regions.

The map is actually housed within the other half of this effort, accessible as it is through the Illinois Broadband Lab website. As verbiage on the site notes, the Illinois Broadband Lab is intended to "advance shared interests in broadband data and research, explore various aspects of the digital divide, and provide thoughtful analysis of the Connect Illinois capital investment and related programming." There are also hundreds of PDF maps that cover different perspectives along with complementary data sets related to broadband access.

The map of speeds is part of this work, as are the site's other sections, which include an affordability study and a centralized location to learn more about the state's other broadband efforts.

The overarching goal of both of these projects is to give residents and communities a clearer picture of the status of broadband in Illinois, enabling them to gauge speeds and identify coverage gaps. In addition, the projects are intended to provide decision-makers with information that can be used to inform investments, policymaking and community-level broadband planning.

This type of work — especially the mapping component — has become increasingly common within state government, following years of expert criticism of federal broadband mapping. Essentially, stakeholders at the state and local levels have long seen federal maps as not specific enough, also pointing out that they tend to rely on telecommunication company reporting. Digital equity advocates have often supported instead putting the power to gauge speeds directly in the hands of decision-makers in communities. This work by Illinois is aimed at doing just that, combing data from local broadband providers with field testing.

Both of these efforts expand on the $420 million Connect Illinois broadband plan, which was Illinois' recent sizable investment in connectivity. They are collaborative projects on which the state is teaming with a number of partners, including the University of Illinois, the Illinois Innovation Network and the Benton Institute for Broadband and Society, which is based in Illinois.

"Access to high-speed, reliable Internet is not a luxury - it's a necessity for health care, success in school, and to compete in a 21st-century economy," said Pritzker in a press release. "Keeping our communities connected has never been more important than it is today." (Julia Edinger)

FCC PUTS $1 BILLION MORE TOWARD BROADBAND


The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has announced a commitment of more than $1 billion to support broadband and connectivity work through libraries, schools and other groups.

The money is going to these places through the Emergency Connectivity Fund program (ECF), with the exact count being 2,471 schools, 205 libraries and 26 other groups, all of which applied for the money. This represents the FCC's second round of ECF funding. The first round came earlier this year.

The money will help cover the costs of broadband connectivity, as well as assist organizations with the purchases of laptops, tablets, modems, routers and hot spots. A significant goal of this funding is to help close what's called the homework gap, referring to a disparity where certain students have better access to the Internet at home outside of school hours.

ECF, authorized through the American Rescue Plan Act, has a total of $7.17 billion in funding to distribute for this work. Another application window opened Sept. 28 and closed Oct. 13. More information about the fund can be found on the FCC website. (Edinger)

CALIFORNIA LOOKS TO IMPROVE PROCUREMENT FOR TECH SERVICES


Procurement, the process by which government buys products and services, is obliquely related to civic tech work, serving as it does as a wonky and relatively unseen part of government tech and innovation work. It's also an area in need of improvement — one that has often been tackled by civic technologists, both inside and outside of government.

Now, California is working to do just that. This initiative is called the Technology, Digital and Data Consulting plan, and it's an evolution of the IT Consulting Master Services Agreement. The name change speaks to the nature of this work, which is to make procurement more accessible and easier to understand. The name change is one small part of it.

As the state notes in its announcement, "To assist with this change, we are asking vendor partners to submit feedback on the proposed consulting service classifications and requirements through a request for information (RFI). Deadline for feedback on the RFI is Oct. 18, 2021."

The next step following the conclusion of the RFI will be for vendors interested in this work to submit a proposal that includes costs to compete for a contract with the state. (Zack Quaintance)

WESTLY PRIZE APPLICATION PROCESS NOW OPEN


Applications for the Westly Prize — from which civic technologists and other innovators can win $145,000 in cash prizes — are now open.

The goal of the Westly Prize is to award early-stage social innovators in California for having "novel solutions to community challenges," which is at the heart of civic tech. Three prizes of $40,000 will be given out, and that money will have no restrictions on how it can be spent.

The deadline is the end of this week, and interested parties can apply on the Westly Prize website. (Quaintance)

RHODE ISLAND PROJECT TRACES DEMOGRAPHIC CHANGES FROM 1708


A noteworthy civic tech project in Rhode Island uses Census data to illustrate how the state's population and other demographics have changed dating back to 1708.

You can check out the project now via the state's website. (Quaintance)
Julia Edinger is a staff writer for Government Technology. She has a bachelor's degree in English from the University of Toledo and has since worked in publishing and media. She's currently located in Southern California.
Associate editor for <i>Government Technology</i> magazine