What’s New in Civic Tech: NYC Works to Expand Broadband

Plus, Philadelphia’s Digital Literacy Alliance has fast-tracked its grant cycle during COVID-19, a new online exhibit explores the longtime history of bias in mapping, and Code for America’s tax project evolves.

NYC Housing Authority_shutterstock_778858075
Views of New York City Housing Authority residences at Queensbridge.
Shutterstock/a katz
New York City has put out a call in search of partnerships that would expand its ability to offer affordable Internet connectivity to the residents of New York City Housing Authority homes.

Formally, the call is being put out via a Request for Expression of Interest (RFEI), which interested parties can find in full here. The deadline for responses is June 1. What the city is looking for, essentially, is a solution that will help address the digital divide and get more New Yorkers equitable access to technology that can benefit their lives.

There is also a component that ties into the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, both in terms of the urgency with which the city would like to get residents connected and the amount of physical contact with citizens that potential partnerships would yield.

As the city notes on the Web page announcing the RFEI, this is “a unique opportunity for internet service providers, both large and small, with plans to rapidly close the digital divide in New York City to bring new service options to public housing communities while minimizing physical contact with residents.”

This all fits into broader efforts by the NYC Mayor’s Office of the Chief Technology Officer. The city has a New York City Internet Master Plan with a stated intention of releasing a Universal Solicitation for Broadband (USB). This new RFEI represents the first phase of the USB, with its special focus on expanding free or low-cost Internet to public housing residents.

The last component worth noting here is that the city has also released statistics emphasizing why this work matters to the community, including that 46 percent of New York households living in poverty lack broadband at home, which totals roughly 1.5 million residents of the city. 

Residents lacking Internet access at home is a problem that has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 crisis, with many of society’s vital functions moving online to stem the rise of new virus infections. Education, telecommuting and telehealth functionalities are all being utilized at record numbers, and, as such, cities are working quickly to try to connect large segments of their populations.  

This RFEI from New York in search of partnerships is a clear example of these efforts.

Philadelphia’s Digital Literacy Alliance Fast Tracks Grant Cycle During COVID-19

Also in response to the COVID-19 crisis, Philadelphia’s Digital Literacy Alliance (DLA) has fast-tracked its grant-making cycle. 

As a result, the DLA has named its three recipients for its grants this year, with the winners being Community Learning Center (CLC), the ExCITe Center at Drexel University and SEAMAAC. Each of these organizations have been awarded $30,000.

The groundwork for this move was laid in April, when the DLA began this process in order to provide funding that would create one or more roles called Digital Navigators within the selected organizations. These Digital Navigators are to be staffers focused on digital inclusion, doing the work of helping connect residents with affordable Internet service and technology. As the organization noted in its press release, those “needs range from finding remote digital literacy training to helping residents apply for Internet access to identifying low-cost or free computers.”

Of the prize money, $25,000 is dedicated to launching the Digital Navigators while $5,000 is set for providing access to computers for those who need them. The selected groups all met the designated criteria for the grants, which were being prepared to identify an existing employee qualified to be a Digital Navigator, being able to define specific community reach within social distancing guidelines and having expertise in digital literacy work.

In addition, Philadelphia has created this Web page to address issues around staying connected to the Internet during COVID-19.

New Online Exhibit Explores History of Mapping Bias

One of the key facets of civic tech is the visualization and mapping of data, and, as such, there is a new civic tech-related online exhibit that explores the history of bias in mapping.

Dubbed Bending Lines, the project was initially scheduled to appear via a physical display in May 2020 put on by the Leventhal Map & Education Center at the Boston Library. Due to COVID-19, however, all Boston Public Library buildings are currently closed. So now the exhibit has migrated online, where visitors can enjoy interactive material and new content specifically designed for digital consumption. Bending Lines is now being conceived of as a year-long project that will continue growing through virtual talks and workshops related to its content.

What Bending Lines examines is the reality of every map being influenced by its creators' decisions, which can manifest in the way data is visualized within it. This could be because of design, labeling, data selection or other processes that are susceptible to potential biases. This reality, of course, is not always readily apparent to those who view maps, with their relatively straightforward surface presentations. 

Code for America’s GetYourRefund Project Evolves

Code for America’s GetYourRefund Project has continued to evolve during the COVID-19 crisis, so much so that the civic technologists involved with the work have shared a look at its evolution via a long thread on Twitter.

This thread — which is a really interesting window into ambitious and large-scale civic tech work — details the progression of involvement for volunteers with the project, complete with shout-outs to the Code for America Brigade members and staffers who have worked on this project.

You can find it in full here.

Associate editor for Government Technology magazine