How Chicago is Narrowing the Digital Divide

Low-income families, minorities, people with disabilities and seniors are overwhelmingly represented in the broad swath of the city’s population who are unable to gain access to crucial information and resources.

This story was originally published by Data-Smart City Solutions.

Hoping to reinvent its image as the nation’s next tech hub, Chicago has doubled down on its investment in digital manufacturing and technology. This summer, the global online marketplace eBay and the high-profile tech incubator 1871 pledged to expand their presence in Chicago and to add hundreds of tech-savvy jobs to the city’s growing workforce.

Notwithstanding these successes, Chicago remains plagued by an enormous connectivity gap. In the Windy City, broadband usage varies widely, ranging from just 36 percent to 94 percent for a given neighborhood. Low-income families, minorities, people with disabilities and seniors are overwhelmingly represented in the broad swath of the city’s population who are unable to gain access to crucial information and resources. Furthermore, research has shown that neighborhood-level factors like poverty and segregation magnify existing barriers to Internet use and home adoption).

Smart City

The Smart Communities initiative aspires to narrow the digital divide by providing disconnected individuals with increased access technology and the Internet. Spearheaded by the Local Initiative Support Corporation Chicago (LISC Chicago) in 2009 in conjunction with the city and a dozen community nonprofits, Smart Communities brings digital education, outreach, Internet access, small business training, digital youth jobs and local content portals to five digitally underserved neighborhoods in the Chicago area, including Humboldt Park, Pilsen, Auburn Gresham, Englewood and Chicago Lawn.

Smart Communities began with the city of Chicago’s Digital Excellence Initiative, launched by Mayor Daley in 2009 to help Chicago realize its decade-old dream of becoming a “smart city.” It features a variety of technology activities, including training for basic skills in 13 neighborhood-based Centers for Working Families (CWFs), for neighborhood groups in Civic 2.0 programs, and for businesses in the Business Resource Network; outreach through tech organizers, community portals, and advertising on buses and bus shelters; and youth programs that include summer jobs and digital media workshops in libraries and schools.

LISC Chicago, along with several partners and funders, including the MacArthur Foundation and the Chicago Community Trust, developed and piloted this initiative as a concrete way to realize the mayor’s vision. Terry Mazany, president and CEO of the Chicago Community Trust, noted the importance of the cross-sectoral approach of this project: “A real hallmark of Chicago’s approach to becoming a smart city has been the commitment to collaborative leadership that builds on the strengths of our civic ecosystem – with public, corporate, nonprofit and philanthropic sectors all pulling together – to ensure that new information and technology benefits all residents, especially those who lack basic Internet access.”

A Neighborhood-based Model

Commenting on the initiative’s neighborhood-focused approach, Susana Vasquez, executive director of LISC Chicago, emphasized that Smart Communities’ programming is not a traditional “technology access” model, of simply putting computers in a public space, but a more comprehensive approach to making technology relevant to each neighborhood. She noted, “what we really pushed first was changing local leaders’ mindsets about the power of technology to help advance community issues, not technology first. If your issues are about safety and poor schools and getting a job, you don’t think about technology first. If you start with neighborhood strategy – how do we reduce violence, make it safer to wait for a bus or improve our schools – you spark the imagination and motivation of the community leadership and partners.”

Funding from the MacArthur Foundation and the Partnership for a Connected Illinois has enabled a comprehensive evaluation that proved the effectiveness of this model. Researchers Karen Mossberger, Caroline Tolbert, and Chris Anderson have analyzed trends of digital use in Chicago and have evaluated the outcomes of individuals who have participated in Smart Communities’ training programs. With unique neighborhood-level data estimated from citywide surveys in 2008, 2011 and 2013, Mossberger and colleagues were able to compare the Smart Communities to other Chicago neighborhoods over this period, controlling for other factors that might affect Internet use, such as demographic change in the neighborhoods.

Evaluation Results

Through these surveys, Mossberger and colleagues found that the Smart Communities experienced significantly higher rates of increase in broadband adoption and several types of Internet use, compared to comparable neighborhoods in Chicago between 2008 and 2013. This included a nine percentage point higher rate of increase in broadband adoption at home and Internet use anywhere, and an 11-12 percentage point difference for use of online job search, health information and transit information. Between 2008 and 2011, only Internet use in any location was significantly higher in the Smart Communities. But, by 2013 there were also statistically significant differences in broadband adoption and activities online.

Smart Communities has also been linked to greater employment prospects and successful job placement. In its 2013 annual report, LISC Chicago found that clients who participated in both the Everyday Digital tech courses and received employment services through CWFs had a job placement rate that was nearly 50 percent higher than for those who took the employment services alone. “Offering a technology component to the Centers for Working Families clients makes all the sense in the world,” said Ricki Lowitz, the director of Economic Opportunities for LISC Chicago.

“That’s something that we’re doing more and more. The whole idea for Smart Communities was to leverage technology in a way that would have a real, tangible effect on people’s lives,” Lowitz continues. “When it comes to finding a job, we’ve definitely found that effect.”

Next Step: “Internet to Go”

In addition to tackling the digital divide through City Hall and community nonprofits, Chicago is also looking to the Chicago Public Library (CPL) system to redefine what modern learning centers look like. Through new innovative programs and services, CPL is leading the charge to turn libraries from quiet reading rooms to vibrant community resource centers.

As a recent winner of the 2014 Knight News Challenge, CPL will help to further bridge the digital divide by providing take home Internet access and digital training for people in digitally underserved areas of Chicago. The CPL’s “Internet to Go” program is one of 19 recipients of a competitive grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation that seeks to strengthen the Internet for freedom of expression and innovation.

With this $400,000 grant, the program will allow library patrons to check out Wi-Fi hot spot devices for up to three weeks at a time, beginning first in six neighborhood branches where digital access is particularly low. CPL will also offer digital literacy and skills coaching to community residents, and for those without computers, the library will also experiment with a laptop lending program.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel believes that these recent digital initiatives are part of a larger and growing narrative about how Chicago is changing the technology landscape. “From day one we have worked to increase internet connectivity and knowledge for our residents, because today’s digital skills are 21st-century workforce skills,” said Emanuel in a recent interview. “I thank the Knight Foundation for their support, because with this funding the Chicago Public Library will now be able provide free, easy-to-take home, high-speed Internet access that will serve as a game-changer for children and adults across Chicago, but especially in communities that have traditionally been underserved.”

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