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How Communities Are Using Tech to Help Foster Racial Equity

After last year’s worldwide protests in the wake of high-profile racial injustice within U.S. policing, community leaders have prioritized equity. And within that, an increasing number of cities are turning to tech.

At this year’s virtual CityLab event — perhaps the preeminent meeting for local government folks — one priority emerged as a focal point, and that was fostering equity while recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Within that, many elected officials, experts, and those who work with them stressed the importance of local government striving for greater racial equity in their communities, an especially timely priority after last year’s international protests around injustice in policing following the murder of George Floyd. Throughout three days of virtual events, there was a shared consensus that local government needed to do a better job fostering racial equity and addressing the systemic challenges that fuel the inequities.

For some in the local government space — specifically the folks who manage the central IT shops, as well as the community groups, elected officials and private companies they work with — a logical question then becomes, how can tech be used in the public-sector space to help foster racial equity?

The answer involves a mix of focusing ongoing digital inclusion work, collaborating with community groups in the space, and perhaps most commonly, using data to pinpoint where work needs to be done. At the same time, experts in the space warn that it is important for local government to remain aware of ways that technology can make existing inequities worse.


Marin County, Calif., has been using technology to address racial inequities in two major ways, said Liza Massey, chief information officer there.

First, the county has assembled a data-driven dashboard — one that they’ve had for some time — that tracks the racial demographics for county employees. This, Massey said, is helpful for officials to find areas of racial inequities within the county’s own workforce. That’s just one specific example of the work being done internally.

In a broader sense, Massey noted that the digital and data teams in Marin County were working with a racial equity officer, a position within the county dedicated to — as the name suggests — racial equity work. Part of the work they are doing together includes building a public-facing equity website, which itself will include a dashboard that aggregates data around other areas in Marin outside of the county workforce.

Use of data to illustrate the problem and subsequently set benchmarks is one of the most frequent and effective ways tech folks are able to help local governments address any problem, and it’s an approach spreading rapidly in local gov tech shops the nation over.

Kim LaGrue, chief information officer for New Orleans, said her city has done the same.

“If we’re going to advance or make things equitable, we just have to know what the playing field looks like,” LaGrue said. “So, we use data and a lot of it is geospatial data.”

The seeds for this work in New Orleans were planted as far back as 2014, when the city commissioned a broadband study as part of looking into building fiber infrastructure. While the overlap between access to Internet and underserved communities is a growing area of focus for the public sector nowadays — particularly in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic — it was far less studied as recently as six years ago. What New Orleans found, LaGrue said, was major overlap, with as much as 60 percent of their underserved communities lacking access to broadband.

This sort of digital inclusion work is the other common and prominent area where local government is actively working in a significant way to address racial inequity.

“Much of the divide is around racial equity,” LaGrue said. “We know it’s not just about using tech to bridge racial equity, but it is about addressing the digital divide, which we think will solve some of the racial equity problems.”

In Marin County, officials have also invested in digital inclusion work to help address racial equity, specifically with a free Wi-Fi program in the Canal Neighborhood in San Rafael, Calif. That effort was relatively unique, bringing together supporters from across sectors, and it’s been a success for that area, Massey said.


Another way that local government is addressing racial inequity is actually starting outside of city hall before working its way in. Indeed, there are many community groups as well as larger organizations using technology to address racial inequities, and some of them are doing so in ways that eventually require participation or partnering from local government.

Take for example the work of Driver’s Seat Cooperative, which, as the name suggests, is a cooperative effort between ride-share drivers to compile useful data around the wages they are receiving for their work. While the primary function of this tech is to help drivers themselves optimize earnings by tracking performance, there is a potential future in which local government buys valuable transportation data from drivers.

This data has the potential to help decision-makers gain a better understanding of the gig economy as well as the lives of residents who grapple with transportation issues, both of which disproportionately impact communities made up of residents of color.

Another group using tech to help foster racial equity is the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA), doing so specifically throughout the pandemic through a platform called Alia, which was built by that group’s tech and innovation shop, NDWA Labs. With many domestic workers paid by a large group of individual families, they miss out on benefits enjoyed by those who work full time for one employer, including vacation, health benefits and overtime pay.

What Alia does is strive to create a safety net that includes those benefits for domestic workers, said Palak Shah, social innovations director of the NDWA and the founding director of NDWA Labs. Shah noted that what makes the Alia project so beneficial to racial equity work is the makeup of domestic workers as a population, specifically that the majority are people of color — 91 percent of whom are women.

The Alia project was started before the pandemic, but the challenges faced by domestic and other front-line workers during COVID-19 accelerated interest in it from all sectors, including philanthropic groups, private companies and local governments. When setting up a pandemic relief fund, Shah said her group consulted with the leadership of 15 major cities.

Cities such as Philadelphia and Tuscon, Ariz., have entered into official partnerships with NDWA and Alia, while other cities — including Baltimore — have used the platform’s open source software, Shah said. The pandemic has helped illustrate inequities, leading to an increase in interest in Alia all around.

Partnerships have gone a layer deeper than that, too, because the NDWA works with known and trusted community groups to engage underserved communities, which are often made up of groups that are reluctant to or unable to interact directly with government.

These types of partnerships have long been crucial to digital inclusion work, and they are now increasingly important to the work of those using technology to foster racial equity.


There is a different sort of work that public-sector tech folks can do to address racial equities as well, and that work is being aware of technology’s potential to make existing inequities worse, said Sarah Treuhaft, vice president of research at PolicyLink, which is a national research group that works to advance economic and social equity.

“Cities need to be thoughtful when they adopt new technologies that extract data,” Treuhaft said. “They need to be thoughtful about how they apply them so they’re not exacerbating inequities.”

In the past decade, new and sudden technologies have become ubiquitous, and the ways that they collect data can be invisible or unknown to many people, Treuhaft added. This ranges from smart city sensors to public safety tech intended to assist with policing.

When government embraces a new technology — and government has been doing that at an accelerated pace, especially with decision-makers aware of tech’s importance in the wake of the pandemic — those in the tech shop need to put in the work to thoroughly investigate those technologies.

There are new technologies that have the potential to exacerbate inequities by discriminating on the basis of race. A best practice in this regard is to assume that tech will in fact exacerbate inequities rather than to presume that they won’t, and then start the investigation process from there, Treuhaft said.

One ongoing trend that Treuhaft has found to be encouraging in the public sector is the addition of equity officers or entire offices with staff members. When a city or county has done so, it can be a tremendous resource for its tech and innovation efforts.

Even so, while there have been improvements and city officials are increasingly aware of incorporating equity work into all that their organizations do, the extent to which it’s actually happening still varies wildly from jurisdiction, and it remains to be seen how successful those discussing the importance of the work will be at actually executing it over an extended period of time.
Associate editor for Government Technology magazine