Reflection: A Model of Digital Inclusion

Last class, we formed small groups to create a model of digital inclusion. My group tried to create a tool that would help us assess if and to what extent a community was digitally inclusive. The hope was that by creating such a tool, the components of a model to digital inclusion would naturally emerge. Ultimately, the tool would help us evaluate if residents of that place had access to Internet, hardware and software, educational resources, as well as digital ways to engage with the local government and learn about civic happenings (i.e. iphone apps, Internet sites, etc). We did not complete the tool, but tried to create an index or ranking system that would measure indicators or levels of digital inclusion. For example, the tool should measure the following:

– Number of free wireless / broadband spots in the community per capita
– Computers per capita in the public library branches
– Geographic accessibility of the public library branches
– Computers per capita in the public schools
– Number and frequency of free technology literacy programs
– Age, sex, race, and income level of individuals attending free technology literacy programs in comparison to total population demographics
– Number and accessibility of websites / iphone apps local government uses to communicate with and engage with residents

The difficult aspect of such a tool is finding this data and figuring out what level is adequate to call a place digitally inclusive. My hometown is Needham, Massachusetts and it is difficult to find this data on the Internet aside from mapping the location of schools and libraries, acquiring basic demographic or census data, and visiting the town’s various websites (city hall, library, school, etc). Given that the town is small (4 square miles) and houses a fairly homogenous population with state of the art public schools and new branch library, I would say the town is digitally inclusive. In fact, according to the town website, Needham was even awarded the eGovernment Award (although there is no clear explanation of what the award is recognizing).

Previously, I worked on the Boston Indicators Project, which aims to democratize access to information, foster informed public discourse, track progress on shared civic goals, and report on change in 10 sectors. One of these sectors is Technology, which includes measures for evaluating digital inclusion. We collected some data through the census and found other hard-to-find data by building relationships with city agencies, civic institutions, and non-profits that had access to the relevant information. The project framework includes an overarching goal accompanied with indicators that assess that goal and data that measure the indicators. By looking at data over time and in comparison to the rest of the state, the project tried to evaluate digital inclusion in the Technology sector.

For example, the framework for the goal “Universal Access to Technology” is shown below:

9.2 Universal Access to Technology
9.2.1 In-home access to computers and the Internet, Boston and Metro Boston
a. Percent of Households with an Internet Connection (1998-2003)
b. Computer in Household by Educational Attainment (1998-2003)
c. Computer in Household by Race/Ethnicity (1998-2003)
9.2.2 Public Access to Computers and the Internet, Boston Neighborhood
a. Map of Free Wireless Internet “Hot Spots” by Boston Neighborhood, 2007
9.2.3 Number of Neighborhoods/Communities with Available Broadband and Wireless Access, MA and Boston
a. High Speed Internet Lines, 2007

These indicators (and for the entire Technology sector) were initially developed ten years ago, so personally, I would like to keep brainstorming new indicators that help us evaluate and compare the digital inclusiveness of cities.  How can the use of smartphones and initiatives of office such as New Urban Mechanics be incorporated into the evaluation of a digitally-inclusive city model?