Building Digital Communities: Nine Communities Pilot Digital Inclusion
As part of the FCC National Broadband Plan, a sweeping initiative to address the digital divide across the nation, IMLS developed the framework for Building Digital Communities as a policy document to guide communities in their efforts to increase digital inclusion. Under a grant from IMLS, the partnership of WebJunction, ICMA (International City/County Management Association), and TechSoup Global, is conducting a pilot project to better understand organizational needs in communities across the country and to help them get started on the path to digital inclusion with the framework as a foundation. The project is working with nine communities from around the country, selected with an intentional diversity in terms of demographics and level of prior digital inclusion achievement.
Digital Communities Leadership Summit
As the central activity for understanding community dynamics in advancing digital inclusion, the project team convened a Digital Communities Leadership Summit, bringing together three-person teams (triads) from the nine selected communities for a two-day meeting in St. Paul, Minnesota, June 12-13, 2012. Each triad consisted of the public library director, a representative from the city or county administration, and the director of a prominent local non-profit agency.
The learning outcomes for this gathering align with the intent of the IMLS framework:
- Increase awareness of the IMLS framework and its relevance to each community;
- Reinforce libraries, community-based organizations, and city/county managers as local leaders in facilitating digitally inclusive communities;
- Increase the ability to determine and address local needs through effective engagement with the community;
- Equip participants to initiate or augment digital inclusion efforts in each community.
For more details of the summit agenda, see Digital Communities Leadership Summit.
[Photo: Community triads discuss strategies at the St. Paul summit; courtesy of Sarah Washburn, TechSoup Global.]
Highlights of Summit Outcomes
Given the diversity of the selected communities, it was predictable that the teams would arrive at different stages in the process after this first pilot year. It is evident that all teams made some progress and now seem poised to push further toward realizing their visions of community digital inclusion. Across the spectrum, the teams:
- discovered the strength of working together to tackle the many facets of digital inclusion;
- ascertained the usefulness of the IMLS Building Digital Communities framework;
- increased their capacity to act as local leaders in building digitally inclusive communities;
- initiated actions to move their communities along the path toward more inclusive access, adoption, and prosperity for the digital age.
Each community triad (public library, city/county, and nonprofit representatives) was asked to commit to taking some action as a next step toward increasing digital inclusion in their community, using the IMLS framework for Building Digital Communities (BDC) as a guide. In addition to defining a structure for the many facets of digital inclusion, the BDC framework outlines a 5-step process for moving forward with community-wide efforts:
- Convene stakeholders
- Develop a shared community understanding
- Create a community action plan
- Implement the plan
- Evaluate and revise
The following action plans were first formulated at the summit and confirmed in the 3-month follow-on team reports. In the short interval, most communities are pursuing the first two steps of convening stakeholders and developing a shared community understanding, with some communities pushing further into defining and implementing a community plan.
Ada County, Idaho (pop 400K)
- Assess our community’s needs to determine if computer use training might be more of a barrier than access.
- Survey various agencies, key organizations and key people in our community to find out who is already providing digital literacy services (and perhaps get those who are included in Idaho’s 211 Careline.)
- Integrate our promotion of digital inclusion into existing coalitions.
Bangor, Maine (pop 35K)
Vision: Take Bangor to the world
- Create a “digital commons”—a digital repository with information about the Bangor area—in order to build an interest in area residents in becoming digitally literate. The repository will include local government documents, historical papers and pictures, items relating to the area’s arts and culture, and works by local musicians, artists, writers, students, and researchers.
Chandler, Arizona (pop 236K)
Vision: Everyone connects in Chandler
- Convene stakeholders to develop a shared community understanding of digital inclusion.
- Increase awareness of digital inclusion and digital literacy and the impact for those at risk.
- Inventory educational, nonprofit and faith based organizations to identify services provided.
- Identify gaps in services that prevent community members from being digitally literate.
- Create a communication conduit through which information about services, equipment, access to broadband and training can be shared.
- Evaluate and develop mechanisms necessary to generate resources required to support digital literacy in Chandler.
Dodge City, Kansas (pop 26K)
- Survey the community to determine:
- where computer/internet access is available in Dodge City
- the needs of the residents, do they own their own computer, have adequate internet access, etc.
- where they go for internet access, home, work, library, etc.
- Publicize what is available in Dodge City
El Paso, Texas (pop 649K)
- Develop awareness campaign to highlight city need/importance of digital literacy.
- Grow Digital El Paso- the city’s free wireless network (broadband capacity).
- Increase workforce development opportunities through the utilization of online training tools.
(Note: these actions were already initiated under the city’s BTOP program; the key action resulting from the St. Paul summit was to integrate these existing efforts into plans to sustain the momentum going forward.)
King William County, Virginia (pop 100K)
Vision: Every person regardless of economic state has the same advantage of economic and social opportunity through technology
- Hold a local mini-summit to inventory the digital community assets (high speed internet, free wi-fi, computer labs) available to business, education, social service, and community development stakeholders in the King William community.
Leon County, Florida (pop 181K)
Vision: Leon County connects for economic security through educated, informed and healthy citizens
- Improve and update the library website to provide more services and better access to information.
- Develop a module for the library’s basic computer class on filling out online forms and offer an interactive online form for practice.
- Develop a corps of volunteers for one-on-one training and assistance for new computer users.
Milwaukee, Wisconsin (pop 595K)
Vision: Unemployment rates and poverty plummet to historic low levels in four years due to city-wide digital empowerment initiative
- Launch a citywide collaborative and initiative under the Office of the Mayor to expand access to computers and online information to local residents.
- Convene a summit of stakeholders in March 2013.
St. Paul, Minnesota (pop 285K)
Vision: Next-gen St. Paul
- Create a vision and message, followed by one-on-ones with key stakeholders.
- Identify key Saint Paul business leaders with whom to meet and discuss their perspective on the importance or lack of importance of the issue.
- Draft suggested talking points for Mayor to begin addressing the issue.
Insights from the Community Teams
Three months after the summit, the community teams were asked to report progress on their actions by completing a team reporting form and engaging in a one-hour interview with the project coordinator to uncover more detail about the team dynamics and experiences. All nine communities made progress on their identified actions. The teams’ action reports and associated interviews, along with pre- and post-summit survey results, reveal rich information about the differences and similarities between diverse communities, the challenges of getting started, and some clues about key ingredients for success.
Form core connections
The core connections forged at the summit are critical and catalytic. Whether or not the community triad had a history of working together, most voiced their appreciation for the opportunity to come together without distractions to focus on this complex and vital issue. The convening “solidified our relationships that we had already” (Dodge City) and acted as the catalyst for planning digital inclusion actions (Milwaukee). Summit participation was key to crystallizing team awareness that digital inclusion efforts will flourish best with collective community action. For Bangor, as a result of the summit, “we have community leadership, libraries, and health care all sitting at the same table and talking about what’s possible.”
Many participants also remarked on the benefit of hearing what’s going on in other communities, recognizing the shared challenges and discussing potential solutions. “I wasn’t thinking about a big city having the same problem as a rural community, but there’s still big distance to cover, transportation issues, not enough terminals at the library—everybody has the same problem.”
[Photo: Participants at the St. Paul summit share experiences; courtesy of Sarah Washburn, TechSoup Global.]
Test the Building Digital Communities framework
The influence of the framework was evident throughout the conversations with participants—in the language they adopted from the framework, in the way they framed their actions, and in their regard for the importance of community collaboration. In at least two communities, a team member gave the BDC Getting Started guide to key constituents to help with their strategic planning. A comment from the Dodge City team captures it perfectly: “[The framework] is a straightforward roadmap for how to get something that is quite vague and sort of blue sky into a real place.”
In El Paso, where there are multiple digital inclusion efforts in play—BTOP projects, Edge benchmark pilot, and this project—library director Dionne Mack explains, “[The framework] gave me an umbrella of talking points to be able to talk to community members about what all of this means.”
The BDC framework looks at the strategic application of the basic principles of digital inclusion, that is, how access issues (availability, affordability, public access, design for inclusion) and adoption issues (digital literacy, relevance, consumer safety) are actually deployed in meaningful ways—economic & workforce development, education, health care, public safety & emergency services, civic engagement, social connections. Within the larger collective actions to increase digital inclusion, each sector of the community naturally has its own priorities for strategic application, as evidenced by the results of the nationwide Digital Community Needs survey results. In El Paso, the La Fe Cultural and Technology Center is responding to the health care needs of its members with an innovative program that promotes digital literacy through health information resources, using technology to promote the well-being of the family. “We teach them how to use the computers to look for health resources; then the community sees the computer not just as a toy but as a tool to improve their lives.” The Leon County administration is exploring ways to heighten civic engagement through digital technologies. They recently deployed a mobile app for citizens to report and track issues or make inquiries, like potholes, nuisance animals, junk, graffiti, etc. There have already been 500 downloads since the June implementation. In Milwaukee, the team has a joint focus for its digital inclusion plan to improve the economic opportunities for its citizens.
Raise awareness at all levels
Raising awareness about the compelling need for advancing digital inclusion surfaced as a critical step for all communities. This awareness-raising falls into three levels: internal awareness, stakeholder awareness, and community awareness.
1. Internally, the core teams amped up their awareness via the summit and the BDC framework, which primed them to go back to their communities and step up to the next level of awareness. “If I hadn’t gone to the conference, it wouldn’t be on my radar the way it is now. Now whenever I go to a meeting, my ears are cocked to hmmm where does digital inclusion fit in this?” One outstanding consequence of the internal awareness resulting from the summit occurred in Chandler, where library director Brenda Brown connected with Intel to deliver the first-in-the-U.S. offering of Easy Steps, an award-winning, innovative digital literacy training program for adults. If not for the summit, digital inclusion would not have been “top of mind” and Brown might not have made the connection.
2. Raising awareness with stakeholders is instrumental to getting broader buy-in, whether it is from the mayor, city council, the economic development department, or the regional educational coalition. Team members prepared talking points and presentations to take the message to a variety of stakeholders.
a. For the St. Paul team, giving a dynamic presentation to the city’s department heads about the need for the city to leap forward in its own connectivity laid the foundation for raising the broader issue about where digital inclusion fits into the region-wide 2040 planning process. Addressing the Planning and Economic Development council was a first step in reaching the business community with the message that digital inclusion is connected to economic vitality.
b. For the Milwaukee team, the mayor already had a keen interest in the topic, and when briefed on the St Paul summit, he immediately bought into the team action plan. The team will bring a wider group of stakeholders together at their planned summit, thus raising the awareness by another magnitude.
c. The Bangor team felt it was not hard to make a case for digital inclusion; however, they were able to broaden the understanding of what that encompasses. When they gave a presentation to the council about “Take Bangor to the World,” the council members really wanted to talk more about it, even “dwell” on it.
d. The Dodge City team exclaimed, “I can’t think of a time when all these entities have been together to talk about what do we want in Dodge City.”
3. The El Paso community had a community awareness campaign as part of their BTOP implementation. They were able to produce billboards, TV spots, and coupon book inclusions to reach community members with a digital literacy message. In three communities where the team made key connections with the educational system, planning includes taking the digital literacy message to the parents of students. For others, there was a sense that digital inclusion is not currently “on the radar of the general public.”
Understand community needs
Raising awareness is conjoined with assessing the needs of the community. With the digital inclusion framework in mind, the teams sought to discover what assets and services were already in place and what gaps needed to be filled, looking at the three major areas of equipment, broadband connectivity and training. As the Ada County team looked around their community, they found more going on than they had realized. “Finding out is almost overwhelming; bringing it all together is the big challenge.” In Dodge City, as the team began reaching out to other community leaders with their digital inclusion lens, they uncovered data sources and resources they had previously overlooked. For example, they learned that the school district had installed fiber all the way around the city and had excess bandwidth available to implement some programs. “Sometimes we think we know everything because we’re a small town.” The Leon County team members pride themselves in maintaining an ongoing alertness to the needs of their constituents, including anticipating unstated needs. In some low income areas, they have noted a marked increase in the use of smartphones as the primary access to the Internet. The county department of information systems and the library are working on developing mobile apps to help this segment with their information needs.
Find the strategic insertion point
“We have to find ways to weave this broadband and digital inclusion into things that are already going on; not approach it as something new, something costly and discreet.”
The quote from the El Paso team captures their particular challenge of moving forward as the large infusion of BTOP funding is winding down. As the city prepared to pass a major bond issue in November, library director Dionne Mack approached the city manager with the idea of injecting broadband access into every aspect of the bond proposals—not just in libraries but ensuring wired/wifi in all new city buildings and cultural facilities, and wifi in the new parks. “She loved it,” Mack reported, “it all flowed together.”
Other teams discovered existing stakeholder groups and strategic planning initiatives that were strongly aligned with digital inclusion priorities but lacked that particular focus. In Ada County, the team sent a copy of the BDC to the leader of the county-wide education partnership—“a huge group with all the movers/shakers/players,”—to insert the digital inclusion orientation into the big initiatives already in the planning process. The Chandler Unified School District is just now embarking on a 5-year technology plan, so the Chandler team has the opportunity to frame the strategy in digital inclusion terms and increase the school district collaboration with other community sectors. The St. Paul team introduced digital inclusion issues into the city’s discussions around the 2040 regional planning, a framework for getting to the year 2040 with a Twin Cities metropolitan region that’s really vital.
Form partnerships and collaborate
The power and the necessity of collaboration reverberated throughout the interviews. The Dodge City team recognized that “it has to be a collaborative effort to be really useful in today’s world with economics being what they are; no more silos.” That sense was echoed in Chandler: “we can’t look at our school district as a microcosm anymore.” In El Paso, Antonio Santos, director of the La Fe Cultural & Technology Center, attributes his organization’s 45 years of success to collaboration: “our success has to do with our partnerships; we partner with everybody—the city, the education sector, the business sector.” The Milwaukee team also points to a strong culture of collaboration in their city. “If there’s been a mission in the city where there’s a common goal, we get together and work together to solve problems.”
For some teams, getting buy-in and support from stakeholders is essential for making real progress on the many fronts of digital inclusion. The King William County team acknowledges that there are challenges in the county that are beyond the scope of what they can do, so they are focused on a “grassroots growing of our support in the community at large.” The St. Paul team, having recently worked with a broad coalition of partners to produce the comprehensive Northstar Digital Literacy Project, feels that their attention should now be directed at increasing broadband access. They are striving to mobilize community business leaders as key players to lead such an initiative. The Ada County team also intends to get digital inclusion on the agenda of the local chamber of commerce.
Balance access and adoption
The BDC Framework divides the principles of digital inclusion into access issues (availability, affordability, public access, design for inclusion) and adoption issues (digital literacy, relevance, consumer safety). On the ground in all communities, the issues are very intertwined. Communities that struggle with expanding their broadband infrastructure rely on public access through the libraries, schools and community-based organizations.
The infrastructure piece of the digital inclusion puzzle is often a vexing one. In areas neglected by the telecoms and service providers, finding alternate solutions is high on the minds of the city or county sector. “People just want cheap broadband and they think the county is going to provide it for them.” King William County’s rural service area has not attracted investment by any of the area telecoms, nor did they receive BTOP funding. They are looking to the libraries and non-profits to increase access in the interim while they investigate various strategies for bringing affordable broadband to all residents. The City of El Paso, which has benefited from a healthy dose of BTOP money, has deployed a microwave solution built on fiber already laid, which extends wifi access dramatically. “BTOP provided this incredible infrastructure that has allowed us to move so far beyond just training.” Yet there are still pockets of the city that don’t even have electricity or running water. Leon County has actively pursued a mission of expanding wifi in all public buildings and community centers, including campgrounds. Amplified by the resources of the city of Tallahassee and regional universities, a large part of the county population is included in the digital canopy. In the underserved areas, all of the library branches have recently expanded their computer labs and public Internet access.
Schools also play a pivotal role in providing access to students and their families. The Chandler Unified School District sees firsthand the disparity in opportunity for students from areas where the local telecomm has not chosen to invest in infrastructure. Recognizing that access at school is not enough, the district has a laptop checkout program, and has sometimes even subsidized connectivity at homes based on financial need. The Dodge City team learned that 40% of children in the school system do not have Internet access at home. They are thinking big as they prepare their STEM-related grant proposal and include reaching the parents of children in school to foster wider community well-being.
Community size and the Goldilocks phenomenon
Is there an optimal size for community success with digital inclusion? Apparently, it’s in the mind of the beholder. Unsolicited, four teams commented that they felt their community was just the right size to make their efforts work.
- “We are the perfect size to get things done.” (Milwaukee, pop 595K)
- “We are ideally located …everything is energetic and moving forward.” (Leon County, pop 181K)
- “Bangor is the right size to do that (digital inclusion)… well-educated and geographically small enough for most people to have access to a computer.” (Bangor, pop 35K)
- “We have the advantage [of small size]. We know who the leaders in the community are; between the three of us, we know who is the best person to talk to.” (Dodge City, pop 26K)
What’s striking is that the comments came from the largest, most urban down to the smallest, most rural communities in the program. It seems to reflect, not size, but community pride and a sense that the ingredients feel just right to build toward success.
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