The Digital Equity Stack

Digital equity means ensuring all people can use technology to improve their lives and their communities. But what are the constituent parts of a digitally equitable community?

The 2012 IMLS report Building Digital Communities identifies 13 principles required for a digitally inclusive community and groups them into three categories: access, adoption and application. The report expands on each of the principles and provides sample goals and strategies. It is a terrific report and well worth reading. However, my favorite thing in it is this chart on page 10:

Source: IMLS. Building Digital Communities, 10.

This might be the most brilliant image I’ve come across in the last couple of years working on digital equity. And it’s taken me all that time to appreciate that what this illustrates, namely, the full stack of conditions necessary for individuals to use technology to improve their lives.

The idea that technology could create new forms of inequality in our communities is not particularly new. The federal government highlighted the possibility in the 1990s and the term “digital divide” is at least twenty years old. However, as technology has become more central to our lives, this divide has become more consequential. As a result we need to be more precise about what it involves.

Often when the digital divide is discussed in the media or casual conversation three components predominate: access to broadband internet, access to computers or devices and digital skills. The assumption is that the challenge posed by the digital divide is primarily a question of infrastructure and tools. If we can provide everyone equal access to broadband and devices, we can ensure equal access to the Internet. Unfortunately, while these are two of the most significant, and most fundamental, components of the digital divide they are only part of the problem.

In contrast to the common discussion of the digital divide this graphic clearly and concisely all of the constituent parts that make up digital divide: access, adoption and use.

Access. People need to be able to have common technology easily available to them for their use. Access is a necessary but not sufficient condition for using technology to improve your life and your community.

Adoption. These are the the conditions necessary for you to use the the technology meaningfully. Primary barriers to adoption include a lack of digital skills or a lack of comfort and knowledge about digital security and privacy.

Application (or I would call ‘use’). These are technological tools and systems to allow all people to be able to achieve their personal and community goals through technology.

This is not a menu. It is not a series of options that cities could consider in their path to a more digitally equitable future. Each of these principles are only important to the extent that every other one is also addressed. It is perhaps obvious that access to the internet should be deemed an essential component of digital equity. After all, if you can never get online it hardly matters if you have an appreciation of how to manage your digital identity. I would propose that this stack suggests that the reverse is also true. If you do not have an appreciation for how to manage your digital identity it may not matter that you can get online in the first place.

One of the most overlooked components of digital equity are the actual digital tools that individuals would use to achieve their goals. Imagine a world where the web was reduced to nothing more than fake news and pop up advertisements. How much value would municipal fiber networks retain? How important would it be to provide digital literacy training to every American? For a community to have digital equity, all of the components of the stack need to be satisfied, for every person.

Finally, it is worth noting that these description abstract the problem from the individual technology. “Access” is the principle, not “an internet connection of such and such speed.” Over time the need for access is likely to be durable, but the specific definition of access will change. For example, mobile internet receives only one reference in the Building Digital Communities report from 2012. Certainly that would be different today as smartphone connectivity is increasingly a condition for participation in much of our society. Even the individual principles will fluctuate over times. For example “relevance,” whether or not people think they need internet in their lives, has been steadily decreasing as a barrier to adoption over time.

I would propose a slightly modified digital equity stack, but one that largely retains the same components. Access, Adoption and Application remain the main categories. A couple of differences worth noting include:

  • When we discussed digital equity at a 2016 convening in New York City our colleagues recommended that designing for accessibility be a consideration that runs across the whole stack.
  • Because meaningful internet use is different for every individual, the applications they require will vary. I wanted to reflect that by flipping them vertically rather than running them horizontally.
  • Relevance has actually dropped out of adoption based on some of the recent analysis by Pew.

An individual seeking to use technology to improve their community requires all of these components, on an ongoing basis, to be successful.

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