4 Steps Cities Can Take to Understand and Close the Digital Divide

How local governments can work to improve digital access in their communities

This resource is a part of The Guide to Remote Community Engagement by What Works Cities and builds off the previously published Engaging Marginalized Communities in the Wake of COVID-19.

Image courtesy of August de Richelieu via Pexels

A poll conducted by the PEW Research Center this past April found that 87 percent of adult Americans believe that the internet has been, at a minimum, important for them during the COVID-19 outbreak. This includes 53 percent of all respondents who described the internet as essential.

Access to the internet across income levels, however, remains inconsistent and inequitable. According to another poll conducted by the PEW Research Center in 2019, 94 percent of higher-income households have home broadband compared to just 56 percent of lower-income households. The numbers are nearly identical for computer ownership. 26 percent of adults living in lower-income households are classified as “smartphone dependent” meaning they rely on their phone as their only access to the internet. In April 2020, about half of lower-income Americans reported worrying about keeping up with their internet or phone bills.

To ensure equal opportunity in the digital economy and equal access to City Hall now that many government services have moved exclusively online, local governments across the country have pledged to close the digital divide amongst all residents. Many have started the work of closing the digital divide even before the pandemic, recognizing the importance and equity implications of ensuring all residents have internet access.

that takes time. As such, cities should consider non-online approaches so that all residents can engage civically and access critical information, while working on ensuring online access for those who lack it. Based on how cities have worked to rapidly close the digital divide during COVID-19, here are four steps that cities can take to ensure digital equity.

Note: It’s important to remember that these “steps” aren’t necessarily consecutive. They’ll often occur at the same time, especially as cities learn, adapt, and revisit their process.

1: Determine the Need

The American Community Survey has collected data on internet and computer usage annually since 2013. Accessing this data from IPUMS USA is a strong place to start because they collect and clean the data in a way that is much more user friendly than accessing it directly from the U.S. Census Bureau. IPUMS USA allows users to filter variables and download specific data extracts for analysis. It also offers data descriptions and harmonizes variables. This is especially useful when you want to study a variable that has been renamed multiple times by the Census Bureau, or has been measured differently over the years.

For a more visual approach, cities may want to consider partnering with local universities who likely have access to advanced software and whose specialized research expertise could further assist efforts to map the region’s internet access. Visualization is important because it helps to better understand large amounts of data in a way that makes that data actionable by better highlighting patterns or outliers.

Digital exclusion heat maps developed by the city to identify “digital deserts” and further identify which populations have the least access to a broadband connection. Image courtesy of the City of San José.

partnered with Stanford University to map the city’s digital divide down to the neighborhood level. Together, they were also able to include data overlays that indicate not just where people lack internet access, but which populations of people lack internet access. San Jose then used these results to launch targeted neighborhood canvassing efforts, conducted in multiple languages, to determine primary barriers to access.

Some cities, like have launched mailed survey campaigns to better understand community needs around internet accessibility. Bloomington’s survey campaign follows best practices. It targets a randomized sample of households and asks questions regarding not just internet access, but affordability, digital literacy, and device ownership, all of which are important aspects of digital connectivity.

2: Obtain and Distribute Electronic Devices

Digital Bridge K-12, a non-profit whose mission is to improve internet access for children in kindergarten to 12th grade in the wake of COVID-19 , explains that . While geared towards school districts, Digital Bridge K-12’s guide to device procurement is a good starting point for any local government department that’s looking to obtain more personal electronic devices. For long-term solutions for improving entire procurement systems, resources from our WWC partner, the Government Performance Lab, are more appropriate.

When it comes to procurement and distribution of personal electronic devices, the Connected Futures Program in is an example of a partnership set up to address residents’ immediate needs — in this case, students who need devices to engage in online schooling, while also considering long term sustainability. The program is backed by a mix of private and public organizations — the DTE Energy Foundation, Detroit Public Schools Community District, Kellogg Foundation, Quicken Loans, the City of Detroit, General Motors and The Skillman Foundation. Two of the backing organizations have already dedicated a project manager to the initiative while others have formed a committee to collect and monitor data regarding the initiative’s success and to make collaborative adjustments as needed. In addition to long-term oversight, they provided 51,000 students with connected devices, household internet, and tech support immediately following the school district’s move to online learning this past spring.

In Cincinnati, OH over 1,000 local seniors are now able to have virtual visits thanks to external partnerships and donated devices. Image courtesy of the City of Cincinnati's website.

However, this does not mean that device distribution efforts should only focus on school children. For example, both and have successfully worked with external partners to provide devices to senior residents, who are at higher risk of severe complications from COVID-19, and who may not be able to receive visitors in their living facilities.

3: Provide Internet

Local context is key, and what works for one city may not work for another. It is even likely that what works for one neighborhood within a city, may not work for another neighborhood.

has taken this into account and has adopted numerous approaches designed to reach as many unconnected communities as possible. The City is working to provide new hotspots, free or subsidized in-home access, and to amplify existing signals from community institutions like public libraries. These are immediate steps that cities can take to close the digital divide, and are just a few of the many different models that can be used to establish open access to the internet.

The key characteristic of Tulsa’s approach to providing internet is its commitment to community engagement. In partnership with its public schools, the City is sending out surveys to ask families about their challenges during this time. It’s this kind of collaboration that leads to sustainable solutions. While the coronavirus may have sparked the rush to close the digital-divide, actually closing it is a long-term endeavor.

In addition, cities like have undergone to provide municipal-owned broadband to its residents. This is truly a long-term approach, but since the City owns its own internet infrastructure, it was able to quickly offer residents free and reduced internet access, at superior speeds, when stay-at-home orders went into effect.

was one of the first U.S. cities to offer fiber-optic connections to an entire community, and now, several years on, is lauded as providing some of the fastest, low-cost broadband service in the country, a true asset during COVID-19 as internet traffic increases.

While legal barriers to municipal-owned broadband exist in many states, and the return on investment is still unclear, . This is to say that providing the internet to all communities will benefit all members of society in both direct and indirect ways through increased community digital literacy, opportunity, and engagement. Like with any of these other steps, however, it is important to reinforce that providing broadband access alone is not sufficient to close the digital divide.

4: Train and Empower New Users

Image courtesy of Ketut Subiyanto via Pexels

It is often not enough to simply provide personal devices and internet access to those who were previously disconnected.

When rolled out 10,000 internet-connected tablets to senior citizens living in New York City Housing Authority developments, they partnered with the city’s Department of Aging and Older Adults Technology Services to provide free support to help tablet recipients learn how to operate their new device, access free classes and resources, and connect with friends and family.

Other cities may consider partnering with community-based organizations (CBOs) in order to provide digital literary skills training to neighborhood residents, as did as part of their efforts to close the digital divide in their city. The organizations often have long-standing ties with the community and may have a better understanding of the digital literacy skills most needed.

User research aims to understand what the actual users of a service, like local residents using their city government’s website, like and don’t like about their user-experience. It especially aims to highlight pain-points and obstacles that people face in attempting to complete certain tasks. For example, user research can examine the barriers a local restaurant owner might face in accessing and filling out an online application for a permit to serve food on the side-walk during COVID. With feedback from local restaurant owners, cities can work to remove reported barriers and streamline service delivery.

For more information on how cities can leverage user-testing, check out this user-testing toolkit from the Sunlight Foundation to get started. While this toolkit focuses on user research within the context of a city’s open data programs, the same foundational principles and best practices apply to any government service.

Another basic step a city can take to support its residents in using online services is to create user guidance. This can be done by including “help” button tools that are clearly visible on a website’s homepage, and when clicked on, offer detailed explanations on how to use that website’s resources for different, distinct purposes. Posting videos to social media that walk residents through using an online government service, and that explain different scenarios for why someone may want or need that service, is also a great strategy.

Closing the digital divide is a long-term, continuous process that has been catalyzed by the urgency of the coronavirus. They should continue to return to the four steps outlined above and ask themselves how they can improve upon them, or examine where there may be important barriers in fully executing these steps.

Interested in learning how to engage community members who are completely offline? Check out our 5 Methods for Non-Internet Based Remote Community Engagement.

In the meantime, if you’re working to close the digital divide in your city or town, we’d like to hear from you.

Charlotte Carr was the primary author of this installment.

The Guide to Remote Community Engagement is written and compiled by Charlotte Carr, Becca Warner, Greg Jordan-Detamore, and Owen O’Malley. This collection of resources is designed to support cities that wish to create and maintain strong, institutionalized practices of community engagement during periods of remote working and in an increasingly digital world.

What Works Cities is a national initiative that partners with cities as they tackle pressing community challenges and improve residents’ lives through data-driven decision making. Learn more about the program and how to get access to support, here.

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