The conversations about broadband access are difficult conversations. They can bring up strong responses once you get to the questions about why there is such a disparity. The thread leads so immediately into discussions of race and education and health and “economic well-being.”
Those conversations can overwhelm people for that reason. On the other hand, you can tug on the thread gently.
I don’t think I’ve done anything more than allude to this in earlier posts: we’re doing a survey. The NYU Department of Environmental Medicine, Einstein Medical College, and People’s Production House are conducting a citywide phone survey. The survey is part of the New York City Neighborhood Health Study, which is a study of trauma and general health as characterized by the built environment, social support networks, and access to care and information. The survey includes a series of questions about Internet and computer usage.
We will be able to merge that data with census tract information and with answers to our own questions about personal and community health. It will yield the most detailed data of Internet usage among the current published research.
That ultimately means it’s going to shine a harsh light on the economic disparities in our city. What kind of variation will we see across racial lines and also within racial groups? How big is the disparity between intensive users and people who do not use the Internet directly at all?
Through the Digital Expansion Initiative, a research project at People’s Production House, we’ll be asking these questions and others. Along with a number of researchers from local organizations, we will be conducting follow-up work to test our analysis of the data.
According to the current research, broadband access often helps and never hurts. No matter who you are, you have a hard time dismissing the apparently uneven distribution of those benefits.
If you’re on the low side of those benefits, you’re not surprised because you’ve seen it before. Others will be shocked like they were shocked after Katrina because they saw those divisions so clearly, so compressed and undeniable. The same divisions we saw then define our Internet landscape.
It’s not water. You can’t drink Internet and of course there’s a difference there. But increasingly, if you want to drink, the Internet is the source of information about where you can do that. Most of the New York City Office of Emergency Management’s public outreach is in the form of advertisements for their website.
They even had one ad that said something like, “In case of blackout, check oem.nyc… just not in that order.” Yeah, because you wouldn’t want to have to survive a catastrophe without having surfed your laptop over to the government’s website giving you everything you need to know about it. Just as in New Orleans, the plan is to leave some people behind.
Here’s a critical point about the statistical data, though: information is not enough. There’s already plenty of it out there. No one should expect one more indicator of poverty is going to tip the scales. For this, it is so important to engage people in conversation. That is where the transformation happens.
We should discuss inequities in broadband access as you might discuss a recent trauma. You start from Internet access and work delicately and directly outward to all of the contributing and determining factors. If done right, that’s basically the way the Digital Expansion Initiative should work.