Despite digital inclusion efforts, the numbers on digital access among low-income communities in cities like Detroit are sobering. Civic technologies offer potential for bridging this gap – but only if low-income communities are engaged in their development and deployment.

As part of the Open Technology Institute’s partnership with the federal government’s Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP) in Philadelphia and Detroit, our team at the Open Technology Institute (OTI) has learned the importance of involving communities in developing tech solutions. Our partners in the Detroit Digital Justice Coalition have taught us much of what we know. Their DiscoTech (Discovering Technology) fairs challenge assumptions about digital inclusion, and about how technology transfer and digital adoption occurs. For DiscoTech attendees, digital inclusion does not mean learning the skills promoted by an outside organization, but rather, actively working to define and address the technology needs of their own communities.

Yet despite digital inclusion efforts, the numbers on digital access among low-income communities in cities like Detroit are sobering. As of May 2011, 40% of Americans (most of them low-income) did not have broadband access at home, making it difficult for them to find jobs, access government services, and interface with their local governments. Civic technologies like those explored in Living Cities’ late 2012 Field Scan offer potential for bridging this gap – but only if low-income communities are engaged in their development and deployment.

For example, bus tracking tools and publicly available information about blight or vacant buildings can be useful, but they may not align with what a community sees as most important. When city representatives talk about mapping vacant buildings, many low-income residents remember urban renewal efforts that destroyed neighborhoods in the name of addressing blight. Tools and strategies must serve needs articulated by the community itself; it is not enough to collect community input through the latest technology, especially when many people do not have access to digital resources, or have different perceptions about needs and problems in their neighborhoods.

The emphasis on co-design and co-creation in the Living Cities Field Scan is a step in the right direction, though we feel the scan would have benefited from following this practice itself. Based on our experience, following we provide concrete advice for outreach and harmonization with the priorities of target communities

1. Create an even playing field for collaboration
Successful co-design and co-creation of technology-based projects requires a host of partners–community development corporations, libraries, technology activists, schools, and local grassroots organizations. It is important that digital inclusion efforts be tied to an ecology of support—institutions, organizations, and informal groups that welcome users to new technologies and share social norms, practices, and processes related to using these technologies. In many cases, there may be a history of mistrust and uneven power dynamics among these stakeholders, so it’s important to make sure that everyone feels welcome and heard.

2. Design for the technologies that people are using
Don’t reinvent the wheel - find out what tools and platforms people are already using to improve participation. For example, mobile platforms hold enormous promise for reaching traditionally underserved populations. Only 46% of adults making less than $30,000 a year have internet in the home, but many have smartphones and use these smartphones as their primary way of accessing the internet. A recent report by the digital justice organization ZeroDivide reported that of all smartphone users in the U.S., 25% go online mainly using their phones; for households with income under $30,000 a year, the number is 40%. And the number is growing, especially among young people. Still, it is also important to reach underserved populations via other means (e.g., text-messaging or voice-based services)—you’ll only know what to use if you ask.

3. Listen!
The most important part of developing accessible technologies is involving the community in setting and implementing the agenda. Don’t assume that you know what people want or need—otherwise, you risk developing solutions in search of problems. Community-led participatory processes not only ensure greater commitment to the project than would otherwise be the case, but also allow for leadership development, a pathway toward sustainability. A great example of a technology developed through listening is Txt2Wrk, an SMS-based tool designed and developed during the inaugural Code for Oakland hackathon. The idea for it came from one of the participants, a formerly incarcerated man who described the challenges of job search for those with limited resources and no home computer or broadband connection. Without his personal testimony, it is unlikely that this would have been recognized as a problem in need of a solution.

As access to and skill with technology become increasingly important social capital markers, it is more important than ever that cities invest in technological policies and programs that serve low-income communities. With budget coffers dwindling, large-scale programs like BTOP may be a thing of the past. But by enlisting the community as leaders, cities and their partners have a unique opportunity to reach beyond flashy technology to developing impactful solutions for low-income residents. Just as important, as co-designers, co-creators and advocates within their own neighborhoods, community members like those that lead and attend Detroit’s DiscoTechs have the opportunity to transform residents’ relationship with local government and the very fabric of their communities. More civic tech projects should strive to do the same.

  • Further reading: A wealth of scholarly literature explores how to create community-driven digital inclusion models in low-income communities. In the report Broadband Adoption in Low-Income Communities, researchers examine barriers to broadband access and use in low-income communities, challenging many myths about why people get online (or don’t). In Digital Dead End: Fighting for Justice in the Information Age, the scholar Virginia Eubanks demonstrates that low-income people often view technology as a tool of oppression, not liberation; it must be deployed in concert with community visions and an interest in promoting social justice.

Greta Byrum ( gretabyrum.com) is a Senior Field Analyst for the Open Technology Institute at the New America Foundation, where she works on collaborative technology design strategies. She is currently working with groups in Detroit and New York to build community-owned mesh wireless networks as well as digital literacy and entrepreneurship support.

Alissa Black directs the New America Foundation’s California Civic Innovation Project, which aims to diffuse innovation in local governments through researching and recommending organizational and emerging practices that enable the creation and adoption of innovative policies, technology, and programs that deepen community engagement and accelerate civic innovation in California.