SOUTH SHORE — As this reporter conducted a Zoom interview from his South Shore home with University of Chicago computer science professor Nick Feamster, the internet connection failed and the call dropped.
Stories like this abound in Chicago’s neglected neighborhoods, where residents struggle to maintain a quality internet connection as they work, study and play from home — or where they lack high-speed internet entirely, Feamster said.
That has motivated Feamster and fellow UChicago professor Nicole Marwell to lead a team of researchers working to turn residents’ anecdotes about their internet issues into “an arsenal of data” to better address the city’s digital divides.
Starting with a pilot phase in South Shore, Englewood, and North Lawndale, the project will use the data to create detailed maps and informational dashboards.
The team will work to determine what solutions are possible for overcoming Chicago’s digital divides — and which are most feasible given the city’s tech infrastructure, political climate and other factors.
The most effective tools developed during the pilot phase will be released publicly, helping residents across the city and nation as they strive for equitable internet access in their communities.
“Having a better understanding of the problem is what allows you to develop targeted solutions,” said Marwell, an associate professor at UChicago’s Crown Family School of Social Work, Policy and Practice.
Existing data on internet access is “broad-brush,” with little information available on populations smaller than census tracts, said Feamster, faculty director at UChicago’s Center for Data and Computing.
In Chicago, up to 10,000 people may live in any given census tract. Statistics at this level help researchers assess general trends around internet access.
For example, two of Chicago’s top 10 census tracts with the most households in need of broadband internet access are in South Shore, according to data compiled by Kids First Chicago, the nonprofit manager of Chicago Public Schools’ free internet program.
That indicates a digital divide in the neighborhood but doesn’t explain much about the reasons behind the inequity, Feamster said. Maybe it’s due to a lack of physical infrastructure, like cables or cell towers; maybe residents can’t afford the services available in the area, or something else.
Researchers can attempt to provide clarity on this and many other issues around internet access through the data project, Feamster said.
For example, the team could examine what applications — like Zoom or online sales platforms — are needed to support and attract businesses, then study whether a neighborhood’s internet speeds support those apps.
But researchers must first understand what information is most important to affected residents. To do so, they’re meeting with advocates in the pilot neighborhoods.
Effective solutions “require collaboration with community members who know their own communities much better than we do,” Marwell said. “They know who the players are and what the assets are; they know much better how a [solution] might be structured in a way that actually works in their community.”
The team has had initial conversations with the North Lawndale Employment Network and met last week with the Neighborhood Network Alliance, which is gathering its own data around internet access in South Shore.
The project is funded by a $1.2 million grant from data.org. The research team will partner with Kids First Chicago, the Mansueto Institute for Urban Innovation, Chicago Public Schools and City Tech Collaborative.
Kids First Chicago can help researchers map the city’s existing infrastructure and, using data from CPS’ Chicago Connected program, analyze the barriers to equitable internet access, Chief of Policy Hal Woods said.
“It’s been interesting with [Chicago Connected] to see what some of the barriers are,” Woods said. “We’re providing internet at no cost to the family, but it’s still incredibly hard to get families signed up.”
The coronavirus pandemic brought closer attention to Chicago’s digital divides, but those divides are nothing new, Feamster said.
Since the ’90s, federal law has “painted the internet not as a public good but as private infrastructure,” he said. Internet service providers are free to make decisions based on profit, not residents’ needs.
“What you can get then is a neighborhood that already has disparities due a to lack of resources and infrastructure again getting the short end of the stick,” Feamster said. “It’s sort of a snowball on all the injustices in other areas.”
It’s “problematic” it took a global health crisis to bring the issue of equitable internet access to the forefront, Marwell said. But by working with advocates who have long been raising awareness, she hopes the data project can shift broadband infrastructure from a private-run asset to a more public service.
“We shouldn’t have had to get here because of the pandemic,” Marwell said. “Hopefully now we can treat this as an opportunity to make real change.”
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