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Digital Justice: Progress towards Digital Inclusion in Minnesota

The Institute on Race & Poverty (IRP) has just released its latest report, “Digital Justice: Progress Towards Digital Inclusion in Minnesota.” The report makes the connection between access to the Internet and access to life opportunities such as living-wage jobs. IRP analyzed the ways that many Minnesota institutions are improving the underserved populations’ access to technology. The institutions included are community technology centers, public schools, public libraries, municipalities, and Indian reservations.

The report includes findings from a new survey conducted of over 80 community technology center directors across Minnesota, as well as over 400 surveys of individual patrons of public labs. Survey results show a strong success rate for urban public labs in their ability to link patrons with job-related outcomes, including resume development, interviews, and job offers.

Included in the report is a feature of the Brookdale Library, a Hennepin County library that redesigned its facilities to better meet the needs of its diverse community, notable for its large immigrant population. The library is organized in a series of information neighborhoods, the largest of which focuses on career resources.

The public schools section of the report covers the national trends in technology integration in the classroom as well as local examples of implementation. The national emphasis is on providing one laptop per student, using digital whiteboards, and having web sites for every classroom. Innovative examples of technology integration in Minnesota schools are highlighted, such as using the Internet to follow Arctic explorers on their journey and watching real-time surgery.

The Digital Justice report also features the community benefits that are built into the Wireless Minneapolis initiative, which will cover Minneapolis with a wireless network. The City of Minneapolis’ contract with wireless provider, US Internet, includes provisions to create a Digital Inclusion Fund from a portion of the vendor’s profits to support local digital access projects. Other provisions include free online informational content, as well as discounted service for 100+ nonprofits. The city’s vendor process and contract provide strong models for other communities as they pursue wireless service.

The report was made possible by the Minnesota State Network Fund of The Minneapolis Foundation, which fully funded the report. The full Digital Justice report is available online at www.irpumn.org.

Report findings include the following:

The Digital Justice report outlines ways that public labs, schools, libraries, cities, and reservations are addressing the digital divide nationally as well as in Minnesota. The report finds the following points to be the most promising areas for bringing technology to a wider swath in Minnesota.

Cities can be catalysts in digital inclusion efforts

The city of Minneapolis struck a favorable deal with US Internet, a wireless network vendor, in which the city is sharing its existing fiber-optic infrastructure with the vendor in exchange for a series of community benefits built into the contract. Other cities in Minnesota, particularly those contiguous with Minneapolis, would be wise to review the process Minneapolis took to reach its vendor agreement. Minneapolis residents benefit in numerous ways from the arrangement. In addition to the low cost of $20 per month for wireless Internet, Minneapolis residents will benefit in the following ways:

 The vendor is contributing to a Digital Inclusion Fund that will support efforts to bridge the digital divide in Minneapolis;

 100+ nonprofits will receive subsidized Internet service; and

 Anyone who can access the wireless signal will be able to access free community information on the portal web pages.

When cities do not negotiate community benefits with the vendor, none of these benefits happen; they are simply not part of the traditional deal. Cities must be proactive in negotiating community benefits from their vendor. Other Minnesota cities like St. Paul, St. Louis Park, Apple Valley, Burnsville, Farmington, Lakeville and Rosemount are in the process of securing vendors to build wireless networks within their borders. A wireless signal at a reasonable monthly price is not the only goal for a wireless network vendor contract; a savvy mayor, city council and planning staff can work with the community to achieve the same kinds of community benefits Minneapolis did.

When other cities in the region seek vendors on a piecemeal basis, they are unlikely to generate the level of community benefits that Minneapolis achieved unless they approach the bidding process as a chance to negotiate community benefits. If adjacent suburbs join together in search of a wireless network vendor, they have the opportunity to use their leverage to negotiate community benefits, since they represent a larger market for the vendor than a single suburb would. Apple Valley, Burnsville, Farmington, Lakeville and Rosemount are working as a group to negotiate Frontier Communications for wireless service, but there is no indication that they are seeking community benefits, judging from this statement in the Star Tribune: “While Minneapolis made a time-consuming project of taking bids for a company to build a citywide wireless network, five south-metro communities won’t have to bother.”

US Internet, the wireless network vendor working with Minneapolis, has already agreed to provide significant community benefits in the Minneapolis contract and is likely to be amenable to providing similar community benefits in future vendor contracts with other municipalities. Similarly, other wireless network vendors can be held to the same standard now that their competitor has set a precedent of providing community benefits.

Reinforcing the connection between public labs and job readiness

According to the surveys of community technology centers (CTCs) conducted by IRP, urban public computer labs that are not housed in libraries are particularly successful at connecting their users with job skills and real results (interviews and job offers). Other CTCs should look to them as a model for combining technology access with job training resources. CTC users are eager to use the public labs to research job leads, prepare resumes and gain computer skills for job success, according to the results of the CTC user survey. Libraries that survey their patrons are likely to find that people would appreciate expanded job resources, and libraries can be transformed into relevant career-resource hubs.

As informational hubs, libraries are natural technology access points

Brookdale Library in Brooklyn Center is an example of how community input can reshape a library to meet the needs of today’s patrons. As more libraries in Minnesota receive physical makeovers, it is critical that library leaders find ways to integrate technology into the facility’s approach to information delivery. Patrons expect, demand and deserve high-tech library facilities where they can do far more than check out a book. Libraries can be the lifeline to immigrants’ family members in other countries, a safe environment to become more conversational in English, the place where dislocated workers submit online applications for promising jobs, and a place where young people can become “digital natives” who will thrive in tomorrow’s economy.

School districts can learn from one another on technology integration

Integration of technology in the classroom varies widely across the state’s communities and is affected by student poverty rates, budget constraints and school district will. Successful integration relies on the willingness of teachers and administrators to embrace change, devote precious resources to tech tools and staff development, and make smart and lasting choices among competing digital innovations. Minnesota educators can initiate cross-district conversations to analyze the most effective technology tools in peer districts. School districts across the state are encouraged to review peer district technology plans when developing their new technology plans, as all public school districts must do, for 2008-2011.

Beyond Minnesota, educators are developing creative ways to integrate technology into the classroom all the time. Teachers and principals should be attentive to new technologies that can save their schools money and labor and help their students learn more effectively. While the key to technology integration may seem to boil down to the expensive prospect of one-to-one computing (one laptop per student), many districts have found creative ways to bring students closer to technology. Teaching students to fix computers can save schools money while teaching students important skills. Classroom web sites keep students and parents informed by putting assignments, grades and problem-solving assistance online. Digital whiteboards make lessons available to students whenever they need it. Rather than an expensive add-on, technology can become an integral part of the curriculum if approached with leadership and foresight.

Digital access results in economic development for Indian reservations

There are many federal funding programs available to Indian reservations to improve access to technology on their lands. Minnesota Indian reservations can also create their own Internet companies. Although such an enterprise requires significant resources, it will provide the reservation with revenue and jobs in addition to access to the web. Internet access is critical to small business development on the reservations. Indian-owned small businesses from retail to information services can use the Internet to market, sustain and build their business. To foster economic sustainability, tribal leaders can work to bring Internet access to their lands, work with tribal colleges to develop and maintain strong technology training programs, and encourage tribal members to develop new web site content that will make the Internet more relevant to currently non-connected Native Americans.
To view the press release, click here.