Digital Divide Hack Night in Houston on August 18, 2016

Hack Night Report: Digital Divide

Over the last eight months, we’ve been “theming” our monthly hack nights. We’ve had guest speakers talk about democracy, media, mobility, housing, sustainability, public health, and education.

In August, our topic was the digital divide. Megan Steckly of Comp-U-Dopt gave an excellent lightning talk about how they help children earn access to technology tools.

Megan Steckly from Comp-U-Dopt was our guest speaker. Comp-U-Dopt has provided over 8,000 computers to kids in need. Photo by Sarah Rigdon.

After the lightning talk, we tried something new (which is also the reason for this blog). We treated the remaining time like a collaborative work session. Attendees broke into groups and researched the aspects of the digital divide that are most interesting to them.

First Research Group – Wifi Access

One of my favorite parts of the evening was talking to David Crowl about the Greater Houston Partnership’s downtown wifi initiative. This program is classified as “recreational wifi” and aims to add broadband capacity for people in downtown for a short period of time. For example, cellular service in the Houston tunnels is spotty at best. The downtown wifi initiative addresses this by providing free wifi throughout the tunnel system. We discussed how this could be a model for providing connectivity in big, cellular dark spots.

Next, we looked at innovative local programs like We Can Houston, who provides wireless broadband “zones” in underserved neighborhoods, as well as grassroots campaigns like We Heart Wifi, which aims to “build support for increased use of open, unlicensed radio spectrum across the nation.”

We also looked five years out, discussing “wireless fiber” and the impact it might have on internet choice and costs in limited access neighborhoods. And as we’re more increasingly dependent on broadband infrastructure, there are products like BRCK (from the awesome folks at Ushahidi) that can provide internet “backup” services by connecting to the internet through ethernet, 4G cellular, or as a Wifi bridge. There is also a cool public/private partnership from Facebook and the City of San Jose that can serve as a model for other cities. And Google is doing some crazy stuff with balloons.

Second Research Group – Technology and Hardware

Digital Divide Hack Night in Houston on August 18, 2016

The second research group took on another major aspect of the digital divide: access to technology and hardware. While students are more likely than adults to access the internet on their smartphones, many schools and employers also have baseline expectations for student and employee computer literacy. Without regular computer use, students and job-seeking adults are less likely to pick up the necessary skills.

This group focused on how to make donating used tech easier. Our guest speaker’s organization, Comp-U-Dopt is our best local example. They take in old computers, wipe their hard drives, and install a suite of educational tools that don’t require internet access. On average, they “adopt” about 1,500 computers a year out to Texas students.

Other ideas that the group researched included separate bins at recycling centers for technology donations, better advertising for places to donate, and options to drop off your old computer when buying a new one at stores like Apple, Microsoft, and Best Buy. They also looked at incentive programs for donating used technology and options like at-home pickup to make it easier.

Other cities and states have models that we can follow. Maine had a 1-1 Laptop program for middle school students since 2002 that expanded to high schools in 2009, and there are many other nonprofits and government efforts to increase access for students, families, and seniors that Houston can learn from.

Third Research Group – Technology Use Patterns

The third research group took a slightly different approach to technology hardware and focused on the patterns of use. They began with this research paper from the Federal Reserve (2008) that shows “teenagers who have access to home computers are 6 to 8 percentage points more likely to graduate from high school than teenagers who do not have home computers after controlling for individual, parental, and family characteristics.” Home computers also lead to fewer school suspensions.

Since the benefits of home computers are statistically significant, the group posed the question: what is it, exactly, that kids are learning/doing on their computers at home? Can this benefit be achieved by some other means? They looked at this study from 2010 looked at computer vouchers given to approximately 35,000 recipients enrolled in Romania’s public schools. The study found “strong evidence that children in households who won a voucher had significantly lower school grades.”

It also found “little evidence that winning a computer voucher affects behavioural outcomes. These results may not be so surprising given that few parents or children report having educational software installed on their computer, and few children report using the computer for homework or other educational purposes. Instead, most computers had games installed and children reported that most of the computer time was spent playing games. There is also some evidence that winning a computer voucher reduced the time spent doing homework, watching TV, and reading.”

Bringing it down to the local level, this group worked with Megan Steckly of Comp-u-Dopt to outline key digital divide statistics in Houston:

  • 2.1 million people in Houston
  • Low income is defined as a household with income under $30k/year
  • 34% of households in Houston are low income
  • This means 714,000 people in Houston are considered low income
  • And that means 357,000 without computers at home, or 89,500 households
  • 178,500 of those with computers have internet
  • In 10 years, Compudopt have given out 8,000 computers. Which means they’ve solved 8.9% of the problem

Wrapping Up

Unfortunately, not all research groups captured their notes. Our goal in future monthly hack nights is to report out our research on this blog.

We had a lot of fun exploring a complicated topic from multiple angles. If you’d like to participate in next month’s topic (Kittens and Puppies!) please RSVP here.

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