A City Offline: Bridging Detroit’s Digital Divide

As many as 40% of Detroit residents do not have an internet connection in their home (see map below). Reasons can range widely from high cost to high intimidation, and language and age to digital literacy. Regardless of the reason, any resident affected by digital inequity faces many daily challenges. Tasks like completing a homework assignment, applying for a job, or managing banking all require a connection to the internet and some sense of how to navigate it. While the issue has gained more attention in recent years, Detroit’s lack of digital inclusion has created a legacy that is layered and requires a great deal of expertise, resources, and commitment to rectify.

Note: 3+ Mbps (Megabits per second) refers to the download and upload speed of the internet connection. 3 Mbps and higher is considered high-speed internet when compared to a dial-up connection.

In honor of Digital Inclusion Week, Joshua Edmonds, Digital Inclusion Fellow for the City of Detroit, convened a series of panels and presentations to explore and discuss Detroit’s legacy of digital inclusion, the digital divide’s effect on residents, and ways we can work to bridge the gap in our communities.

Insights Gained Over Time

In the early 2010’s, Detroit received a portion of federal grant funding that was awarded to on-the-ground community organizations working to help connect residents with low-to-no cost digital resources, primarily in the form of computers and internet connections, as well as training for how to use each. While this program was instrumental in connecting over 6,500 residents in Detroit (which is great!) it also highlighted just how costly this kind of work can be, especially long term. This program was a starting point for constructing a potential path forward, but also highlighting the challenges likely to present themselves along the way.

The Scope of the Problem

There are three key elements to an equitable digital ecosystem – affordability, literacy, and adoption and a lack of any one of them places someone on the wrong side of the digital divide. Affordability most often affects those who have to prioritize expenses each month while literacy and adoption most often affect older generations who don’t see the utility in using the internet for things they’ve always done offline (banking, paying bills, checking medical records), but all three potentially impact younger generations as well in terms of cyber protection and learning to surf the web safely.

How do we fix it?

It’s no secret that the road to a sustainable solution is long and bumpy, but the resounding call to action seems to be two-fold. Short term, there is an initiative aiming to leverage existing free wireless infrastructure and make those internet connections accessible to residents in need. Longer term strategies include investing in meaningful and practical training (especially as it relates to workforce mobility), as well as cyber security and digital literacy training investments to boost adoption among all populations.

D3’s Role in Bridging the Digital Divide

We work to remain digitally inclusive on a fundamental level by maintaining resources that can be accessed offline such as printed maps, charts, and data visualizations as well as providing in-person tutorials and trainings for online tools. On a larger scale, we try to weave inclusion opportunities into project work wherever possible. Two current D3 projects with an emphasis on bridging the gap involve on-the-ground work around 2020 Census outreach and the work we do with members of the Detroit Civic User Testing Group (CUTGroup).

  • We partnered with Detroit Community Technology Project (DCTP) to create user-friendly informational resources related to the upcoming 2020 Census. Outreach is incredibly important for each decennial census, because so much rides on getting an accurate count. This one is particularly important in Detroit because, for the first time, survey responses will primarily be collected through an online portal which could potentially leave many unconnected residents uncounted. For more in-depth information, check out our blog post detailing the challenges this presents for 2020, or check out the whole series to dive deeper into the many facets of the census (P.S. – you can also stop by our office for printed copies to share offline).
  • CUTGroup Detroit is a network of Detroit residents who participate in user tests of websites, apps, and tools that have been created by the City of Detroit. During these tests, residents evaluate and provide real-time feedback on the resource’s usability from the perspective of the intended audience (sign up here to become a member – you’ll get $5 just for signing up and $20 when you participate in a test).

The Path Forward

At the close of the summit, there were many common threads weaving a narrative of inclusion, but the most emphasized, really, was fundamental in nature – organizations need to come together and collaborate to design strategies to foster digital inclusion with the input of the Detroit residents who are largely affected by those solutions. Designing with, not for is a sure-fire way to ensure solutions are effective and sustainable.