The blog of the Urban Institute
October 8, 2020

How Cities’ Technology Responses to the Pandemic Can Close Instead of Widen Disparities

October 8, 2020

COVID-19 has dramatically transformed how cities and residents use technology. As the pandemic spread, cities acted quickly to provide virtual opportunities for resident engagement, move services online, and leverage technology to track and contain the coronavirus. For many households, work and school became remote and remain so into the current school year.

But access to the technology required to make these transitions is not equitably distributed. Because of the digital divide—which disproportionately affects low-income households and people of color—one-fifth of parents reported in April that their children did not have access to a computer or strong enough internet at home to complete schoolwork.

As cities deploy technology in response to COVID-19, they must deliberately center equity to ensure they mitigate, rather than exacerbate, preexisting disparities. Our new Guide for Creating Equitable Technology Programs outlines nine questions cities should ask to put equity at the forefront of technology programs. These three questions raise critical issues about the intersection of equity and technology in cities’ COVID-19 responses.

How can cities align technology programs to advance their equity goals?

COVID-19 has underscored inequitable access to broadband; for many low-income households, fast and reliable internet is unaffordable and in some cases unavailable because of “digital redlining.”

One driver of the digital divide is that some internet service providers do not consider it profitable to make coverage available and affordable for marginalized communities, though some evidence suggests otherwise.

Cities can use policy levers to incentivize technology companies to innovate for equity. Boston is working to reduce barriers for new internet service providers to help lower prices through increased competition.

Los Angeles is ensuring low-income neighborhoods are included in private 5G development efforts by using its permitting power to require companies to provide equitable coverage in wealthy and “digitally impoverished” neighborhoods.

Some households who cannot afford private broadband turn to city-provided public Wi-Fi hot spots. But when these public Wi-Fi systems are not designed with equity in mind, they can leave out the same communities affected by the digital divide.

Using our new Spatial Equity Data Tool to analyze the distribution of public Wi-Fi hot spots in New York City, we found that non-Hispanic white and highly educated residents are overserved by Wi-Fi hot spots, and non-Hispanic Black and Latinx residents are underserved.

NYC public Wi-FI hot spots, demographic representation

Children younger than 18, cost-burdened renters, and households without internet access are underserved, suggesting the city’s current Wi-Fi hot spot distribution does not equitably serve children who most need these services to attend online classes during the pandemic.

As cities work with private companies to close the digital divide, they can use the strategies outlined in the guide to build a shared commitment to equitable technology and formalize incorporating equity into the design and implementation of technology programs.

How can cities equitably engage marginalized communities?

The pandemic has forced cities to move resident engagement online. A recent study found cities are employing new digital tools to engage residents and, in some cases, are reaching more residents than before the pandemic. In March, Aurora, Illinois’s first virtual city council meeting had roughly 2,000 attendees and another 9,000 viewers logged in for part of the meeting—more than 220 times the typical number of in-person participants.

But many city residents are not able to participate in these new forms of digital engagement. Residents affected by the digital divide are at risk of exclusion; non-English speaking communities, seniors, and housing insecure and unhoused populations face additional barriers to online engagement. People working multiple jobs or irregular hours also face steep opportunity costs to participation.

When these groups are systematically underrepresented in the engagement process, they are likely to be underserved by the resulting programs. Cities can reduce obstacles by supplementing digital engagement with non internet-based remote engagement approaches.

The best practice for removing opportunity costs for engagement is compensating residents for their time and expertise. The City of Portland hired three equity consulting advisors in October 2019 to share their expertise from both their lived experience and work with marginalized communities with the Smart City PDX team. When Portland launched a digital divide work group in response to COVID-19, the advisors could immediately plug in to help reshape outreach language and facilitate active participation from marginalized communities.

Cities can use the strategies outlined in our guide to remove barriers and address the fatigue that can undermine equitable engagement.

What are the potential unintended consequences of technology?

State and local governments are deploying new technologies, such as digital contact tracing, to help contain the spread of COVID-19.  Yet unintended consequences may render this technology less effective for, and potentially harmful to, the hardest-hit groups.

Bluetooth-based technology can travel through walls and could generate false exposure positives for people living in multifamily housing, who are more likely to be people of color and have low incomes. False positives can cause psychological hardship and financial harms in testing costs or missed work.

These technologies exclude people who do not own smartphones, many of whom are also members of vulnerable groups. In addition, the sensitive health information and location data collected by these technologies raise privacy and discrimination concerns for marginalized groups, who are more vulnerable to exposure of their private data.

Before implementing these new technologies, cities can use the guide to identify and mitigate potential unintended consequences.

Moving toward equitable technology

When cities do not deliberately center equity in technology programs, marginalized groups face the consequences.

As cities use technology in new ways during the pandemic and beyond, we hope the Guide for Equitable Technology Programs helps ensure the benefits of innovation are equitably shared by all residents.

Marko Geber/Getty Images

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As an organization, the Urban Institute does not take positions on issues. Experts are independent and empowered to share their evidence-based views and recommendations shaped by research.