The pandemic has forced an unprecedented reliance on digital services and innovation as many Americans work and learn from home and shop online. Most Americans say the internet has been an essential resource during the COVID-19 outbreak. But in 92 cities in 2018, at least one in five households had no broadband internet of any type, including cellular data plans. Low-income households and people of color are less likely than white people to have broadband and mobile access.
Cities are recognizing the gaps, and our recent survey of technology leaders in 11 cities found many are working to expand internet access and deliver information and services in new ways. For example, Pittsburgh created an online Housing Assistance Resource Portal to help residents find information about housing online. And in March, Aurora, Illinois, held its first virtual city council meeting, which had more than 220 times more participants than traditional, in-person meetings.
Technology will play a key role in recovery and a post-COVID-19 world. But for it to contribute to the development of truly equitable and inclusive communities, the public, private, and nonprofit sectors must all have a seat at the table. During “The Equity Imperative,” an online forum the Urban Institute hosted this month, experts shared what each sector can do right now to ensure technology helps reimagine communities, rather than exacerbate existing systemic racial and socioeconomic biases.
Recommendations for the public sector
Municipalities engage regularly with private companies and nonprofits to ensure they are working toward residents’ best interests. To ensure technological innovations better support residents, municipalities could consider the following:
- Sharing policy and equity goals. Stakeholders can’t help achieve goals if they don’t know what they are. Publicizing goals can help everyone get on the same page and ensure programs don’t end with political administrations. Equity goals can also help cities determine the data they should be collecting from private vendors operating in the city.
- Making data more accessible to residents, such as through user-friendly interfaces and easily understandable language. Many cities publish a lot of data online, but without data dictionaries, coding recommendations, or more user-friendly interfaces, many people still cannot use the data to understand basic service trends in a city.
- Partnering with community-based organizations to determine resident needs and co-create solutions. One panelist noted, however, that cities should only engage in community-based work if staff are open to having their minds changed or policies altered—otherwise, the engagement likely won’t produce more racially equitable policies.
- Adapting codes and regulations to ensure innovations are sustainable. For example, regulations requiring in-person appearances to access services like building permitting and traffic court appearances are being replaced by virtual engagement during the COVID-19 crisis. Our research and panels at the forum indicated that resident engagement has skyrocketed as meetings, hearings, and other forms of input moved online.
Recommendations for community-based organizations and nonprofits
Community-based organizations and nonprofits often engage directly with residents, understand their needs, and can help them advocate for more equitable systems and policies. One panelist noted, “We could start a conversation tomorrow in every city where we reimagine the digital services we provide for transportation, for example, and make access the priority rather than speed.” To have conversations like this more effectively, these groups could consider the following:
- Using city data to educate residents so they understand current utilization rates, city priorities, and service delivery levels. For example, BetaNYC’s Fundamentals of New York City Open Data class teaches residents the core elements of the city’s open data and tools.
- Building capacity to be able to exert credibility in spaces of data, technology, and hardware. Having a basic understanding about digital services and data—for example, the difference between lead metrics and lag metrics—can make private sector stakeholders more cooperative with community-based organizations and nonprofits. One nonprofit representative explained, “The AT&Ts, the Google Fibers, and the Sprints have become our biggest partners because they can see not only how we’ve aligned with the private sector to get the equipment, but we also align on an empathy basis with the residents.”
Recommendations for the private sector
The private sector’s flexibility, nimbleness, and ability to move capital are invaluable in meeting today’s dynamic needs. In many cases, the private sector can also help ensure equitable outcomes by sharing data proactively, such as data on broadband speeds throughout a city. But the biggest takeaway panelists shared for private sector representatives who are truly concerned about building equitable and inclusive communities is that they should consider clearly stating their goals to and make sure their values and actions align. If a company hopes to support the government partners and customers it works with, it must lay out its goals and financial limitations clearly and with achievable metrics. Cities need all private partners at the table, but with limited time to work within the traditional procedure, trust is of the utmost importance.
“We recognize that COVID-19 heightens everything—it brings an urgency with it. What I’m hoping for is that post-COVID-19, the same energy and urgency that our partners in technology in the city and in the commonwealth (new ways to educate young people, new digital platforms) that that all continues past COVID.”
—Lori Nelson, Boston’s chief resilience officer
Technology can help deliver information, increase access, and bring transparency to public life, but without careful planning and intentional implementation from all sectors, it can also bring about greater systemic biases. Right now, all these sectors have an opportunity to reimagine business as usual. Careful planning, cross-sector work, and a commitment from stakeholders can help bridge equity gaps.