Digital Citizenship and Digital Communities: How Technology Matters for Individuals and Communities

Digital Citizenship and Digital Communities: How Technology Matters for Individuals and Communities

Karen Mossberger (Arizona State University, USA) and Caroline J. Tolbert (University of Iowa, USA)
Copyright: © 2021 |Pages: 16
DOI: 10.4018/IJEPR.20210701.oa2
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Abstract

Over the past decade, the vision of smart cities filled with technological innovation and digitally engaged citizens has been pursued around the globe, but not all city residents have a chance to participate in or benefit from these innovations. Connectivity is unequally distributed across cities and neighborhoods, and these disparities have costs not only for individuals, but for communities, as COVID-19 so aptly demonstrated. There is a need to examine uses and outcomes for broadband across cities and neighborhoods as digital human capital in communities. Two studies summarized here show that like other human capital, technology use conveys economic benefits for communities. Broadband adoption over time is related to prosperity and growth in the 50 largest metros. Big data on the density of domain name websites shows that this measure of technology use is likewise a significant predictor of prosperity and median income, controlling for other factors. We conclude with a research agenda on digital human capital and community outcomes.
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1. Introduction

Over the past decade, the vision of smart cities filled with technological innovation and digitally engaged citizens has been pursued around the globe, but not all city residents have a chance to participate in or benefit from these innovations.

The coronavirus pandemic uncovered deep and persistent inequalities in technology access and use in the United States, more than a decade after the enactment of a National Broadband Plan (FCC 2010), and a quarter century after the first government report on the “digital divide” (National Telecommunications and Information Administration 1995). It exploded the myth that “everyone is online.” As schools shut down and lessons went virtual, low-income students in urban areas were left behind, because of a lack of home internet access or adequate computers. School districts around the country scrambled to provide students with tablets and hot spots in parking lots, on school buses, or in homeless shelters (Stewart 2020; Romm 2020; Associated Press 2020). Vulnerable seniors who lacked internet access and skills to go online were at risk for social isolation and even food insecurity, as local store shelves were emptied (Conger and Griffith 2020). Doctor visits became virtual (Brody 2020) and those who were without internet access had limited health information and medical advice in the midst of a pandemic. There were also questions about the continued capacity of existing networks to handle the increased activity of telework, home schooling, telehealth, and emergency management, given that infrastructure reliability and speed vary considerably across neighborhoods and communities in the US, including in urban areas (Sallet 2020).

Digital inequality in the US is integrally linked to other economic, racial and ethnic disparities that have also emerged in full force during the pandemic, and going forward, it must be addressed in those terms. The US policy debate on digital inequality has often focused on rural infrastructure, particularly during the Trump administration, which has offered some modest funding for rural loans and grants (US Department of Agriculture 2020). While there is certainly limited or unreliable service available in some rural communities, especially on Tribal lands, affordability is the most important challenge in the US for both urban and rural communities (Tomer et al. 2017). In fact, there are three times as many urban than rural households without broadband of any kind, even mobile. Nationally, people of color are disproportionately represented among those with no broadband (Siefer and Callahan 2020).

Though 83% of the US population has some type of broadband subscription (counting both fixed broadband and mobile phones), connectivity is unequally distributed across cities and neighborhoods (American Community Survey 2017). There are zip codes in Memphis where only 26% of the population had any kind of broadband, including cellphones in 2017. Even in Silicon Valley’s San Jose, where over 90% of residents have some type of broadband, there are zip codes where only 40% had fixed or mobile broadband, according to 2017 estimates. In Detroit only 67% of residents had a broadband subscription in 2017, and 19% of those relied on smartphones to go online. These less-connected, mobile-dependent internet users often turn to public libraries or Wi-Fi hot spots for homework, job search or other important needs (Fernandez et al. 2019). This hit many urban neighborhoods hard with the closure of public spaces and fast food restaurants in the pandemic. But the problem is not a short-term one that will simply be remedied as institutions open again.

These disparities have costs not only for individuals, but for communities, as COVID-19 so aptly demonstrated. Technology use affects equality of opportunity for individuals, for wages, education, health, and political participation. But it also has spillover benefits for communities and society. These benefits for communities have been more difficult to measure than the individual effects of technology use and disparities. One reason is the lack of adequate geographic data on broadband use: broadband adoption and activities online. With new data from the American Community Survey and the use of “big data” drawn from non-traditional sources, there are fresh opportunities to improve research and policy addressing urban technology use.

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