Digital Equity in Baltimore – Building a Shared Future Together

Written by Arushi Singh

Last fall, with the promise of historic federal and state investments for community recovery, among other important initiatives, Baltimore City announced its Digital Equity Framework – a plan to permanently close its digital divide within the next eight years. Free public Wi-Fi in outdoor community gathering places has been announced as part of the plan, as has connecting our Rec Centers. The grand vision is a municipally owned fiber infrastructure serving all locations in the city. But this ambitious goal won’t be met by technology solutions alone.

Chris Ritzo presented to us about how the city is beginning this work and we discussed the Internet, Wi-Fi, and the power of human networks and community based solutions to combat inequities.

The seminar began with some background information and definitions. The Digital Divide is the gap between those with access to engage online and it disproportionately affects minorities and prevents equal technological access Digital Equity, on the other hand, differs from equality in that it acknowledges systemic barriers in place to hinder others. Lastly Digital Inclusion aims to involve all communities even those most disadvantaged. In order to achieve Digital Inclusion, there are five pillars which must be fulfilled. These include: affordable internet services, access to digital training, quality tech support, access to internet devices, and participation collaboration in the internet sphere. With online school and the overall shift online due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Divide Divide problem has been further exacerbated and solutions for it become even more pressing.

Throughout the seminar there was active discussion from participants. A question was raised by one attendee on why internet within the City is worse than outside of it, even from the same provider. Another proposed this is because it is harder to lay underground lines in the City. Furthermore, Chris spoke to the disconnect between marketing and engineering sides at companies which also contributes to these problems. Another person highlighted the recent news of a sexual assault that occurred in the Facebook Metaverse. The victim had received responses along the lines of “if you don’t like it then don’t join”. Chris mentioned how this current event ties back to the definition of Digital Inclusion and how moderating community norms is important in addition to creating these novel tools. He also suggested a book, Behind the Screen by Sarah Roberts, identifying the problematic issues of social media. Around the ongoing purchase of Twitter by Elon Musk, Ritzo highlighted Twitter and other social media networks’ claims to support free speech, but how they can never be truly utopian since the judgment lies within the corporation with an end goal of data mining and advertising to its users.

The seminar moved on to discuss technical aspects of getting access to the Internet. For instance, a router helps us connect wired/wirelessly to a laptop onto the Internet. This router also protects us and our data to some extent via firewall. First Mile is the idea of democratizing internet setup. In this concept, individuals can also set up Wi-Fi services, not just big corporations. The seminar also touched upon running speed tests. Chris said speed is important, but not the only thing that matters. It was recommended to survey nearby Wi-Fi channels, buy an extender, and understand the channel overlaps of your current network and where it should be. There were also online sites provided to see how crowded the channels are in your neighborhood. In the same vein, conduct basic latency tests, in particular latency under load also known as bufferbloat, to determine where your internet stands as it buffers in the case there is too much data.

Overall, data mechanics surrounding internet accessibility maintains a key driver in creating a community based solution to this problem. Science and technology will benefit greatly when there is contribution and inclusion in which there is equitable and diverse representation across the Internet.