New tool reveals local digital divides
Microsoft recently released a Digital Equity Data Dashboard that will help create better understanding of the economic opportunity gaps in towns, cities and neighborhoods across the United States.
Developed by Microsoft Chief Data Science Officer Juan Lavista Ferres and the Microsoft AI for Good Lab, the dashboard aggregates public data from the Census Bureau, Federal Communications Commission, BroadbandNow and Microsoft’s own Broadband Usage Data. The dashboard goes tract-by-census tract and examines 20 different digital equity indicators. Such indicators include broadband access, usages, education and poverty rates. The collected data helps build a full picture of digital equity in examined areas.
“Digital equity – access to affordable internet, affordable devices and digital skills – is a foundation for empowerment, digital transformation and economic opportunity,” Vickie Robinson, General Manager of the Microsoft Airband Initiative, wrote for the company blog. “With states looking to drive historic investments in digital opportunity thanks to the Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment Program, the Digital Equity Act and more, it’s clear we can no longer just consider the immediate lens of broadband availability as a major indicator of opportunity.”
Robinson also noted that following the COVID-19 pandemic, being digitally connected is more critical than ever, and not just for office workers and students.
“The last two years has acted as an accelerant, driving essential activities online, from everyday businesses and services, such as banking and telehealth, to simply ordering food at a restaurant,” she said.
Microsoft crafted the Digital Equity Data Dashboard with the best possible data to help policymakers find areas in their respective states where they could send funding and programmatic investments. For example, only 0.4% of households in Ferry County, WA, lack broadband access, according to the FCC. That’s a promising number, but Microsoft’s dashboard showed that 97 percent of the county isn’t using the Internet at broadband speeds. Plus, more than a third of Ferry County households don’t have a computer to use the available broadband.
The Digital Equity Data Dashboard also revealed that the digital divide is an issue in cities, not just rural areas, according to Robinson. Microsoft is working with partner Starry to expand affordable broadband access in Los Angeles County. More than 25 percent of residents are not using the Internet at broadband speeds. Additionally, 20 percent of homes don’t have a computer.
The dashboard provides the chance to examine a city by each neighborhood and see where digital equity investments are needed most. Analyzing and illustrating this specific data will play a key role in showing lawmakers where to put time and resources to help close the digital divide.
“At Microsoft, we know technology can change lives, but only if it is available, accessible and affordable,” Robinson wrote. “Studies have repeatedly shown that investing in broadband infrastructure results in significant social returns, from new business formation rates to lower unemployment rates. We hope that this dashboard will empower the policymakers to implement programs that foster sustainable and inclusive economic opportunity and deliver on this fundamental need to close the digital divide.
“It is vital that states use the best data available to make targeted investments that translate into true long-term progress, otherwise more and more people will be left on the wrong side of the digital tracks.”