The following is the continuation of a piece written by Tamir Novotny, an MYD member and Senior Policy Associate at Living Cities. Living Cities is an organization that harnesses the collective power of philanthropy and financial institutions to improve the lives of low-income people and the cities where they live. Read the full post here.
We recently kicked off in earnest a project in Louisville to develop a piece of technology aimed at engaging low-income Millennials (young adults ages 18-30) in city planning processes. This project comes as part of a broader Living Cities effort to better understand the potential for tech to deepen civic engagement and improve the lives of low-income people, and to help us explore roles we might play in maximizing this potential in the future. Part one of this piece explored issues related to Millennials and civic engagement. Part two focuses on issues related to the “Digital Divide” and designing effective civic tech solutions.
Digital Divide ? Civic Divide
In our research on civic tech, we heard a lot of criticism that civic app developers are designing apps in ways that ignore the “digital divide,” which runs the risk of undercutting civic tech’s potential equalizing power. Some have advised us to design our tech solution for “least common denominator” technologies – namely “feature phones,” which have calling and text capabilities but no internet access. But a review of existing research by OpenPlans and discussions at our kickoff suggest that the situation is more complex. In short, the digital divide does not in and of itself create a civic divide.
OpenPlans’ research review suggests that young adults, at a rate almost unaffected by income, use mobile devices including smartphones in their daily lives. In fact, OpenPlans found that, nationally, low-income young adults actually use mobile devices at a higher rate than higher-income older adults. However, participants at our kickoff weren’t so sure that these statistics play out the same way in Louisville as they do elsewhere, and pointed out that mobile devices aren’t necessarily used by everyone under the same conditions. We heard that many young people use public parks and other “hotspots” to access the internet in lieu of paying for data plans, while others use feature phones instead of smartphones. These differences both present potential challenges to reaching a broader audience, but also present new opportunities for engagement – for example, are there ways to promote engagement at existing Wi-Fi hotspots like parks or coffee shops? Could we find a way to get feature phone users to partner with smartphone users as they use our tech solution?