Panel Paper: Understanding Red Hook Wifi through Participatory Action Research

Friday, November 3, 2017
Horner (Hyatt Regency Chicago)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Aditi Mehta, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Red Hook WIFI, a project of the Red Hook Initiative’s Digital Stewards program, is a community-led effort to close the digital divide, generate economic opportunity, facilitate access to essential services and improve quality of life in Red Hook, Brooklyn via the deployment of a wireless Internet network. The Digital Stewards are a group of young adults from the neighborhood who initially installed and maintained Red Hook WIFI. In partnership with local businesses and residents, Red Hook WIFI is providing free access to the Internet in a neighborhood where broadband adoption rates are lower than the city average. This paper reviews the research process of using Participatory Action Research (PAR) to conduct a survey that would inform the policies of the Red Hook Initiative and city related internet provision. The paper begins by presenting the research process and results from a PAR survey (n=250) project about community perceptions and usage patterns of the Red Hook WIFI network, as well as how Red Hook WIFI could be improved to address community needs.

PAR is a form of inquiry in which the line between “the researcher” and “the researched” is blurred. The team, an academic researcher (the author) and eight community researchers (the Digital Stewards) collaboratively selected the research topic, completed data collection and analysis, as well as decided what action should happen as a result of the research findings. Every participant had an expertise to contribute to the project whether it was an intimate knowledge of the neighborhood, the Red Hook Initiative and Red Hook WIFI, experience as a Digital Steward, or training in research methodology. The benefit of PAR is that it brings together many forms of situated knowledge and lived experience to offer more valid interpretations of information. For policy makers this can be critical to ensuring all voices are represented in policy decisions.

 The main research questions addressed through the survey included:

• Who in the neighborhood is using and benefitting from Red Hook WIFI?

• In what ways are these people using the communication infrastructures?

• How could RHI and the Digital Stewards improve Red Hook WIFI in the future to better address neighborhood needs?

In addition to making sense of the data, this paper also offers reflections on the PAR process from both the perspective of the academic researcher and the community researchers.