Panel: Collaborative research matters: doing research with community members to break down the digital divide
(Housing and Community Development)

Friday, November 3, 2017: 1:30 PM-3:00 PM
Horner (Hyatt Regency Chicago)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Panel Organizers:  Hannah L Thomas, Abt Associates, Inc.
Panel Chairs:  Meryl Finkel, Abt Associates, Inc.
Discussants:  Joshua Breitbart, City of New York Office of the Mayor's Counsel

Understanding Red Hook Wifi through Participatory Action Research
Aditi Mehta, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Increasing access to reliable, high-speed internet in public housing and low-income communities may seem straightforward.  This panel will examine the role of participatory research  in revealing the diverse perspectives and needs of multiple stakeholders and community members as policy makers seek to bridge the digital divide. As federal and state policy makers across the United States look for ways to address the digital divide in both rural and urban communities, the panel offers a useful case study of how policy-makers might use participatory and collaborative research to inform policy decisions to ensure incorporation of a diverse range of perspectives.

The panel will explore three different methodological approaches used to collaboratively conduct research in two New York City communities in which internet access for low-income residents has been expanded, through both City-provided broadband and community owned Wi-Fi.  Each paper will explore how the research engaged community members as research partners to better understand the needs of low-income families and communities in accessing and using the internet. 

The first paper in this panel will review research completed by the Center for Economic Opportunity to build evidence in support of the implementation of broadband for public housing residents in New York City and similar efforts across the United States. The research includes results from a mixed methods study by a third party evaluator, as well as findings from utilizing service design research methodologies within the implementation of broadband in New York City. The paper will detail how each stage of research was designed to collaborate with local community members, build on prior research, generate actionable findings to inform programming and policy decisions locally, and ultimately help assess the effects of providing low-income families with free, high-speed internet access.

The second paper in this panel will discuss community participatory action research completed by Aditi Mehta and the Red Hook Initiative, a community-based organization that supported the launch of a community owned Wi-Fi system that the organization continues to maintain. The Wi-Fi system is maintained by Digital Stewards, young people ages 16 to 24 who are training in developing content for the web-page and the maintenance of the system itself. Digital Stewards and Ms. Mehta worked together to design, implement and analyze a survey that would give Red Hook Initiative and other stakeholders actionable information on how the Wi-Fi system was being used.

The third paper in this panel will review data from an evaluation of the implementation of municipally-provided free broadband at two large public housing developments in New York City. The paper will explore the methodological approach to evaluating the rollout of broadband in these developments, in which community and City stakeholders collaborated in a participatory research study to explore  the lessons learned from providing free, high-speed internet access at these two sites. Interviews and focus groups were conducted by residents of the housing developments being studied in order to increase the validity of the information gained through the study, leverage resident perspectives to generate insights, and effectively link policymakers with community members.

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