June 18, 2007 By Sascha Meinrath
The Chicago Digital Access Alliance (CDAA) -- a coalition of more than 40 communities, 70 nonprofits, 50 churches, 100 small businesses and 1,000 individuals -- is pointing the way toward a more digitally equitable future.
Traditional public-private partnership models for municipal broadband have become contentious, mostly due to community concerns about these models' ineffectiveness in addressing social and economic concerns. Thus heads are turning away from cities like Philadelphia and San Francisco, and looking toward cities like Minneapolis, Boston and St. Cloud, Fla. As community organizers and residents become more knowledgeable about their broadband options, the "best" models of 2005 and 2006 just don't cut it anymore.
As a core coordinator of the CDAA, Michael Maranda sees his work as an outgrowth of earlier digital access initiatives.
"The Chicago Digital Access Alliance was deeply inspired by the Community Benefits Agreement achieved by Minneapolis. We build upon our predecessors to honor them," Maranda said. "We drafted these principles under a frame of 'digital excellence,' and have been working hard at moving the discourse from inclusion to excellence -- we want to set a higher bar."
The CDAA is demanding the city's municipal broadband network be used to help address Chicago's socioeconomic problems. "We won't settle for a handout of a little hardware, a little connectivity, and maybe a little money to run some programs and put some sites up," Maranda said. "We're not going to smile, say, 'Thanks,' and go away quietly."
Bridging the Gap
In 2005, the digital divide was widely recognized as a fundamental problem affecting many aspects of contemporary civil society. Internet connectivity proved beneficial to those who had it, and as the number of Internet users increased, network users gained benefits too. The networked whole turned out to be far greater than the sum of its parts.
But this phenomenon widened the discrepancy between those with Internet access and those left out of the telecommunications revolution. Compared to their connected counterparts, the disconnected were rapidly losing ground when it came to things like access to job and educational opportunities, news and social networks.
By 2006, a far more practical stance caught on. "Digital inclusion" wasn't meant to simply be a public relations catch phrase. It was also a recognition that municipalities needed to do more than lessen discrimination -- they needed to foster digital expansion. "I have felt that community and technology advocates were ready to take up the phrase 'digital inclusion' largely because we've been neglected in the trenches for so long that we were ecstatic at being listened to at all," Maranda said. "If we are being listened to finally, let's talk about the society we want, and about technology only insofar as it can be in service to us achieving that society."
But a growing number of community organizers began to realize that "inclusion" wasn't enough.
"'Digital inclusion' has gained a lot of traction as a phrase, especially in Philadelphia, where Wireless Philadelphia has all but branded it to describe the social programs they are planning to close the digital divide," wrote Joshua Breitbart, principal of Ethos Group, on his blog. "People talk about the entrepreneurial opportunities that will come from 'closing the digital divide.' They're there, but anyone who is arriving now to the online world is working at a disadvantage to those who came before. We want to do more than just include people in the online world, as it currently exists. We want that new involvement to transform that world. This is what I hope to imply with the phrase 'digital expansion.'"
Today forward-thinking leaders and municipal decision-makers are setting their sights higher. "With digital inclusion, there is danger of leaving our aim too low and shooting ourselves in the feet. If [decision-makers] are listening now to community experts with experience in digital