Remarks by MacArthur Vice President Julia Stasch about the Mayor’s Advisory Council on Closing the Digital Divide
June 15, 2007 | Speech | Community & Economic Development, Digital Media & Learning

I am pleased today to release the report of the Mayor’s Advisory Council on Closing the Digital Divide and thank you to the Community Media Summit.  This is exactly the right place to release the report because the audience here today really cares about the issues that it addresses.  Before I begin, I want to take this opportunity to publicly thank the members of the Advisory Council, who worked very hard on the report and its recommendations.  We benefited from a rich diversity of views in the group. I also want to acknowledge the important work of the Chicago Wireless Task Force, convened by Aldermen Margaret Laurino and Ed Burke, which laid the groundwork for the City’s solicitation for private sector partners in the installation of a citywide wireless network.

And, thank you to all the people who took time to share their thoughts and ideas with us – through public hearings, a survey, written comments, interviews.  We hear from business, university and community leaders, educators, and people who just care about technology and their lives. 

We learned a lot from those interactions and the report reflects in many ways their cautions, views, hopes and aspirations. Thank you.

The Request for Proposals for the community wireless broadband network got it exactly right.

It described the context for the new network in words that everyone in this room knows to be true.  Now listen carefully.  It said that “digital technology is revolutionizing our world. It is changing the way we do business, the way we learn, the way we buy and the way we interact with each other.” 

It is in this context that Mayor Richard M. Daley appointed an advisory council on closing the digital divide.  He challenged us to make recommendations to help ensure universal digital access and to improve community, educational, economic and other outcomes.  Our charge was not to make recommendations about the competition for the wireless contract. 

Our charge was to see the prospect of affordable broadband available everywhere as the catalyst for something more—something much more.   We did.  We saw closing the digital divide as an essential part of the City of Chicago’s larger effort to secure its position as a preeminent global city.  Chicago’s global leadership depends on three things.  The strength of its business sector.  The vitality of its communities.  And, most of all, its human capital – the people who live and work right here. 

Technology and the resources of the Internet play a critical—and increasing—role in each, through information, connections and new markets.  Closing the digital divide is an imperative. 

Closing the digital divide also could be the product of a broad effort, involving every sector in our city – to bring about digital excellence.

What is digital excellence and why is it so important?  It is not a concept that originated with the council.  It bubbled up from the community, from advocates and activists who understand the power of technology and want to put it to work on behalf of individual and community prosperity.

Digital excellence is a state of universal, active and meaningful participation—universal, active and meaningful participation—with technology that increases knowledge and makes connections across time and place.  This level of active and capable participation with technology and the resources of the Internet is digital excellence. 

Five things make it possible:

Effective network access that is high-speed, reliable, affordable and available everywhere—
the new wireless network will make an important contribution to this
Affordable hardware with capacity to connect to the Internet and tap into everything it has to offer
Suitable software that meets the variety of needs of individuals, families, businesses and communities
Digital education that provides the training and technical support so everyone can become comfortable and proficient
Evolving mindsets that value learning, connecting and communicating through technology
and that recognize the business and other opportunities of expanding Internet participation

Why is digital excellence so important? We should aspire to digital excellence—universal meaningful participation—not for its own sake, but because of its power to transform.  Its power to transform education, community, commerce and government.

As more and more people integrate the Internet into their lives, businesses and communities, the result will be more inclusive and prosperous markets—housing, labor and retail markets—that just work better for more people; more effective government, stronger civic organizations and more connected communities.  This is digital transformation.

The advisory council’s report states that closing the digital divide must be seen as part of the larger opportunity for Chicago to transform institutions, communities and even society.

We saw this as an inclusive vision, a compelling vision—one that everyone can understand, endorse, embrace and rally around. 

In the environment, the city has the ambitious goal of becoming the “greenest” city in the country, if not the world.  We propose nothing less for digital excellence.  Think of it—Chicago as the global leader in ensuring that its residents, its businesses and its communities are informed, connected and empowered through technology.

How do we get this done?  Because it is doable. 

There ae six key strategies:

  • Number One: Chicago should launch a sustained Campaign for Digital Excellence.  It will take citywide leadership from every sector. Who should lead this campaign?
  • Strategy number Two: A new non-profit organization called the Partnership a Digital Chicago. 
    A board that represents all of the key stakeholders, leaders from business, local communities,
    government, technology, entrepreneurs, seniors, people with disabilities, every voice that needs to be at the table.  An organizing mechanism for the many activities of the campaign.
  • Strategy number three: The digital excellence trust – a fund overseen by the Partnership that will solicit and receive resources from philanthropy, corporations, city government and other sources for the campaign and other activities.
  • Strategy number Four: Leadership, commitment and collaboration from the public, private and nonprofit sectors, all focused on the goal of digital excellence.
  • Number Five:  Digital Excellence Demonstration Communities, three neighborhoods where, as a first step, all the best practices and good ideas could be brought together, to see what works and how to make it happen.  To see if it is possible to bring about a state of digital excellence in a specific place.  These demonstration communities would bring it all together:

In these pilot places, we should see:

  • True 100 percent wireless broadband coverage
  • Highly subsidized hardware and software packages
  • Expansion of existing internet access points in libraries, colleges, schools and other locations
  • Strong and well supported community technology centers offering training to everyone who is interested
  • A local outreach and education campaign, including technology organizers – just like community organizers – who would contact nearly all households, businesses and institutions
  • Partnerships with local colleges and universities and with local corporations, and
    most important,
  • A well-designed local portal with extensive, relevant local content community calendar, directory of local services, a listing of jobs and housing, business listings and on-line goods and services and an electronic forum for dealing with local issues.

Finally, strategy number Six:  Evaluation and accountability, which provides a comprehensive baseline in communities and across the city as a whole.  Where are we today on measures of access, training, and credentials?  Where are we each and every year? Does the campaign make a difference?  Are people’s lives actually better?  And, a report card that tells everyone in Chicago if money is well spent and actually making a difference.

The report also recommends that city government lead by example.  That it recruit a top-level digital excellence officer, who would be responsible for the city’s sustained commitment and attention to the goal of digital excellence. That it request from all city departments and sister agencies annual Digital Leadership plans, as part of the budget process, that show how they will use their activities and resources to help promote digital participation and use the Internet and other technologies to transform their own activities.

The report envisions that these leadership plans might include actions like:

  • Requiring that all new developments, or significant renovations, that use city subsidy or resources, or require approvals, be high-speed Internet ready.
  • Requiring that all major renovations of city-owned or leased facilities include broadband accessibility.
  • Making TIF proceeds available for activities that promote digital excellence.
  • Providing a financial incentive to encourage city residents to access services over the Internet and test for cost savings, but make sure there is support for people during the transition like kiosks in city hall and tutors to help people through the process.

The Mayor asked the advisory council to pay special attention to young people.  We did and we believe that the number most important recommendation is to ensure that each and every one of them is digitally literate by the time they graduate from high school.  Today it is not enough to ensure that they are proficient in reading and math.  They need the more complex and demanding skills required for success in the 21st century and those skills include digital literacy. They need to know: how to use simple and complex applications; how to navigate the Internet; how to search; how to make ethical judgments in a new and uncharted environment; how to judge the credibility of the vast amounts of information that is available; and how to synthesize and take away just what they need.

The report contains recommendations for colleges and universities, for community-based organizations, and for the private sector—all of which must work together—must collaborate—with government to achieve the ambitious goals I have talked about.  Because all have a stake in a vital, prosperous and competitive Chicago.

A word about the private sector.  The council’s conversations with leaders at key corporations revealed an eagerness to engage, to contribute, to sign on.  They are looking for leadership and a vehicle for what they have to offer.

That is what the report proposes – a durable approach and mechanism to sustain the drive for digital excellence and transformation and to make sure that the right people and perspectives are around the table to consider the technology’s dynamic changes, to understand the emergence of new divides, to shape new solutions and grab new opportunities.

Make no mistake.  The Council understands the challenges, the real barriers that limit access, and the changing nature of the digital divide.  First, it was people with and without computers.  As that divide narrows, the gap opens between those with low speed and those with high-speed access.  The next great divide is between those with the comfort and ability to take full advantage of what real access means—and those without.

The Internet is a critical pathway to opportunity and information precisely for those who today use it the least, but this is changing. Last month, Businessweek reported that African American use of broadband is soaring—for two primary reasons.  The web offers personalized information that is just not available in the mainstream media.  The same is true for others who just do not see themselves in newspapers, magazines and how-to books. And, the Internet offers social and economic services that many take for granted. For example, 73 percent of African Americans online have tapped into school or training versus Just 54 percent for whites.

The report addresses the special barriers for small businesses and for people with disabilities – perhaps the group most affected by lack of access to technology and one that could benefit the most.  The Council also does not minimize the fact that the Internet is home to predators, scammers and others seeking to harm and take advantage of unsophisticated and unsuspecting users.  This is not a reason to eliminate access but a call to expand education and monitor use, particularly by young children.

The council also saw and the report says it.  There is reason to be optimistic that the ambitious goals can be  achieved. Many of the pieces of the puzzle are in place. Grassroots organizations are already at work, organizing around the concept of digital excellence, recruiting partners bringing neighborhood portals to life.  Universities are reaching out to their local neighborhoods and enhancing their technology offerings.  The City of Chicago is ramping up e-government.  The Chicago Public Library is already a leader in free local access and help for people on line.  CPS is experimenting with one laptop per student in some schools.  Businesses are donating computers.   Community technology centers are on the front line of training and access for local residents across the city, with very little outside support for their essential activities.

The report asserts that it is time to harness and accelerate—harness and accelerate—these many efforts.  It is time to enhance and support them, take them to scale, attract additional partners, inject new energy, and sustain it until Chicago is actually the envy of the world—the fully connected, dynamic hub at the center of the global economy and society that we know it can be, if we just do it.

Let’s gather together here in one year – for a second summit.  Let’s challenge ourselves to see how far we can come in that time.  Let’s see just how much closer we can come together to that state of digital excellence and the transformation of society and economy that it promises.

Thank you.

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