Outcome 2b

Explain the impact of information policies on intellectual freedom, access, literacy, information behavior, and other aspects of library and information science.

This was a report written for LIS 758, Community Informatics. CI is a very interdisciplinary approach to studying the ways that technology interacts with society, drawing on research in fields as diverse as sociology, communications studies, and political science. The field is very new in academia and its practitioners are often deeply involved in activism and turning theory into practice, engaging with communities to impact individual lives and change social outcomes. In a discussion group in class, I answered the question “What is Community Informatics” like this:

Stillman and Dennison, in “The Capability Approach Community Informatics”, define community informatics somewhat technically, as “a domain of sociotechnical theory and practice concerned to improve the lives of people in need.“  The emphasis on practice is a recurring theme in the definitions used by the authors we have read so far in this course.  Informatics narrowly defined is the study of networked data, primarily as manifested by computer technology, and the ways that humans interact with that data; the field of community informatics then can be seen as the relationship of communities rather than individuals to those data networks. As Gurstein points out in “What is Community Informatics”, there are both similarities and differences between the conceptions of networks and communities; a community can be viewed as a kind of network, but every community is also in dialogue with networks both within and without itself, and the individuals within that community also have their own distinct relationship to these networks. Community informatics as a discipline looks mainly at the relationship of the community to information and communication technology networks, and the outcomes for individuals that are the result of this relationship. By using this perspective, practitioners of CI hope to make these individual outcomes better than they would be if the relationship between users and ICT networks was unmediated by the community. The default mode in the 21st century is for an individual’s relationship to ICT to be primarily influenced by commercial interests; the practice of community informatics is meant to act as a modulating influence on this relationship and allow community values (in the positive rather than the censorious meaning) to be a stronger influence on how technology influences culture and society.

Gurstein, M. (2007) What is Community Informatics and why does it Matter? Polimetrica s.a.s. https://arxiv.org/ftp/arxiv/papers/0712/0712.3220.pdf

Stillman, L & Denison, D, (2014) The Capability Approach Community Informatics. The Information Society, 30: 200–211. https://lists.mste.illinois.edu/lists/arc/ctrl-shift/2014-07/msg00038/Capability_Approach_and_Community_Informatics_copy.pdf

One of our projects in the class was to look at a community area near to us, or one that we were familiar with, and create a report on how that community is affected by digital exclusion, or the unequal distribution of digital technology resources. My report is below:

For this survey, I chose to examine the neighborhood I’ve lived in for about 15 years, Humboldt Park in Chicago. Some basic demographic information on the neighborhood, based on data collected from 2014-2018 by the Chicago Metropolitan Area Planning Commision:

The neighborhood has a population of about 56,000 people, and covers 3.6 square miles on the north side of Chicago. Since the 1960s, it has been a center of the Puerto Rican community in Chicago, and Puerto Ricans continue to make up a significant part of the population. The racial demography as of 2018 is 57% Hispanic, 33% African-American, and 7% white. 20% of households report that English is “spoken less than very well” at home. (The overwhelming majority of non-English speaking households are Spanish speaking.)

The statistics for income and education reflect the typical effects of discrimination on predominantly minority communities. The number of households earning less than $25,000 a year is 33%, compared to 25% for the City of Chicago and 18% for the metro region. The percentage of residents with bachelors degree or higher is 17%, compared to 38% for the city and metro region. The average unemployment rate over the period of the survey (2014-2018) was 11.9%, compared to 8.9% for the city and 6.7% for the metro region.

Using the information available on the U.S. Census Department website, I combined the information from nine census tracts in Humboldt Park to get a rough estimate of computer ownership and broadband access, using census tracts that cover about a third of the neighborhood. In my representative sample, 85% of households own a computer, and 70% have a subscription to broadband in their home. The national figures are 90.3% and 82.7%, respectively, so Humboldt Park lags behind the U.S. average for these statistics, although not dramatically.

All of the area of Humboldt Park is covered by the two major internet providers in Chicago, and there are satellite options as well, so the only barrier to broadband access is economic. Given the lower average income in Humboldt Park compared to the area as a whole, it seems reasonable to conclude that the lower rate of broadband subscriptions is mainly driven by affordability.

So we see that there is a meaningful, although not huge, difference in home broadband connections in the Humboldt Park neighborhood. How much does this affect the residents? Some insight on that question is provided by a report from the Pew Research Center, “Mobile Technology and Home Broadband 2019”. Their findings are that only 50% of households who lack broadband access cite cost as the main barrier; 45% of respondents said their smartphones provided them with internet access sufficient for their needs, while 43% responded that they were able to access the internet from some other location than their home. This trend towards internet access via smartphone is a significant one for addressing the digital divide, as smartphones and data plans have become very competitive price-wise to computers and ground-based internet service. The study also notes that hispanic and african-americans are more likely to be smartphone-only internet users than whites, by about a two-to-one ratio. So for government agencies and other service providers looking to bridge this gap, making sure that their web services are available to smartphone users, either as apps or fully responsive websites, would be an effective way to increase their reach to poor and minority communities.

When low-income residents who can’t afford home service need access to a computer, one commonly used resource is the public library. Chicago Public Libraries were closed for several months this spring due to the pandemic, which obviously presents a challenge for this population. I found an interesting pattern in the usage statistics for the Humboldt Park branch of CPL; this chart shows total computer use sessions at the library for 2020:

Humboldt Park and Logan Square Library Computer sessions (the Logan Square branch is within walking distance of much of Humboldt Park) :

Humboldt Park12021002656002524845936127705465146631
Logan Square164314098110030569872968005106117396

Comparing this to overall visits:

Humboldt Park4846476069540094724413156343248093148278637279
Logan Square1250111545671100424367958731702704890614668589

Compared to the number of overall visits, which rebounded back to a number similar to the pre-pandemic levels by October for the Humboldt Park branch, the number of computer uses shows a significant dropoff. I looked at the data for 2019 to see if there was typically a seasonal effect, but the numbers for computer use stay pretty consistent for the entire year in 2019. I can’t think of any reason for this difference; it would be interesting to have more data on this.

In conclusion, we see that for a densely populated urban area like Humboldt Park, the digital divide is very much an aspect of the economic issues facing these communities as a whole. The effective solution is twofold; to address the underlying issue of poverty and disenfranchisement, and to provide solutions that are accessible to the community as it exists (such as making services available on smartphones.)


Community Data Snapshots. Chicago Metropolitan Area Planning Commission: https://www.cmap.illinois.gov/data/community-snapshots

Census Data Tool, U.S Department of the Census. https://data.census.gov/cedsci/

Anderson, M. (2019) Mobile Technology and Home Broadband 2019. Pew Research Center. https://www.pewresearch.org/internet/2019/06/13/mobile-technology-and-home-broadband-2019/

City of Chicago Data Portal. https://data.cityofchicago.org

Jason Grey, MLIS