The internet has no shortage of challenges, from misinformation and harassment to censorship and hacking. But for many people, the biggest challenge is simply having reliable internet access.
“Fifteen percent of U.S. households in 2018 lacked any internet subscription,” says Caitlin Augustin, Vice President, Products and Programs at DataKind, quoting a Brookings Institute study. “And that inequity of broadband access is very much felt in the Black rural South.”
“Broadband is considered essential infrastructure,” Augustin adds. “But when compared to many other resources and services, it's far from evenly distributed in the U.S.”
DataKind is a global nonprofit that uses data science and AI to improve the capabilities, reach, and scale of social impact organizations. The organization is also a Mozilla awardee and a member of the 2023 Data Futures Lab cohort: five projects creating crowdsourced datasets for the public good.
DataKind is currently working with the nonprofit Black Wealth Data Center (BWDC) to address these “digital deserts.” The BWDC identifies drivers of wealth equity for the Black community — “and one of those drivers is broadband access,” Augustin explains.
Broadband is considered essential infrastructure. But when compared to many other resources and services, it's far from evenly distributed in the U.S.
Caitlin Augustin, Vice President, Products and Programs at DataKind
Indeed, having internet access — and the knowledge and ecosystem it provides — is a key tool for increasing individual or household wealth. Augustin notes how it can unlock educational and job opportunities, facilitate access to telehealthcare, help foster entrepreneurship, and more.
Augustin says that closing the broadband gap has always been a tricky issue — a matter not just of resources, but also communication. “There are benefits services that can give you tax credits or free or low cost connection points for your home,” she explains. “But those service providers don’t know where to focus. And communities don’t always know how to articulate the value of bringing in broadband.”
Augustin adds: “We came to the conclusion: If this is true, why isn’t there a tool for connecting advocates, policymakers, and investors?”
DataKind is now building precisely that tool: A way to identify gaps in U.S. broadband coverage both at the household level and the community level, like libraries and internet cafes. “Community broadband can foster collaboration,” Augustin says, which can spark entrepreneurship — and drive racial wealth equity.
Right now, DataKind is in research mode: combing through data and also interviewing stakeholders like broadband advocacy groups, public broadband coalitions, and historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs).
After that? Augustin and the team will publish “both a public report and a public, interactive set of maps.'' The maps will live on the BWDC website, fueling the mission to bring broadband to underserved communities and unlock economic equity.
This is exactly the type of work DataKind specializes in: “Building meaningful data solutions to achieve positive social good,” Augustin says. Broadly, DataKind works with nonprofits and social good organizations who are burdened with outdated or antiquated digital infrastructure, or are doing work in incredibly manual ways.
“Nonprofits and other social sector organizations don’t have access to the data and services that corporations have,” Augustin explains. “And we believe data science, machine learning, and AI are key to helping social impact organizations better achieve their theories of change.”