From COVID-19 vaccines to the agricultural industry, from mental health wellness to the City of Chicago’s Year of Cure, equity is a term at the forefront on many societal fronts. And for the past two years, the University of Chicago’s Data Science Institute (DSI) has focused on online equity in hopes of better understanding how to bridge the digital divide laid bare in state communities during this pandemic.
Researchers from the university’s Crown Family School of Social Work, Policy and Practice and the Department of Computer Science have been collaborating for two years to collect more recent and targeted Internet data on Chicago’s 77 neighborhoods as part of the Internet Equity Initiative. At Monday’s Data Science Institute summit on the UChicago campus, Nick Feamster, director of research at the Data Science Institute, and Nicole Marwell, associate professor at the Crown Family School of Social Work, Policy and Practice – both researchers of the initiative – revealed a 32-point difference between the most connected neighborhoods on the Loop and the Near North Side (where more than 94% of households are connected to the Internet) compared to the Far South Side neighborhoods of Burnside and West Englewood, where less than 62% of households are online.
“We’ve known for some time that the federal data on this is basically collecting paper forms from internet service providers at a pretty coarse granularity, like a census tract level and if a house is covered, they’re like, ‘ OK, that’s fine, said Feamster. “I knew it was suspicious, but it hit me when I moved to Hyde Park almost three years ago. If you look at this map, Hyde Park allegedly has gigabit internet access and multiple ISPs serve it. But I had a really hard time signing up for the service on my block. It lit a fire for me. I was like, ‘Wow, if this is so bad in Hyde Park, in the city of Chicago, it must be even worse elsewhere where we don’t even look.’
Connectivity disparities between neighborhoods can be seen on DSI’s data portal, which combines public and private data from 20 cities across the country, including Chicago. UChicago undergraduates analyzed pre-pandemic information from the U.S. Census, American Community Survey, Federal Communications Commission, and Portal for more localized insight into Internet connectivity in Chicago. From July to August 2021, researchers measured internet performance in a home in Hyde Park and one in the South Shore – both households paid for gigabit internet service from Xfinity (Comcast). The household in Hyde Park enjoyed better Internet quality than the household in South Shore. Data from the portal also revealed that connectedness is strongly correlated with income, unemployment, and race/ethnicity.
According to portal data, in parts of Roseland, broadband access is as low as 49%; in an area of Chicago Heights, it’s less than that, and in an area of East Garfield Park, connectivity is less than 46%. The Loop, Lincoln Park and Beverly neighborhoods have over 90% connectivity. The findings underscore the need for continued and targeted intervention to improve connectivity in sections of the city, and the rationale for DSI’s ongoing study. With the $65 billion in federal funding that was authorized in 2021 under the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act to help expand broadband, Feamster and Marwell hope the initiative’s work will help Illinois get its fair share of funds under the law and help interested stakeholders work on solutions to bridge the digital divide.
The initiative works with local community organizations and residents to help in this effort by collecting different measures of Internet performance in Chicago households. Volunteers across Chicago have installed small devices on their routers, allowing researchers to measure Internet performance as data travels to and from the home. Researchers continue to recruit volunteers to perform neighborhood comparisons. Feamster said the institute’s team welcomes many ways for community residents to get involved – to “chop and dice the data”, but also to brainstorm solutions.
“The purpose of collecting data is to understand the nature of the problem, which can then inform the people working to actually develop solutions to the problem,” Marwell said. “And it can be a lot of different people: ISPs, utility companies, it can be community groups that set up public Wi-Fi, it can be homeowners trying to ‘add Wi-Fi into their building services, rather than having people connect themselves to an ISP.
Marwell said connectivity is more than just an issue of affordability. The initiative’s study is really focused on the quality and reality of the Internet experience experienced by people in the field – something more than the unique data captured from Internet speed tests. By measuring more of the lived experience in continuous real time, researchers can measure over time if something important is happening in a certain neighborhood or if an area is simply having a bad day or bad hour.
“It may seem like the internet is a one-size-fits-all solution, but the more we learn about the nature of the problem, the more we see that the composition of the building makes a difference, what the trees and other topography look like makes a difference,” , said Marwell “What is possible in the type of direction of management of a multi-unit building makes a difference, what community institutions might be available to install an antenna for community Wi-Fi – all of these things make part of that process. We can’t really think of solving the Internet problem just by giving everyone a subsidy to buy their own service.
“I think to the extent that these efforts are successful in achieving the goal of greater connectivity, this is going to be a really important proof of concept to keep the money rolling in the years to come with investments from infrastructure at the federal and state levels, to continue the work and try to reach everyone,” Marwell said.