Aduio File: mp3Ten Talk: Episode 3
Rick Babson: Hi, and welcome to TEN Talk, a podcast by the Kansas City Fed. I’m Rick Babson, managing editor in Public Affairs and your host for this episode. With me today is Jeremy Hegle, a senior community development advisor in the Bank’s Community Affairs Department. Jeremy, thanks for being with us today.
Jeremy Hegle: Thanks Rick. Thanks for the opportunity to come on the show.
Babson: You’re welcome. Why don’t you tell us how long have you been at the Kansas City Fed and what do you do as a community development advisor.
Hegle: Sure. Thank you. So, I’ve been at the Bank for a little over four and a half years and I’m responsible for leading our programming and outreach in Kansas and western Missouri. And then I'm also responsible for leading a newer strategy around the digital divide.
Babson: Speaking of the digital divide, you and Jennifer Wilding, also in the Community Development department, recently published a report titled “External LinkDisconnected: seven lessons on fixing the digital divide.” I thought as we kicked off our conversation today, what exactly do we mean when we’re talking about a digital divide?
Hegle: Sure. Sure. Well first it may be helpful for the audience understand why the Federal Reserve has a community development function in the first place. So, briefly from a legislative perspective, in the late 1970s, Congress passed the Community Reinvestment Act, which requires financial institutions to invest in and serve people in their local community regardless of income level. And so our responsibility from a legislative perspective is to help show financial institutions how they can go about doing that. More broadly, from a philosophical perspective, we think about one of the purposes and functions of the Federal Reserve is to support and encourage a stable economy over the long term.
And we know from that perspective that a stable economy requires people to have economic opportunity regardless of their income level or where they’re based or what their background is. And so a lot of our work focuses on elevating issues that are affecting those folks and trying to advance solutions to help them. So, with that, the digital divide is something that's come up recently that is affecting the ability of people to get ahead financially, and essentially the digital divide is the gap between people that do and do not have access to affordable home broadband as well as the skills and the technology to utilize it.
Babson: The question for me, and I’m sure for a lot of other people though, why is the Bank’s Community Development team interested in studying and narrowing the divide in the first place and how does “Disconnected” fit into all of that?
Hegle: Sure, sure. Good question. So really our interest in this topic started a couple years ago with feedback that we got from our Community Development Advisory Council. Our council has been around for almost 20 years and they help us get an understanding of a local perspective of what's going on in their communities across our seven states, and also give us some insights in how we can expand and improve our programming. A topic that's been coming up over the last couple years with our council was this issue of the digital divide and how it's become foundational to a lot of traditional, more traditional focus areas of community development … things like workforce development, housing, access to financial services just to name a few.
And so our interest was to explore this topic further. And so over the last couple years we’ve hosted a series of focus groups, one-on-one interviews. We've done a national online survey. Altogether we've got perspectives from more than 160 individuals working in the field to better understand from their perspective what's working, what isn’t and what they wish the broader community knew about the digital divide. From that, we took all that information, we pared it down into seven common themes that we show in the report and then we looked for additional research and innovative programs to complement those findings to provide a more holistic understanding of the digital divide.
Babson: Alright. Well thanks, Jeremy. It sounds like broadband access and the digital divide has been on Community Affairs’ mind for some time now. And as the title suggests the report examines in detail seven lessons on fixing the divide across 50 states, which I think itself is impressive. There's also a number of key takeaways. One being building awareness of the divide as a community and economic development issue.
Hegle: Yeah, Rick, so you know what stood out to me almost immediately was the complexity of the digital divide and how much awareness is needed. You know if you take broadband itself some people might understand the need for internet but not understand the great degree to which broadband availability, broadband affordability and broadband speed vary from one community to another. Some rural communities are fully wired and other communities can’t get broadband regardless of speed.
The issue goes much further beyond broadband though. Having affordable broadband is essentially just getting people to the starting line of a race. In addition to having broadband, people also need to have the skills and the knowledge and the devices to utilize it. Things for everyday tasks such as accessing financial services and commerce, doing homework, conducting business, accessing medical care and learning the relevant technical skills to get the jobs that are in demand today.
Babson: I think another key takeaway was that you looked at was the sharing of innovative practices and “Disconnected” has some interesting examples that are right here in our own backyard.
Hegle: Yeah. You know so as we wrote the publication, there was a big thing that we wanted to emphasize and expand upon where all the great things that we saw happening in communities across the country. One of our roundtable participants I think put it best that the worst thing we can do is having lots of great things coming up in isolation. And so throughout the report we look at from both an urban perspective from a rural perspective, what are some great things happening around digital skills training, getting coding into elementary schools, getting broadband access to rural communities that don’t have broadband availability that’s affordable, or workforce development issues in our urban areas. I was really pleased with the number of innovative approaches that we saw across our research that have a great deal of replicability for others.
Babson: Good. I think one other key takeaway to look at this is looking to find ways to increase computer access for low and moderate income communities and also looking for ways to repurpose some best described as “gently” used computers.
Hegle: That’s right. That’s right. So, this is an area that I thought was really gratifying through this initiative and so often it seems that the things that are needed to fix issues in society are expensive and complex. This is one that doesn't seem to be. So, we know that each year large corporations, government agencies, groups like the Federal Reserve repurpose computers. They sell them for pennies on the dollar to a refurbisher that re-images them and gives them a new life in some other capacity. Those computers are typically going out the door at pennies on the dollar. And so what we did this last year was a demonstration project where we took 25 of the Bank’s surplus computers that had a very low value to us and we worked with a community partner to re-image them, put on new operating systems, and gave them to a community organization where we watched the impact of those computer computers over a six month period of time. There was an organization that provides services to low-income youth in the urban core, after-school care educational services and social services as well. What was really gratifying is going back over the course of those six months and seeing the kids learning how to code in the classroom, being able to go to robotics competitions. I never realized this but in order to go to robotics competition you have to have a laptop to program your robot. And so these kids were now getting exposed to the same educational experiences as kids from more affluent areas.
We had the teachers were able to use the computers to increase their digital skills training in the classroom and provide more digital skills training to their students. And we even had a couple moms that were, I didn’t realize the degree to which you need to have a laptop to participate in education today, it’s been a few years since I was in school. We had a mom that was getting ready to drop out of an associate degree program because someone had stolen her laptop and she didn’t have the money to get a new one … a formerly homeless woman who was trying to better her life and her child’s life. And so she was able to utilize one of these computers, able to go on and continue her education. That’s impact that cost the Bank virtually nothing. It was my time going out there with the photographer and documenting and interviewing and it made a real impact. And so that’s an example where there are things that we can do that that takes some deliberate thought but don’t have to take a lot of dollars to help make a difference.
Babson: I think that’s really a great example and clearly a win-win situation. I find it interesting to note the “Disconnected,” when the report came out, was released in conjunction with a nationwide gathering of state broadband officials and then also in conjunction with another broadband report by Pew Research. So how is the report been received in the early going?
Hegle: It’s been very encouraging. I’m very happy about how it's been received. So, I guess there’s a couple of ways we could look at it from a generation of getting out there. We've received hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of requests for copies of the report to the point we’re actually going through a second printing here soon, which I was very happy to see that. It’s generated phone calls and requests for us to present on the findings at conferences and here in Missouri and in Oklahoma but also Texas and Oregon and Wyoming and it's been covered in a variety of print publications as well.
Babson: Well it sounds like it’s having some impact right out of the gate. That’s a good thing. And from our conversations earlier I understand that one immediate effect of the report has been the naming of Sonja Wall as Oklahoma’s new broadband director, and I understand that that announcement came almost immediately after our report was produced, right?
Hegle: Correct. So having a state broadband director is something that from a functional perspective is helpful in coordinating broadband expansion efforts in every state. That being said not every state has that position. Most states do. Oklahoma was one, the only one in our District that did not. There’s that aspect of it that’s important but also having a state broadband office with a state broadband director goes into a state’s point scoring for getting some federal funding. So, by not having it they were putting themselves at a point disadvantage with getting some potential funding. So, going through this process I recognize that that was something that we wanted to try to encourage and help promote and so we made sure that we included Sonja in some broadband convenings that we did, on a national level. And she followed up with me shortly after the publication came out that people in the state capital were going around with copies of the report, which cited how low Oklahoma was in terms of broadband expansion and speeds and availability. And she shared with us that by us highlighting where they were in that list, in that they were one of the few states without a state broadband director that that served as a catalyst to bring about some things that had been of interest to people for quite some time.
Babson: So, the broadband convening was here at the Bank; was that right?
Babson: And what was the Bank’s benefit in convening these broadband directors here?
Hegle: So, in going through our research I talked to broadband coordinators or directors in the majority of our seven states and something I recognized were they were all dealing with the same issues around mapping and even just process and around policy procedure for working with their local communities and recognizing that they were all working somewhat in isolation. Our thought was to bring them together to help them have an opportunity to learn from each other, share like experiences and then also share with them some updates from a federal level with some funding and of course share with them a report and a similar report that came out from a complimentary report I should say that came out from Pew at the same time to help them understand how to better more effectively implement policy and process in their respective states. So, we ended up having 28 states, as far west as Hawaii, as far east as Maine; we even had a representative from Puerto Rico.
Babson: That’s clearly some early evidence of tangible results coming from not just the “Disconnected” report but also from the Bank’s interest in trying to bridge this digital divide. So, after you’ve gotten to this point the obvious question is what’s next?
Hegle: Yeah. Great question. So, I’m very much looking forward to continuing sharing the lessons learned, as I mentioned a few minutes ago we have about three or four conferences at a national level set up to tell the story, but also from a research and a policy perspective. We’re looking at doing some more case studies on the positive effect of low cost/high benefit effect of repurposing laptops for the community development function. So, getting the business community to partner with their local nonprofits or local workforce organizations. Working with rural libraries urban environments as well. And so working on some case studies there and also looking to see how we can help make it easier for those state broadband directors and others to more effectively tell this story and think through how we can help them expand broadband.
Babson: Thanks, Jeremy. That sounds like an opportunity for another podcast somewhere down the road. Appreciate you being here with us today, talking about closing the digital divide and the “Disconnected” report. You can find more of our research and request a copy of “Disconnected” online at kansascityfed.org. The views expressed today are those of the host and guest and don't necessarily reflect the Kansas City Fed or the Federal Reserve System. Thanks for listening to our TEN Talk podcast. You can find more of our podcasts at kansascityfed.org/tentalk. Thank you.