In my pursuit of a web that works for everyone, I am on a mission to equip agencies to make good digital decisions so people in Flint, Michigan (and everywhere) can get the information and resources they need.

I’m calling this the “literature review” stage of my mission. I’ve been digging into all the data I can get my hands on in an attempt to compare national trends with local realities. I’ve sifted through reports from the Pew Research Center, the U.S. Census Bureau, and the U.S Department of Housing and Urban Development. More locally, I’m working my way through data compiled by Connect Michigan and reaching out to area agencies.

What the Research Says

For the U.S., national data show that lower-income households rely more heavily on mobile devices to access the internet, and that around half of these households may not have access to broadband internet at home.

  • 53% of low-income adults in the U.S. have home broadband.
  • 64% have smartphones, 56% desktop/laptop computers, and 32% have tablets.
  • 20% of low-income Americans are smartphone-dependent.

Of lower-income smartphone owners, on mobile:

  • 63% access health information.
  • 51% do online banking.
  • 58% get information about jobs.
  • 39% look up real estate or information about a place to live.
  • 38% look up government services.
  • 33% take a class or watch educational content.
  • 32% submit job applications.

Meanwhile, the data is telling me that income and poverty levels in Flint are not consistent with national averages. In fact, the median household income is less than half the national average, while the poverty rate is more than five times higher.

  • In the United States, the median household income is $59,039.
  • In Flint, the median household income is $24,862.
  • In the United States, the poverty rate for families is 9.8%.
  • In Flint, just over 50% of households are under the poverty line.

And I have to wonder: With such inconsistency between Flint’s income and poverty rates and the rest of the country, are the national statistics about internet access and device usage really representative?

Is the case for making the web accessible on mobile even more compelling in Flint, Michigan?

Be the Data You Want to See in the World

My search for data is nowhere near over. I have to admit, though, that it’s starting to feel like what I’m looking for may be out of my reach. If that’s the case–if the data I want, at the local level, doesn’t exist–maybe I should find a way to pull it together. If there’s a chance that there is a higher rate of smartphone dependence or lack of internet access here in Flint than elsewhere, it seems that local data could be incredibly powerful in making a case to agencies, nonprofits, and the community at large that we should be trying to bridge the digital gap.

I’ve been imagining a kind of dashboard, where local entities could contribute high-level analytics data to create a collective snapshot of how users are accessing resources and information in the community. There would be challenges, but if I could paint a picture of how this might work, perhaps I could get buy-in. Maybe people would come along.

But Maybe Don’t Go it Alone

Did you know the internet has everything? Including people you know, who know other people with the resources you need?

I have been so fortunate to speak recently with some brilliant minds who have connected me to a wealth of new ideas. More than once during this “literature review,” in response to my litany of questions, I’ve been asked if I know anything about Code for America. I did not. But I do now.

This morning I talked with Erie Meyer and Christopher Whitaker with Code for America, “a network of people making government work for the people, by the people, in the 21st century.”

I learned that Code for America is a nonprofit organization with a volunteer network of more than 50,000 nationally. I heard the words “civic” and “technology” used together. I spilled my guts and my brain and got validation in return. And, maybe most relevantly, I found out that there are groups of people addressing concerns just like mine in cities all over the country.

Code for America’s volunteer Brigades have been working for years, producing solutions just like my imaginary analytics dashboard. What’s more, many of these solutions are open-source, and made available by teams willing to help others implement them in their own cities.

I have new information to consider, and new connections to make. Does the Brigade model have application in Flint, Michigan? Have other cities gotten hold of their local data, or successfully engaged a community in the way I’m suggesting?

More questions, but a heap of inspiration and direction, too. Thanks to Erie and Christopher (and Ron Bronson for making such a helpful introduction).