Digital Excellence – More Than Just A Catchphrase

July 2006. It was only four years ago, healing sick but as Mike Maranda says, it seems like ages ago.

Two of my five kids weren’t yet in the world, although one was one the way. I was three and a half years into a new relationship that had its ups and downs and stresses and challenges and good times and things that needed to be worked out.

And I was more than 16 years into doing a kind of community development work that had, quite honestly, made me tired and somewhat cynical about what we were doing and the results, if any, we were achieving.

I’d been a part of the Empowerment Zone process in the mid-90’s, a national grants competition with what at that time seemed a fantasy-like prize: $100 million to be awarded to each of six winning applicants over the ensuing 2 years to, as it was proclaimed in the EZ Guidebook, “empower citizens and reinvent government.” The promise of the EZ/EC was that citizens living in poverty-stricken neighborhoods would be able to create and implement their own programs and solutions and that the federal government of Bill Clinton and Al Gore would provide hundreds of millions of dollars for them to do it.

The City of Chicago in 1994 was one year away from a mayoral election. Richard M. Daley, son of Richard J. Daley, had been in power less than six years, voted into office in 1989 after the black community, which had sparked an 83% turnout percentage to elect Harold Washington Chicago’s first black mayor, split badly on whether to vote for one of two men who were vying for the office: Eugene Sawyer, a former 6th ward alderman who had been appointed Washington’s successor in a memorably raucous Dec. 1 City council session after Washington died at his desk of a heart attack six months into his second term, and was seen as a sellout by many community activists, or Tim Evans, a 4th Ward alderman and supposedly the late mayor’s pick as successor (although Harold had clearly said on TV three days before his death that he didn’t and wouldn’t anoint anyone a successor).

Rallied together by a remarkable woman and organizer, Wanda White, who had participated in drafting the national legislation establishing the Empowerment Zone process, what would eventually total 33 Chicago communities
The following principles have been adopted under the Campaign for a Community Benefits Agreement. We believe these principles should guide the development of the wireless network and the opportunities that emerge from its formation.

1. DIGITAL EXCELLENCE IS AN INSTITUTIONALLY FUNDED PRIORITY FOR CHICAGO. Activities promoting Digital Excellence are best shaped and supported through a sustained funding mechanism. A Digital Excellence Trust, diagnosis guided by local constituents and practitioners in the field of Digital Literacy should advocate on behalf of the digitally under-served, and offer programmatic support to establish local capacity and promote the vision of digital excellence.

2. SOUND PLANNING, EVALUATION AND POLICY MEASURES ARE CRITICAL TO DIGITAL DIVIDE EVALUATION AND DIGITAL EXCELLENCE IMPACT. Qualitative and quantitative processes must be established to gather baseline and ongoing data on Chicago’s digital divide, and guide the creation of new policies and practices to strengthen digital opportunities, thereby promoting digital excellence.

3. UNIVERSAL ACCESS TO HIGH-SPEED CONNECTIVITY IS A PUBLIC RIGHT AND NECESSITY.Universal broadband access for all citizens is a public right, not a privilege. Internet access must be available to ALL Chicago residents regardless of where they live, work or learn, furthermore, provision must be made for special access needs. Service upgrades and enhancements must be made available to all communities in an equitable manner.

4. DIGITAL LITERACY AND FLUENCY ARE FORMS OF HUMAN CAPITAL AND REQUIRE PUBLIC INVESTMENT. Comprehensive training for digital literacy must be available in multilingual and varied learning formats. Digital proficiency must be promoted at neighborhood based locations, especially community technology centers, community based organizations and libraries, to strengthen resident understanding of new technologies. Training must be available in multiple formats to promote the inclusion of citizens who are fluent in other languages or disabled.

5. LOCAL INFRASTRUCTURE IS NECESSARY FOR COMMUNITY-DRIVEN CONTENT DEVELOPMENT. Content must reflect the ideas, identities and innovation of community residents and their respective neighborhoods. Local infrastructure must be established to allow for community control over content. Civic, educational and government web sites must be available for free to residents at ALL times through a Civic Garden accessible on the wireless splash page.

6. HARDWARE TOOLS MUST BE AVAILABLE TO ALL. Computer hardware, whether new or refurbished, must be available to ALL Chicago residents free or at affordable cost, and non-predatory mechanisms must be put in place for the acquisition of this hardware for all consumers. Community based organizations, libraries and parks must be equipped and supported to provide free public use access.

7. ENVIRONMENTALLY SUSTAINABLE BEST PRACTICES AND INNOVATIONS IMPROVE THE HEALTH AND WELL-BEING OF ALL NEIGHBORHOODS. The tools of the information age must adhere to and support the highest levels of environmental and economic sustainability. The city should use the new network as a means to disseminate and capture information vital to improving the sustainability of our city, such as gathering air and water quality data and improving transportation choice. Economically and environmentally sustainable processes for disposal and recycling of outdated electronic materials should be supported by the City and technology vendors in all communities, particularly those low-income areas traditionally targeted for the potentially harmful disposal of used and toxic computer hardware. The City and technology vendors should support the creation of neighborhood-based recycling and refurbishing initiatives for environmental remediation and job creation.

8. OUR FREEDOM TO CONNECT DEMANDS NETWORK NEUTRALITY AND ACTIVE MONITORING FOR EQUITABLE SERVICE. Network Neutrality is grounded in Freedom of Speech. For all networks offering service in Chicago the precept of network neutrality must be honored and all features of the network (bandwidth, services and enhancements) must be deployed so as to achieve universal and equitable coverage. The community must have the ability to monitor and verify data on coverage and quality of service, there must be mechanisms for remediation, and the city must take an active role to ensure compliance by vendor and subsidiaries.

9. THE GLOBAL ECONOMY WORKS FOR EVERYONE: ASSURE WORKFORCE DEVELOPMENT AND FIRST SOURCE HIRING. Workforce development opportunities that emerge from the wireless network should be made available to neighborhood residents (including the hard-to-employ, youth, and physically challenged) that are identified, trained and employed through first source hiring opportunities and subcontracting opportunities for neighborhood-based businesses.

10. IN STRONG NEIGHBORHOOD ECONOMIES, ENTREPRENEURS AND SMALL BUSINESSES THRIVE. The network must provide mechanisms to expand existing small businesses and cultivate new opportunities in Chicago’s under-served communities. Small businesses and residents must have the resources, training and support to use the access afforded by the network to grow revenue and potential, including training in business development and eCommerce.

The phrase emerged from an idea – to get beyond the sort of cryptic “digital divide” – in an age of PDAs, buy information pills netbooks and smartphones, page the notion that people couldn’t get connected if they wanted was attacked as outmoded – and “digital inclusion” – which was seen as another touchy-feeling condescending phrase cajoling those that had to give to those supposedly locked out.

“Digital excellence”, said Michael Maranda, the man who attached it to the CDAA’s 2007 Community Benefits Agreement, is a standard, a benchmark, representing where we want to go and how we, as citizens in a digital age, define how we use and master technology resources.

It was a standard, said Maranda, that we, as a community set, not one imposed on us. We want to be more than consumers of technology or users of technology, but masters of technology in creating a more open and inclusive society where digital technologies allowed us to connect and share when and where and how we want.

The idea caught on. Julia Stasch, VP of Community Development at MacArthur Foundation and Chair of the The Mayor’s Committee To Eliminate The Digital Divide, convened as part of the process to solicit builders for a citywide wi-fi network, embraced the phrase and the vision it represented. She asked the Chicago Digital Access Alliance to present its vision of digital excellence to the full committee, and on a cold first Monday in February (February 5) of 2007, we did just that, in a Powerpoint slide presentation called “Digital Excellence: The Vision”.

“Digital Excellence: The Vision” inspired and informed the groumdbreaking report, “The City That Networks:  Transforming Society And Economy Through Digital Excellence.”

At the official unveiling of that report, on June 15, 2007, in a speech given by Julia Stasch, Vice President of Community Development,  MacArthur Foundation, at the Community Media Workshop Media Summit,  Ms. Stasch acknowledged the long-standing history of neighborhood technology activism in Chicago and the conceptual framework – created by the community around digital excellence – that was the report’s platform.

“Digital excellence” became the conceptual benchmark adopted by foundations (the Knight and New America Foundation among others), cities pursuing digital inclusion strategies and most important, the Chicago neighborhood technology access community’s self-defining goal and standard.

Chicago’s city government launched what it called its “digital excellence initiative”, embraced and championed the “digital demonstration communities” framework, and presented them as the indicators of a consciousness about digital inclusion in Chicago that other cities could model.

The practitioners, meanwhile, continued to see “digital excellence” as an evolving measurement of a new, more open way of collaboration, information sharing and community development.

And so, three years later, the practice of open stewardship – of information, resources and initiatives – is gaining traction among those who have always practiced a collective not selective philosophy and those who see in the new paradigm an empowerment solution that may break the restrictive lines of suspicion, competition and mistrust that have plagued community efforts for years and decades.

“Digital excellence” – it began as a redefinition, evolved into a benchmark standard and now is the vanguard of an expansive movement. More than just a catchphrase.

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