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CITIZEN SCIENTIST

DATA COLLECTION

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At least 381,000 households in Michigan do not have access to broadband – primarily because low returns on investment in rural areas are not conducive to for-profit deployment.  Educators have been talking about the “digital divide” for two decades, and while some progress has been made in closing the gap, inequities persist in communities across the country.  In 2009, the Federal Communication Commission’s Broadband Task Force reported that approximately 70% of teachers assign homework requiring access to broadband – what does this mean for the 5 million households with school-age children that do not have high-speed Internet service at home?  A consistent challenge nationally is understanding where and what speeds and attributes broadband is currently available.

Considering that any source of data will have strengths and weaknesses, strategically using multiple sources of data can advance the quality of data to inform decision making.  Specifically, data sources, such as FCC Form 477, can be analyzed in conjunction with new consumer-sourced data to improve the accuracy of broadband availability data and enable us to identify areas where access or speed appears to be under – or – over estimated.  This approach is currently under development here in Michigan through a partnership between the Quello Center at Michigan State University and the Merit Network.

Merit Network, with its deep expertise in advanced networking, and over 700 connections to Michigan’s community anchor, government, and non-profit institutions, is in a unique position to catalyze unserved communities towards achieving broadband access. The Quello Center is affiliated with the Department of Media and Information in the College of Communication Arts and Sciences at Michigan State University.  Researchers at the Center  have a track record of examining broadband access to develop solutions that can help overcome digital divides. They also bring a rigorous understanding of data collection and survey methods to this project.

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Help assess and close the “Homework Gap”

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Broadband is of increasing significance to all consumers, government policy, economic development, scholarly research, community access, and education both inside and outside the classroom. High-speed Internet connections are not equally available to everyone and the data currently used to measure the speed and reach of broadband is less than optimal.  Estimates are particularly problematic in underserved areas such as rural and distressed urban areas of the United States, as illustrated by research on Detroit. Current broadband data collection uses procedures and standards that often result in inaccurate results that make investment, interventions and policy decisions more difficult. Other information relevant for policy makers seeking to address pressing problems like the homework gap, including the number of school aged children in a household, are typically not available or not linked to broadband data.

Challenges that undermine sound decision making and appropriate funding application include: the granularity and level of measurement, the use of data (such as FCC Form 477 filings) not primarily collected to measure broadband availability, and the over-reliance on Internet Service Providers (ISPs) as the major source of the data. For example, current measurements are aggregated to the census block level or higher levels, often misrepresenting the availability of broadband. These challenges can be overcome by collecting on-the-ground, consumer-sourced data.

We propose a new approach for data collection that builds on collaborative network organizations (CNOs), often used in citizen science, to uniquely leverage (1) networks of stakeholders (i.e., Merit and other participating Research and Education Networks) to manage the sourcing of data from users across the nation; (2) a partnership with academic researchers that allows for data quality control (identifying and correcting problematic data) and sophisticated analyses using multiple sources and forms of data; (3) data collection through a user-friendly app. This will allow the flexible collection of data from multiple devices, fixed or mobile.  This project will collect both speed test data and user provided household broadband access and availability data.

The Quello Center and Merit Network will be responsible for data management related to this project. Data will be maintained and archived in a secure and password-protected repository at servers at Michigan State University. Data and metadata will be provided in accordance with the Data Documentation Initiative (DDI) standard for the social, behavioral, and economic sciences. All data will be made available in a format that protects anonymity and confidentiality.

Expected Benefits. By integrating large national and regional datasets on broadband infrastructures with data on at-home broadband speeds and household level accessibility, we can advance the ability of policymakers and academics to empirically analyze numerous issues revolving around the Internet to

  • Contribute and influence effective policy to address pressing issues such as the homework gap.
  • Move beyond an overly simplistic urban/rural divide to compare well-to-do and distressed areas of rural and urban areas and other gradual differences across geographies.
  • Catalyzing communities to help drive change, a small community investment in this data collection project will help drive granular level data, an imperative part of the gap in existing data sets available and driving policy/funding acquisition today.
  • Quantifying availability and demand through creation of crowdsourced broadband assessment tools, demand aggregation maps, and community anchor connectivity inventory.  Thus, reduce the financial risk for infrastructure investment decisions with clear indicators of broadband gaps/need.