how the broadband sausage does or does not get made

The Vermont Department of Public Service will hold public hearings to gather public input on the final draft of the 2014 Vermont Telecommunications Plan. The Plan addresses the major ongoing developments in the telecommunications industry, including broadband infrastructure development, regulatory policy and recommendations for future action. The Department will hold two public hearings in Orange County on the public comments draft of the Plan prior to adopting the final Plan. Middle Branch Grange, 78 Store Hill Road, East Bethel, Vermont, September 18, 2014, at 2:00 p.m.

telecom meeting

I went to this meeting. There weren’t even going to be any meetings in Orange County, the county where I live, until someone showed up at one of the Barre meetings and suggested them. So there were two meetings in Orange County last week. One during the day in Bethel and one in the evening in Strafford. Unfortunately the weather didn’t totally cooperate so there was a local power outage for some reason and a forecast of a hard frost that evening. So a lot of the farmers who would have shown up at this even had to stay home and cover plants and do other things that farmers do when the weather starts getting cold.

I’ve been doing a lot of leisure-time stuff in keeping with my theme this month but today I went to work. I sat and listened to multiple stories of farmers and other neighbors struggling with digital disinclusion. I took some notes and I made a statement. This is the polished version of what I said.

My name is Jessamyn West, I’m a technology educator in Randolph Vermont and I wrote a book about the digital divide. I have three points I’d like to make

  1. We’re interested in results, not projections. A lot of the data we hear talks about when we’re going to have everyone online, or points to the number of people who have this technology available. I’d like to know why people aren’t online and what we’re doing to work with those people. Saying that most Vermonters have access overlooks the chunk of people with no access who should be the focal point of future build-outs. This report talks about how Burlington Vermonters have a choice of ISPs and overlooks that most of us have almost no consumer choice at all.
  2. And while we’re getting people access, let’s make sure they all have the same access. People talk about 3G and 4G as if they are the same as cable or DSL. They’re not. They come with bandwidth caps, overage charges, and a lot of concern about impending lack of net neutrality. Similar to how, back when people had dial-up, some people in more remote locations had to pay for the phone calls in addition to having to pay for the service. We’re seeing the same gap now with remote users only having satellite or cellular-based access. We should strive for everyone having equitable access.
  3. Most important to me is what we call the empowerment or the usability divide. I heard a person earlier say she wanted to get access to the internet so that she could run a website for her small business. Just getting access isn’t going to give her a website. She’ll need resources and likely some human help in order to be able to do that. And where does that come from? It used to be that the digital divide was just “People don’t have access to computers” and then it was “People don’t have access to the internet” and now that most people have access, sometimes only through their public library, we are still seeing participation gaps. These gaps align along the same lines as other structural inequalities like poverty, educational attainment, age, race, and disability status. The people not participating are already facing multiple challenges. We know this. We need to find a way to support those people and not reinforce those inequalities.

The hardest to serve have always been the hardest to serve; the challenge of getting everyone online is going to necessarily mean having a plan for those people as well as everyone else. Thank you.

Bridging the digital divide in more ways than one

laying fiber in braintree vermont

I was at the Lake Superior Libraries Symposium last week talking about the digital divide. The theme was “bridges” which was perfect because “librarians bridging the digital divide” is the subtitle of my book, now three years old. The talk was a variation of the talk I gave in Michigan, plus it had slides. You can check it out here: Bridging the Digital Divide. I had a wonderful time in Duluth and have to thank the organizers for putting on a really excellent one-day symposium.

This image, though it looks super old timey, is actually from late 2012 and is what it look like: two guys laying cable through the woods using draft horses. It’s a very dramatic image just because of the colors but I think it also shakes people up a little “Wow, there really are places in the US that aren’t there yet….” I talked a bit about the culture of learning new things and about our roles as not just teachers but emulators of good technology practices.

And it was timely because I’ve spent this week enmeshed in terrible, confusing, and poorly designed websites as a result of a job shift. I’ll talk about this more in a separate post, but in an effort to get more librarianing in my life, I’ve moved on from MetaFilter and taken a small job at the Internet Archive working for Open Library. This involved a shift in health insurance and possibly some unemployment payments (going from full-time to part-time). And, since this sort of thing is all done digitally nowadays I’ve gotten to experience first hand what it’s like to feel beaten down by technology when you feel like your money or your livelihood is dependent on it.

I am fine, nothing is wrong with me, I have health care and am still well-paid, but the creeping dread that came over me when I was worried “Did I fill this out correctly?” “What does that phrase mean?” “Why isn’t this Submit button working?” and the inability to get timely help or support via the website (I seemed to always start these processes 20 minutes after the phone support ended for the day) just made me frustrated with our culture of bad technology and poor user interfaces and made me sad for people less savvy than me having to navigate these waters and being worried that maybe the problem was them. As always, we have so far to go.

A good old fashioned linkdump


Public domain photograph by: US Navy, National Science Foundation. Link.

I’m back at home after meeting with a lot of terrific librarians in four different states. March is the busy month and after last month my plan is “not getting in a plane more than once a month for work.” I’ll be speaking with my good friend Michael Stephens at the Indiana Library Federation District Six conference next week. I’ll do a wrap-up of the talks I’ve been giving sometime later but news for me is mostly having more free time to actually attend things and not just speak at them. Getting to go to programs at the Tennessee Library Association conference and the National Library of Medicine’s New England Region one-day conference about social justice has really helped me connect with what other people are doing in some of the same areas I’m interested in. It’s sort of important to not just be a lone voice in the wilderness about some of this stuff, so in addition to the SXSW stuff (and talking to a great bunch of library school students in Columbia Missouri) getting to attend library events as an audience member has been a highlight of the past few weeks.

However I’ve been backed up on “stuff I read that I think other people might like to read.” Try as I may Twitter is still for hot potato stuff [i.e. Google's April Fools Joke specifically, I felt, for librarians] and not for things that I think merit more thoughtful or wordy presentation. So, as I enter the first Thursday in over a month where I get to hang out at home all day, I’m catching up, not on reading because there is tons of time for reading while traveling, but on passing some links around. So, here are some things you might like to read, from the past few months, newest first.

the tools and the hammer/nail problem in the digital divide

“The way you talk about the [digital divide] changes people’s view of who is responsible for resolving it…. This issue has been around for years, but its meaning is in constant flux and is manipulated by political agendas.”

I’ve switched some of the tools I use for keeping current over the past few months. I’m finding that I use RSS less and less for keeping up on blogs and rely more on Twitter lists and searches to sort of keep my hand in. I also read a lot of print material still [some of my best "things to think about" things are still coming from the pages of Library Journal and Computers in Libraries magazines] and am trying to keep to my book-a-week plan for 2011. Oddly I also get news from seemingly random places like other people’s facebook walls and I made a little image-milkshake over on a site called MLKSHK. You might like it.

I have a standing search for “digital divide” on Twitter that just auto-updates itself onto my desktop via TweetDeck. The thing that is so interesting about this, to me, is how often the term gets used and for how many different things. This morning there are discussions about the digital divide and gender, how the EU is trying to narrow the digital divide (referring to access to broadband) and a report about how switching to online social services in the UK would adversely affect people who are digitally divided already, mostly talking about seniors.

Which leads me to the paper I read recently which was really pretty intersting and on topic: Who’s Responsible for the Digital Divide? Public Perceptions and Policy Implications (pdf) It’s not long, you can read it, but the upshot is that depending how we define the digital divide, we will develop different strategies to “solve” the problem. This is not just hypothesized in the paper but addressed scientifically. So if the problem is lack of compturs, we throw computers at the problem. If the problem is broadband, we work on network infrastructure. If the problem is education we design sites like DigitalLiteracy.gov and then wonder why a website isn’t teaching people how to use computers. Tricky stuff, endlessly fascinating, thorny problem.

Book is out, and some other things.

I don’t think I’ve taken two weeks off from this website since it started in 1999. A short explanation is in order. I received a box with five copies of my book in the mail on May 18th. The next day I received the news that my father had died. I’ve mentioned this elsewhere and I’m sorry if I should have told you personally and didn’t and you learned about it here.

So, what might have been a PR onslaught of epic proportions–I am very proud of this book and excited to see it done and almost perfect–turned into a completely different sort of set of weeks. I’ll write more about my father on my own blog and you’re welcome to read this thread on MetaFilter which has links to a lot of things to read about him including obits in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. We’ve also set up a memory page on 1000 Memories [free forever, I give these folks the thumbs up]. My father’s death was sudden but not totally unexpected. I had a good relationship with him which was hard-won because he was a difficult and somewhat complex man. I am doing okay, all things considered. I am well taken care of. I am his executor and there is a lot of work to do.

Yesterday I started thinking about the book again. I made a facebook page for it but it also has its own page which includes the full bibliography, web links and appendix. The local newspaper wrote a little article about it and I think I can get the local bookstore to stock it. I’ll be heading to the Oregon Virtual Reference Summit in a few days to talk about Ask MetaFilter and the digital divide. I have a small pile of stuff I’ve been meaning to put here, but wanted to let people know what was up first. Let me know if you liked the book. Thanks for being here.

A few talks, a few links

Talking about the digital divide in Connecticut is a lot different from talking about it in Texas, or even Vermont. Unlike most states I’ve looked at, Connecticut really doesn’t have a large population of people who live in an area where they can’t get broadband. I’m sure it has the same numbers of offline people, generally speaking, but whatever their reasons for being offline are, they’re not for lack of access. I admit, I played this for laughs a bit at my CLA since I know that people aren’t going to confuse broadband access with technological know-how and will still see that there is work to be done.

All my talks went well. Here’s what I’ve been up to recently

  • Last Thursday I was on a panel with some interesting people including the soon-to-be-president of ALA Molly Raphael. We answered some provocative questions about the future of libraries and mostly had a great time.
  • Friday I gave my talk about developing a technology curriculum for libraries. For those of you used to my usual stuff, this was a departure. Not heavily attended–it was in one of the last timeslots of the conference–but I was pleased with it. If you’re considering a technology curriculum, you might be interested in my short set of notes/slides. I got to present with Anna Fahey-Flynn who is Curriculum Development Librarian at Boston Public and it was really interesting to see how their tech instruction program is coming together.
  • Over the weekend I walked around in the sun in Massachusetts and then headed to CT for the CT Library Association conference. Before attending the conference I was interviewed for public acess TV in Manhattan about the Google Books project and copyright and a few other things. No idea when this will go live, but if you think you’ve seen me on tv talking about Google Books, you may have.
  • Tuesday I gave a talk about myths about the digital divide, similar to my Texas talk but with some local examples.

As usual, I also got to attend some great presentations including a talk by BPL and the Internet Archive [at MLA] about how they’re working together to provide digital access to library content via Open Library. This may be a personal thing, but I’m always excited when libraries test boundaries and tell us “We checked with our lawyers and they think this is an acceptable level of risk.” I also saw a CMS smackdown/comparison [Drupal vs. WordPress] by Polly-Alida Farrington and Shanon Clapp which was full of good information and delivered with a friendly “you can do it!” approach. I also saw John Palfrey’s closing keynote talking about the digital divide and some of what Harvard’s Library Lab has been up to, and the DPLA and other things. I’ve mostly seen him in contexts where he was talking to non-librarians so it was fun to see him explaining a lot of these big idea projects on my home turf.

I’m home for a bit, back to teaching my Know Your Mac classes, staffing drop-in time, filling in at the public library and waiting for my book to be in print [this week, here's hoping] and then travelling to Portland at the end of the month for the Oregon Virtual Reference Summit.

Notes/slides/audio from my digital divide panel at SXSW

This year SXSW got the audio up from the panels very quickly. This panel isn’t mostly me, it’s mostly my two co-panelists Fiona Morgan and Justin Grimes talking about the other non-library issues surrounding how and why people can or can’t get access to broadband internet. If you’re interested in this sort of thing, you might like it. The panel went well, was well attended and started a lot of conversations that I think still need to be happening. I myself was without decent internet here at home for the past week since I got back from SXSW (I switched ISPs and had some in-between time where I “only” had access via my iphone and local wifi including, yes, the library) and it changed my life patterns more than I even thought it would. Interesting times.

Here are the slides (mine and Fiona’s and the text of my talk) and here is the panel page on the SXSW page which has the audio link after the blurb.

it’s tax time again…

And here is some advice I’ve pulled off of the VTLIBRARIES mailing list about tax assistance for people with disabilities. Here is an obligatory link to an article outlining the effect on some public libraries (in Maine in this case) who are dealing with the fact that people are not getting mailed paper tax forms unless they request them. Currently about 70% of Americans file their taxes electronically.

“Hundreds of the most popular federal tax forms and publications are available for download from IRS.gov for sight impaired individuals. These products range from talking tax forms to Braille formats, and are accessible using screen reading software, refreshable Braille displays and voice recognition software. Click on the links below to download these forms and publications:

Download Accessible Tax Forms (Braille and Text Formats)
Download Accessible Tax Publications (Braille and Text Formats)
Download Accessible Talking Tax Forms

Download Tax Instructions (Large Print Format)
Download Tax Publications (Large Print Format)

The IRS also offers customer service assistance for persons who are deaf or who have hearing disabilities. People with TTY equipment may call 800-829-4059, which is a toll-free number, for assistance.

People who are unable to complete their tax return because of a physical disability may get assistance from an IRS office, or through the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance Program (VITA) sponsored by the IRS. Taxpayers can find a nearby location by calling 1-800-906-9887 or checking the partial list on the IRS’s website.

Publication 907, Tax Highlights for Persons with Disabilities, explains the tax implications of certain disability benefits and other issues, and is available at IRS.gov.

Visit www.IRS.gov and click on the word “accessibility” for help and information.

VT library stats & pitiful stories from the digital divide

The Boston Globe [via Associated Press] has a short article comparing bringing broadband to rural America to the rural electrification program which finally wired up the last of Vermont towns in the early 60s. The story is what you would expect, except that it’s a little maddening that the options offered are 1. wait for broadband and suffer with dial-up, or 2. nothing. The byline of East Burke points to a town with a teeny library that is open 12 hours per week. West Burke has a larger library but it’s still not large enough to have a website. According to the VT Department of Libraries’ statistics it doesn’t have a single public access computer. Lyndon is the closest town with high speed at their library. Not too far, but still several miles.

Doing a quick autofilter on the DoL’s list shows 183 public libraries in the state of Vermont. Ten have dial-up internet access. Thirteen have nothing. Seventy-five libraries have no wireless internet access. It’s possible I’m reading the statistics wrong, but this is fewer libraries with internet than in 2009. I sure hope I am reading the charts wrong.

Dial-up user Val Houde knows this as well as anybody. After moving here four years ago, the 51-year-old mother of four took a correspondence course for medical transcription, hoping to work from home. She plunked down $800, took the course, then found out the software wasn’t compatible with dial-up Internet, the only kind available to her.

Selling items on eBay, watching videos, playing games online? Forget it. The connection from her home computer is so slow, her online life is one of delays, degraded quality, and “buffering’’ warning messages. So she waits until the day a provider extends broadband to her house.

“You May See an Increase in Patrons” – IRS kicks paper tax filers out of the nest.

We can talk about whether there’s really a problem with people not knowing how to use a computer in the abstract. I think my life is enriched by having access to and knowledge about technology, but it’s tough to make the argument that lack of access/knowledge makes other people’s lives worse. That is, until people suddenly need to find a way to get tax forms so that they can file their mandatory tax reporting, or they need to learn to do their taxes online. That is, if they know how to use a computer. The IRS sent this update in September (pdf). I don’t know about your library but many of ours don’t get paper forms either. Brian talked about the hilarity that is the IRS’s understatement “You May See an Increase in Patrons”

With the continued growth in electronic filing and to help reduce costs, the IRS will no longer mail paper tax packages that typically arrive in January of each year. If you still wish to use a paper form, the IRS has several options available to help you obtain paper copies of individual forms and instructions, including:
● Accessing our forms and instructions online at IRS.gov. You can quickly download the latest products from our site.
● Dropping by your local IRS Taxpayer Assistance Center.
● Going to your local post office or library (if they participate in the federal tax products program) [emphasis mine.

So hey, 2011 is around the corner. We should probably get ready for this.