The effects of injustices from the 1930s, when banks refused to provide loans to communities with a high concentration of minority residents, persist today, as systemic inequality continues to limit access to an equitable stake in the future. These communities were also targets of subprime mortgages over the past 10 years and are now subject to a newer and more pervasive form of oppression: the growing digital divide.
The technology gap in Baltimore City is contributing to the larger geographical, economical, cultural and social divisions between haves and have-nots. A recent community survey conducted by the University of Maryland and supported by Mindgrub found that only 39 percent of West Baltimore residents have access to broadband internet in their homes, and that the No. 1 most requested smart city service among those residents is access to free wifi.
Informational kiosks, smart trash cans, and smart LED light poles, once touted as solutions to this issue, have only been implemented in downtown Baltimore, leaving those with the greatest need without access.
Furthermore, Baltimore City public school students risk falling behind with only limited exposure to online research and learning, and while innovative "last mile" transportation options are catching on and expanding in certain parts of the city, they are not always readily available or affordable to all residents, often requiring smartphone apps for operation.
It’s difficult to imagine a student, parent, job seeker or professional being successful without regular access to information, technology and transportation.
Private companies often claim that it is economically infeasible to expand their products or services to marginalized neighborhoods, as community members’ ability to pay may not provide a significant enough return on the company’s investment. If this sounds like a familiar argument, it’s because it is; it’s the original and self-fulfilling “logic” behind the unfair treatment of underserved communities in the past.
That’s why we need to innovate — quickly — with equity top of mind.
To that end, we are happy to help design and implement equitable technology programs as part of Baltimore’s new Smart City initiatives. Mayor Catherine Pugh, with the help of her new CIO, Frank Johnson, and Deputy Chief of Operations Shonte Eldridge, has created this task force, comprised of government officials, community leaders, educators and technologists.
As part of our strategic plan, we are crafting a new vision for Baltimore’s technology platforms and practices. It will have key pillars around access to the internet and will generate serious and coordinated approaches to education, community health, transportation, workforce development and public safety.
Existing programs like digital information kiosks that serve as wifi hotspots (funded by advertising revenue), smart lighting and electric vehicles are a great start, but they need to be introduced citywide (just like water and electricity). The push for statewide 5G, championed by the Maryland Tech Council, AT&T and others can also provide broadband access without the need to run additional lines.
We need to keep learning from the mistakes of the past. Our city needs to require and facilitate the equitable distribution of modern and innovative technology, a self-evident platform for access to the present, to the immediate future, and to upward mobility, or problems like unemployment and crime will continue to compound.
Todd Marks (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the founder and CEO of Mindgrub and the chairman of the Board of the Maryland Technology Council. He is an infrastructure-focused lead on the Smart Cities task force for the City of Baltimore. Andre Robinson is the executive director of the Mount Royal Community Development Corporation and Innovation Villages, and serves as a community-focused lead on the Smart Cities task force for the City of Baltimore.