Building a Digital City for All

As Chicago moves toward a tech-driven future, officials want to make sure no resident is left behind.

By Marty Graham, Contributor

When Chicago committed to becoming a smart city, officials worried that the digital divide between residents would deepen. No city can thrive when a wide swath of people are left behind, and individuals whose access to data innovations is limited—by factors like physical disabilities, aging, cognitive challenges, and language barriers—are particularly at risk.

“People with limited access face problems that cut across all of what a city does.”

—Karen Tamley, Chicago’s commissioner of the Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities

Because people who face these challenges often aren’t using—much less giving feedback on—smart city technology development, tech officials aren’t always aware that residents are struggling to be heard, helped, and included, explains Karen Tamley, Chicago’s commissioner of the Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities.

“People with limited access face problems that cut across all of what a city does,” continues Tamley, who oversees a staff of 28 and reports directly to the mayor. “When we think of city hall now, it’s virtual city hall, where residents can [use their phones and computers to] find information they need, track when the next bus [arrives], pay a water bill or a speeding ticket, apply for a permit, or arrange to attend a city event.”

But what about Chicagoans who don’t have a seat at the digital table?

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“It’s a challenge to ensure technology is accessible,” says Tamley, noting that, while people with disabilities have federal protections thanks to the Americans with Disabilities Act, the challenges they face resemble those of many other people who can’t or don’t go online.

Aging, for instance, can lead to fixed income, social isolation, and mobility issues—all common barriers to tech adoption. Meanwhile, learning disabilities like dyslexia, as well as mental illness and brain injury, can similarly complicate use and access. Language barriers—think logging on to public computers that use an English alphabet keyboard when a user’s native alphabet is Cyrillic, Arabic, or Chinese—and poverty are also well-documented barriers to digital equality.

“No one ever set out to create an inaccessible city, business, or website…Everyone benefits from inclusivity.”

—James Thurston, vice president of global strategy and development, G3ic

In a city-wide effort to ensure all residents were included in the tech leap forward, the Windy City announced its partnership with Microsoft and two nonprofits, G3ict and World Enabled, in October, 2018.

“No one ever set out to create an inaccessible city, business, or website,” says James Thurston, vice president of global strategy and development at G3ict. “They just weren’t aware that they were leaving anyone out. Everyone benefits from inclusivity. It’s a matter of creating awareness.”

Smart Beginnings

Chicago dove into smart city initiatives in 2016 with the launch of Array of Things, a city-wide sensor deployment effort. The city installed data-gathering boxes on light poles, with the goal of setting up 500 boxes in the 227-square-mile city and the first 200 by the end of 2019. The boxes include cameras and sensors to detect hyperlocal data—such as unhealthy airborne gases, temperature, and traffic conditions via vibrations—that’s then transmitted to the Department of Innovation and Technology (DoIT) in real time.

Much of this information can be viewed on the city’s open data portal, which was first launched in 2011 under then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel. Officials are using the city’s data sets, ranging from street-sweeping schedules and planning department applications, to make data-informed decisions on everything from preventing traffic jams to helping people avoid pollution-induced asthma.

While increased efficiencies and cost-cutting are immediate and achievable goals, city officials have been concerned that marginalized communities don’t always reap the benefits. This has pushed the city’s techies to democratize internet usage at home and in public spaces.

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The DoIT and Chicago’s 81 public libraries have made more than 3,000 computers available to the public; they’ve improved Wi-Fi access at city facilities and let residents borrow portable mobile hotspots. The city’s departments have teamed up to organize more than 100,000 one-on-one mentoring sessions on internet navigation, and continue to work to close broadband gaps. Meanwhile, Tamley’s staffers seek out residents whose lack of computer and internet skills are a barrier to participating in Chicago’s vibrant culture and economy, and look to identify other challenges—including disabilities, reading difficulties, language barriers, and poverty—that are at play.

The significant effort and commitment by officials like Tamley made Chicago a good partner for G3ict, Thurston says.

“[Through this process, we’re realizing] the broad range of services that are critical to residents,” says Thurston. “Emergency response, education, and health and human services programs are increasingly using technology for things [Chicagoans] rely on every day. But if those functions are only available online on a platform that wasn’t designed with users facing [certain] challenges in mind—it isolates people from services they need and expect.”

One in four adults have a disability that affects important life activities, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a figure that increases in seniors, affecting 40 percent of adults over 65. Furthermore, the CDC notes, mobility-related disabilities are the most common, with one in seven adults affected. The employment rate for disabled people is less than half that of other adults, and their incomes average about a third less than people who do not have disabilities, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

To tackle these statistics, Chicago officials partnered with Thurston’s organization and became the first city in the world to use G3ict’s newest tool: the Smart City Digital Inclusion Maturity Model.

Measuring Inclusivity

As cities across the world recognize the urgent need to include residents of all abilities and demographics in their tech revolutions, Thurston’s work at G3ict to develop inclusive tech has taken him to Sao Paolo, Mexico City, and Guadalajara this past year alone.

In a 2016 study, G3ict found that 60 percent of respondents believed smart cities were leaving millions of people behind; that about 25 percent of disabled people do not access the internet, compared to 8 percent of the general population; and that few cities, if any, have built inclusion into their smart city plans.

Not only do people with disabilities have less access to smart city advances, they are often left out of the data underlying the advances, Thurston says. Cities often aren’t aware of that underrepresentation, how likely and common it is, and how the lack of data skews outcomes from using the data they do have.

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“Whenever you look at cities that are deploying technology for transformation, what you see is that it often doesn’t work well for people with disabilities, people with cognitive challenges, and older persons,” he says. “But it can work well.”

The Smart City Digital Inclusion Maturity Model rates how a city or institution is performing after intensive interviews, site visits, and analysis, in addition to examining whether the data and technology being used are unintentionally creating barriers. While the report is confidential, the assessment team helps the city with a defined roadmap forward.

Sometimes what they find is a system beyond tweaking.

“There are citizen engagement tools—like the 311 system—[which] push information out to people, but also [get] information from people—for example, [residents] reporting a broken streetlight or that their trash wasn’t picked up,” he says. Without naming names, he continues, “one city had developed a pretty leading-edge system, but gave absolutely no thought to whether or not someone with [cognitive challenges] could use it. They discovered later that they’d excluded a whole segment of the city.”

And as Tamley aptly notes, it’s important to remember that people who aren’t facing limitations now very well may be in the future—permanently or temporarily. Aging, mental and physical illness, injury, poverty can happen to anyone.

Equalizing Innovation

“Chicago took some really great steps to include the community, to test their plans so they engaged users. They are tracking usability issues and have proactive processes in place to make sure their data and technology work in different communities,” Thurston says.

Tamley sees part of her office’s mission as getting as many people online as possible—with smartphones that talk to blind people, for instance. But it’s also important to make sure that every city website—every piece of technology that brings the city to its residents—works for all residents.

For example, the city has about two dozen self-serve payment kiosks in police stations and city buildings, and a library. Not only did the kiosks not work very well for low-vision individuals, they helped identify another minority group facing a barrier to online access: those without bank accounts. The city estimates that about seven percent of residents don’t use online money services.

“Sometimes you can retrofit and re-engineer, like adding audio to the kiosks,” Tamley says. “[Other times], you have to start over.”

Tamley and her staff spend a lot of time looking for people with challenges, as they realize that the biggest problem individuals face is not knowing what’s available to them and how to get it. People with limitations that could be mitigated—whether language, financial or physical—tend not to demand help, and innovators tend not to think about them.

“The pursuit of innovation can leave people behind because the process itself really does not give a lot of thought to inclusion, so we are providing tools and training developers to make sure there’s more diversity—including giving our innovators mentors with disabilities,” Thurston says.

Once an organization recognizes and embraces the importance of including everyone in advances, change comes with surprising ease and openness, Thurston believes.

“The biggest challenge to date remains awareness,” he continues. “They are not setting up to exclude people, it’s that they don’t realize that, [by applying strategic thinking], they can design and deploy technologies that really are accessible to everyone.”