Facilitating Public-Private Partnerships for Digital Equity and Inclusion in Kansas City, Missouri

I am Assistant City Manager for Small Business & Entrepreneurship at the City of Kansas City, Missouri. At first blush, it may not seem likely that this role would have led me to assist in facilitating the City’s digital inclusion efforts. However, an analysis of the positive economic benefits of enabling all residents and businesses to fully realize the possibilities available to them via the Internet underscores the importance of these initiatives to the City. In fact, the Digital Equity Strategic Plan we are drafting for City Council consideration highlights the “path from digital inclusion to economic mobility and entrepreneurship” (one of the local policies of the Kansas City Entrepreneurship Policy Map) as its central theme. This path includes the traditional “three-legged stool of digital inclusion” (connectivity, computing device, digital life skills training)1 as step one, enabling residents to become consumers of the Internet, but goes further. The traditional approach often sets a goal of people being able to access the Internet to apply for jobs. We are expanding on this approach to support residents becoming more than consumers—becoming learners, digital citizens, employees, and entrepreneurs through the use of freely available online outlets and services such as Khan Academy and TED Talks.

JoDML, Figure 1 - City of Kansas City’s path from digital inclusion to economic mobilityFigure 1. The City of Kansas City’s path from digital inclusion to economic mobility

  1. Consumer – broadband access, computing devices, and digital Literacy (traditional three-legged stool of digital inclusion)
  2. Learner – education, lifelong learning, and distance learning
  3. Digital Citizen – digital citizenship and civic technology
  4. Employee – computer technical skills, workforce training, and distance working
  5. Entrepreneur – business creation, job creation, and home-based business

In Kansas City, we are curating an online Community Learning Center at wikikc.org. We are also documenting the success of our residents in following this path. One recent example is documented in the KCLibrary Trey Redrick Story.

The City of Kansas City, Missouri’s activities in digital inclusion ramped up with the initial efforts to submit a response to Google Fiber’s Fiber for Communities Request for Information in 2010. I was assigned to facilitate the City’s response and quickly determined that this must be an open and collaborative effort in order to successfully submit information that reflected the desires of the community. In the end, we had 117 collaborators in drafting the response. The story of our success in attracting Google Fiber to the KC region2 is well told in many publications, but key to this article is the resulting focus the City developed for digital inclusion. Today, we are happy to say that Google Fiber gigabit Internet services are available to more than 210,861 households across the city limits, including more than 440,375 of our city’s 464,000 residents. While Google Fiber does not share subscriber information with the City, we know from our analysis of Census Data that gigabit services are available to residents of economically distressed neighborhoods. Most importantly, Kansas City, MO, and Kansas City, KS, assisted Google in quickly proving their gigabit Internet fiber to the home project to be a viable business model, and this has led to twenty-two cities in the Kansas City metro area entering agreements for fiber deployment. This project is making the Kansas City region America’s first gigabit Internet region.3

I am writing a lot about Google Fiber and this is due to the fact that they are doing more for digital inclusion efforts in Kansas City than any other internet service provider (ISP) serving the region:

  • Google Fiber has launched the Digital Inclusion Fund at the Greater Kansas City Community Foundation.
  • Google Fiber has partnered with NTEN to sponsor the Digital Inclusion Fellowship program which places two full-time Fellows in local digital inclusion programs.
  • Google Fiber has provided 300 Community Connections to schools, libraries, community centers, and city government buildings.
  • Google Fiber offers fifteen-dollar-per-month symmetric 25-mbps Internet speeds available to residents of selected fiberhoods.
  • Through ConnectHome, Google Fiber will be connecting more than 1,300 residents of the Kansas City, Missouri, Housing Authority with free gigabit Internet services and has built six Google Access Lounges (community learning centers) at Housing Authority properties.

In Kansas City, we are building a strong digital engagement ecosystem that includes a multitude of stakeholders and partnerships that are all benefitting from their participation. At City Hall, Mayor Sly James and his Policy Director, McClain Bryant, share this view that incredible economic mobility opportunities are available to our citizens through digital inclusion and reinforce this concept through various policy initiatives. Most notably, Mayor James made a compelling call to action at TechWeekKC for our corporate citizens to become deeply engaged in digital inclusion by stressing the importance of digital inclusion in growing our tech sector.4 The Mayor’s Office also leads the charge on Kansas City’s participation in federal initiatives such as ConnectHome, TechHire, and LRNG. An example of this leadership is the City’s partnership with The Surplus Exchange in the Digital Upcycling Program. This program is now becoming a national model and eSteward Recyclers across the country.

Building on this political leadership, one of my main roles in City government is connecting and convening people and organizations around shared initiatives and often making needed connections. The City has taken a collaborative approach to our involvement as a founding member of the Kansas City Coalition for Digital Inclusion, taking advantage of our ability to connect and convene stakeholders and new partners for the Coalition’s success.

In my work for the City, I am involved in a number public-private committees and boards engaging our citizens and partnering with the City in one way or another. This interaction gives me a unique opportunity to make connections that have produced some amazing new partnerships. One serendipitous example occurred when I was touring the recently completed Morningstar Family Life Center with Pastor John Modest Miles. When we got to the computer lab, I asked, “Where are the computers?” Pastor Miles shared that he had not been able to work on outfitting the lab with all of the other activities related to completing the center. I contacted Bob Akers at The Surplus Exchange, who has been our strongest partner in bringing refurbished computers to Housing Authority residents through ConnectHome. Bob came to the center the next week, did the tour, and quickly responded, “We can help you with this.” Two weeks later, Bob’s team had not only supplied the computers but also rewired the center’s Internet services to optimize their connectivity. Pastor Miles sent us this photo of the happy kids at the new computers.

JoDML, Figure 2 - Morningstar Family Life CenterFigure 2. Morningstar Family Life Center

The City of Kansas City’s Digital Equity Strategic Plan is in development. We are taking a collaborative approach to creating this plan by engaging key members of the Kansas City Coalition for Digital Inclusion and seek to use this plan to inform the City Council and City departments on how we will further our local digital inclusion objectives. We are considering including the following recommendations of how the City can integrate digital inclusion into existing City activities and support community-led digital inclusion initiatives:

  • Create and support one full-time position as digital equity manager in the City Manager’s Office.
  • Evaluate City department programs for digital inclusion opportunities, including the Health Department’s Community Health Improvement Plan, Parks & Recreation’s programming of Community Center Digital Learning Centers, and Public Works agreements with ISPs and wireless services providers.
  • Sponsor a Hackathon for digital inclusion apps.
  • Expand the Digital Upcycling Program to include Core4 local governments in the region—Jackson County; Johnson County, Kansas; Wyandotte County; Kansas City, Kansas; and Kansas City, Missouri.
  • Build partnership with The Surplus Exchange, eStewards, and Housing and Urban Development to assist in deploying the Kansas City plan for ConnectHome nationally.
  • Expand the Digital Scholars Program with the Full Employment Council to provide entry-level tech jobs and staffing support for our digital inclusion partners, including The Surplus Exchange, DuBois Learning Center, Connecting for Good, and the Kansas City Library.
  • Consider an request for proposals (RFP) for Internet services for Recipients of Minor Home Repair and Weatherization Program projects to enable residents to take advantage of Internet services that will help them get the full financial advantages on energy savings.
  • Continue the City Communications Department’s work on an effort to attract City employees to use paid volunteer time in teaching Digital Citizenship Classes at Connecting for Good and the Kansas City Library.
  • Establish a network of Community Learning Centers among the schools, libraries, and community centers participating in the Community Connections program, including curating an online Community Learning Center at org.
  • Create a pilot program to support the Gigabit Opportunity Zone proposal from FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai.
  • Prepare a Community Connections Challenge to distribute some of the remaining Google Fiber connections to community non-profits serving digital inclusion efforts.

The City’s efforts in digital inclusion have led to participation in a number of national initiatives. These relationships allow us to share ideas across the county with city, state, and federal agencies, as well as digital inclusion practitioners. The City’s investment in these efforts have been successful in allowing us to learn from others and implement strong and effective programs. Kansas City’s participation in these groups and programs includes the following:

In Kansas City, the future for digital inclusion and digital equity is bright. The momentum of technology, job creation, and business creation requires us to be vigilant to ensure that we are identifying clear paths to economic mobility for all our residents. As described, the City’s ability to facilitate public-private partnerships that would not otherwise be possible is critical to this success.

Notes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. Tracy Moore, “The Digital Divide Is Much Wider Than You Think,” The Week, June 24, 2016, http://theweek.com/articles/629994/digital-divide-much-wider-than-think.
  2. Megan Bannister, “How Kansas City Scored the Biggest Technological Coup of the Century,” Silicon Prairie News, March 31, 2014, http://siliconprairienews.com/2014/03/how-kansas-city-scored-the-biggest-technological-coup-of-the-century/.
  3. Google, “Kansas City Fiberhoods,” Google fiber, https://fiber.google.com/explore/kansascity/.
  4. “Mayor Sly James at TechweekKC – September 17, 2015,” YouTube video, 24:48, posted by KC Bizcare, October 6, 2015, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=09ea271vflU&feature=youtu.be.
Rick Usher

About Rick Usher

Rick Usher is Assistant City Manager for Small Business & Entrepreneurship at the City of Kansas City, Missouri. Rick has worked at City Hall for thirty-one years and is currently working on the final draft of the City's Digital Equity Plan. Rick has been involved in all aspects of the City's development agreement with Google Fiber and represents the City on the Steering Council of the Kansas City Coalition for Digital Inclusion.

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