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A Conversation With Sara Wedeman About the  Route from ‘Here’ to ‘There’

This interview was inspired by April’s discussions relating to the efforts of Connected Communities, Inc., Broadbandcensus.com and Rachelle Chong. Having submitted a series of analyses to NTIA during the “public comments” phase of the development process, Sara has a lot to say about how mapping should be done, and why it is so important to do it well.

The interview (available here) focuses on three essential themes:

How to, and how not to do broadband mapping;

Methods for making the mapping process a substantive and meaningful part of the NTIA-BTOP program; and

The connection between connectivity, civil liberties, and prosperity.

We begin by discussing research and mapping. These are astoundingly complex exercises, that should not be undertaken without the development of a sound methodology. Using population density as a case in point, Sara focuses on two examples.

In the first we examine an urban zip code, Philadelphia’s 19104. In this case, using the wrong unit of geographic measurement (the zip code), distorts our understanding of just about everything. Zip codes were designed to facilitate mail delivery, not the measurement of complex, technical issues like ‘lumpy’ adoption and exclusivity of access. If we fail to consider population density (which we will do if we assess urban broadband access at the zip code level), we risk making sweeping and just plain wrong assumptions about who has access to broadband and who does not.

Next and by way of contrast, we cover a rural example, deconstructing West Virginia’s first congressional district. This district includes 20 counties spanning the northern part of the state and abutting Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Maryland. Starting at the state level, the first district appears to be the most densely populated of the state’s three congressional districts. However, ‘smoothing’ the data at this level obscures the fact that most of the district’s seemingly denser population is located in just two census tracts in the city of Wheeling. Wheeling is located at the confluence of the Ohio River and several tributaries, which raised some interesting observations about the interconnected nature of topography, communication pathways, and trade routes.

The important point is that unless one knows how to do this type of research, there is a large danger that the above-referenced issues will be overlooked, resulting in a misleading portrayal of the true state of connectivity in areas both urban and rural.

But broadband mapping is not just about geography. More importantly, it is about people living in geographic space. We cannot conduct a credible mapping exercise without talking to people; asking them about their perceptions and experiences of high speed Internet access. This methodological requirement demonstrates why a few short questions on these topics should be included in the upcoming Decennial Census.

If done well, broadband mapping will be a tremendously sound investment. Its contributions will not stop with locating unserved and under-served communities and creating a national map. It will also help in diagnosing, and presumably redressing, the many causes of service blockage — which are likely to vary based on both social and geographic factors. Moreover, mapping has the potential to help infrastructure providers develop build-out strategies that literally reflect the ‘lay of the land.’

The next thread of the conversation focuses on the relationship between connectivity, the Five Freedoms, and prosperity. The impetus behind our mapping exercise resonates strongly with the work of Amartya Sen, 1998 Nobel Laureate in Economics. Sen won the Nobel for exposing the explicit connection between the availability of accurate, timely information and the availability of food (or lack thereof) by analyzing conditions surrounding a series of famines in Bangladesh. His later work showed that the protection of civil liberties, the ability to participate in the timely, unfettered, exchange of information and opinion, as well as transparency on the part of society’s institutions (along with two other freedoms) were critical to the health and wealth of nations. These, he called the “Five Freedoms.”

On a macro scale, connectivity, trade, and prosperity are deeply and closely related to one another. Although Sen did not refer specifically to the Internet, it seems clear that the Internet offers an unprecedentedly speedy, open vehicle for exchange of the type that Sen describes – that is, as long as it is ubiquitously accessible and free from the control of society’s most powerful institutions. Consider his words: “it lies in the obligation of States to guarantee or promote a climate of open and plural public debate, and to correct a situation in which these characteristics are absent or distorted.”

This, of course, brings us back to broadband mapping, connectivity, and trade. Waterways - particularly points of confluence between several waterways - were the original highways, communication pathways, and nodes on networks of trade routes. River valleys, protected by topography and vegetation, were and are naturally-occurring shipping channels, outstanding conduits for the free and unfettered flow of information, and homes to markets where one could buy and sell goods and services. That is why so many major cities were formed on their banks.

To the extent that the nation chooses a high quality, granular, multi-modal approach to broadband mapping, this exercise will provide us with value that far exceeds its original cost. When combined and properly analyzed, data collected during the mapping process will help us identify patterns and points of leverage, both geographic and social. This knowledge will, in turn, be vital to crafting effective strategies for infrastructure installation and technology adoption — goals that embody very spirit and intent of the Obama Administration’s Stimulus Package.

One Response to “Broadband Mapping, Connectivity, the Five Freedoms, and Prosperity”

  1. […] Meanwhile I did an interview with Sara on her methodology which I summarized here. It is discussed here. This link will give you the complete interview in PDF […]

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