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Baltimore grapples with including poor residents in smart city ambitions

Graphic displaying findings from a focus group as part of research into including low-income neighborhoods in smart city technology expansion. (Maryland Institute College of Art/Lucinda Levine)

Graphic displaying findings from a focus group as part of research into including low-income neighborhoods in smart city technology expansion. (Maryland Institute College of Art/Lucinda Levine)

There’s a particular image Sheri Parks recalls from researching what residents in Baltimore’s low-income neighborhoods want from smart cities technology: children, crowded around school buildings after dismissal, with cellphones out, doing homework because of limited access to fast, reliable Wi-Fi at home or in their neighborhood.

“They’re not spending a lot of time thinking about what they don’t have. They’re using what they do have to full capacity,” said Parks, Maryland Institute College of Art’s vice president of strategic communications.

The demand for quality internet connections topped the list of what residents of poor areas want as Baltimore tries to solve the puzzle of how smart cities technologies can improve the lives of all residents. Wi-Fi was particularly important because residents depend on smartphones, with limited prepaid data plans, to get online.

Researchers from four local educational institutions, led by the University of Maryland, gathered Thursday at the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond’s Baltimore branch to discuss their findings as part of a collaboration with the mayor’s office to create a plan guiding Baltimore’s efforts to becoming a model smart city.

Smart cities are urban communities that use data and technology to boost efficiency, improve services and enhance quality of life. Examples of such technologies range from free public Wi-Fi to parking apps that alert residents to the nearest available space.

These technologies, however, have the ability to create what academics call a “digital divide,” increasing disparities in areas such as income and health.

An ongoing survey of west Baltimore residents by the National Center for Smart Growth Research & Education produced preliminary findings that 68 percent of residents most often access the internet via smartphone. The survey focused on an area where 92 percent of residents are African American, 25.4 percent have at least a bachelor’s degree and the unemployment rate is 15.6 percent.

Roughly 20 percent of those surveyed said they do not have regular access to a computer. The top reason for using the internet, 68 percent, was for homework. The next two most common reasons, tied at 62 percent, were to watch videos or use social media platform Snapchat. Only 29 percent said they use the internet to search for work, 15 percent to read e-books and 6 percent to pay bills.

Researchers in Baltimore, using tools such as surveys, focus groups, and available city data, are trying to identify how to best include low-income neighborhoods as the city pursues the goal of becoming a national model for smart cities.

Shonte Eldridge, Baltimore’s deputy chief of operations and smart cities initiatives, admits the city is behind in adopting technology compared to other cities. Factor in financial limitations, poverty and bureaucracy, and catching up only becomes more difficult.

“Procurement in the city is not fun. You need a Ph.D. in procurement to get things bought,” Eldridge said during her keynote address Thursday.

But with patience, partnerships with private entities and the city preparing itself for the task at hand, Eldridge argued Baltimore can be a leading smart city. These technologies, she said, are more than just Wi-Fi or smart street lights: They’re keys to tackling pressing issues like clean air and streamlining the often-arduous mass-transit commute between east and west Baltimore.

“Our mayor is not patient,” she said, referring to Mayor Catherine Pugh. “When I say ‘time’ I don’t mean years. I mean months.”

Residents of low-income areas remain skeptical Baltimore will extend smart cities technology to benefit them, said Parks, who presented findings from the engagement team. Residents are primarily focused on handling the chaos, or what she said they refer to as “the mess,” in their neighborhoods. Her research found residents largely believe city government will not make decisions that served their best interests.

Mass transit that can only be relied on to be unreliable, crime and limited access to decent food, Parks said, has left residents struggling to create “order in a chaotic existence.”

In many poor black areas, she added, communities have already embraced an informal “gifting economy.” Wi-Fi access often involves a neighbor who can afford wireless internet leaving their connection unlocked so neighbors can sign on from outside their house.

“I don’t think they’re waiting on the government (to provide access). I think they’re resigned to it not coming from the government,” Parks said.


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