Commentary: Geospatial data visualizations don't just help communities understand issues, but can also identify the most effective policy, says Esri's urban analytics lead.
The repeal of net neutrality regulations at the federal level has left many parts of the United States with a potential challenge. Will a less competent national oversight allow internet service providers (ISPs) to charge rates that will adversely affect more vulnerable, low-income communities, which already suffer from a lack of access to high-speed internet?
Several states have answered the challenge of this digital divide by introducing legislation at the local level. Three of the states that have introduced their own net neutrality bills are also states which contain “internet deserts” — ZIP codes shown, using location intelligence, to contain adults with the lowest access to high-speed internet in the nation. With this same technology, and also incorporating data on ISP access and experience, social services, quality of life context, and more, we can see whether these new state-level regulations will have been a success in the future.
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has signed what is called a memorandum of understanding with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). This means that while the agencies will officially split the charge of regulating, the FTC carries the sole duty of ensuring that ISPs don’t abuse the policy. Since the FTC lacks the expertise or technical experience to handle many issues inherent to telecommunications and data network management, this new policy direction could make the digital divide even greater, cutting off access to what has become a vital information lifeline to the nation’s most vulnerable populations. Since the internet is used in just about every retail and financial transaction today, this puts anyone without equal access at a severe economic disadvantage.
While the direct consequences of the FCC’s actions are uncertain now, the digital divide exists already, and without proper oversight, ISPs might aggravate the problems that vulnerable communities already grapple with in accessing high-speed internet.
This is why it is crucial to monitor these potential problems down the road.
A spatial analytics tool using population data along with a high-speed internet at home variable, mapped 10 ZIP codes in the US with the highest population but lowest penetration of high-speed internet access. These areas were then geoenriched to pull demographic statistics like population and median income, as well as the predominant internet uses. The idea behind creating this map was to visualize the parts of the country that have already been left behind. From this picture we can identify what these areas have in common, and what they don’t.
Since the repeal of net neutrality legislation at the federal level, 19 states have proposed bills or executive orders specifically written to protect citizens from the consequences of FCC negligence. The legislation that has already been introduced, and which is growing in nearly half the country, aims to ensure that citizens — particularly ones from vulnerable communities — have access to high-speed internet, notwithstanding the new federal regulatory structure.
As Esri’s internet deserts map shows, California, Tennessee, and South Carolina all contain areas where adults have the lowest access to high-speed internet in the US. These states all happen to have proposed bills that contain specific language intending to foster equal access to high-speed internet by preventing ISP throttling of service.
The same mapping tools that were used to produce the analytics on internet deserts can also be used to show the effect of these proposed legislations on their communities over time. Location intelligence is the perfect tool to understand how a law has affected a population and where it has been most effective.
After performing analyses on the states that have instituted their own laws in three or five years, we can even make prescriptive determinations for other, similar communities. If a bill that was passed in South Carolina improved access to high-speed internet over time, similarly structured laws could be instituted with the same success in other areas that had the same location characteristics and demographics.
But the importance of using these mapping and analytics tools don’t just end with the fight to maintain net neutrality. Ultimately, the ability to understand how policy affects people and geography can only be seen over time, and visualizing these changes allows policymakers to see exactly what works and what doesn’t, and where these types of prescriptions for the public can be successful. Location intelligence doesn’t just allow governments to see whether what they are doing is working or not. It allows them to use this data to predict what will work in the future.