Broadband as a public good. Online participation as stakeholder engagement. Physical anchors of the community as network anchors. Planners planning beyond the concrete. Big ideas made a big impression at the April 2013 Burnham Forum on Big Ideas.

Conceived by Anna Ricklin, Manager of the APA's Planning and Community Health Research Center, cofounder of Texican Michelle Lee and senior field analyst at the Open Technology Institute Greta Byrum shared their work and thoughts on community building through information technology.

Lee asked how the digital community helps to form neighborhoods larger than our daily walksheds. Online resources and networks connect us to information about our offices, schools, gyms, bars, or other places we frequent but wouldn't traditionally identify as our neighborhood. Socially, we interact with people online we may never have elsewhere, or would have lost touch with long ago. While critics of these phenomena argue that online encounters limit the sincerity of relationships, most accept the associated opportunities for resource sharing and community activism.

Digital inputs can build something tangible. Lee pointed to the planning for New York City's bikeshare program as an example. In addition to public meetings and charrettes — the traditional methods of stakeholder engagement — an online "suggestion box" of sorts reached a much broader audience. Visitors dropped pins on the "Suggest-a-Station" map; these locations were then endorsed and discussed on the site. Over 10,000 suggestions and over 55,000 endorsements contributed significantly to the program's site selection. Michelle attributed the success of this system to both the immediate visibility of the sites, and the convenience of online response.

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The negative externalities associated with lack of access to broadband are obvious, and it is unfortunately unsurprising that lower income residents who cannot afford individual subscriptions suffer. Greta illustrated this point through an Open Technology Institute project in San Francisco, identifying the overlaps of low broadband home subscriptions with public housing:

Understanding the current state of broadband provision

Enter community-driven wireless networks. In some places, they already exist at the citywide level, such as Berlin's open wireless radio network Freifunk. At the neighborhood scale, the physical pillars of the community serve as nodes (housing wireless routers) which share bandwidth, and with this increased bandwidth, increase internet access to the surrounding community. Churches and schools are often eager to share, and see this sharing as an extension of their missions:

Build around community anchors, strengthening existing relationships

Red Hook Initiative WiFi, in Brooklyn, New York functions solely as a local area network (an intranet). The system stores information on a server locally, and circulates it just within its surrounding geographic area. It recently garnered attention after Superstorm Sandy, when commercial networks failed, but Red Hook users were able to text in their needs to the local system.

Disaster relief in Red Hook after Superstorm Sandy

These projects ask us: how has communication informed the perception of the public good? Depending on how it is distributed, broadband is already functioning as a public good. Certain information and data are too. New points of access, and new ways to connect and share continually shape our lives, and are accompanied by increasing privacy concerns. Particularly as local governments use digital means to engage the public, security is essential. When we expand our definition of public goods, conflicts inevitably pop up.

With broadband as a potential public good, what's next? Or, as we advance as a society, perhaps the more appropriate question is: What isn't a public good?

Elizabeth Felter
APA NOAA Digital Coast Fellow