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Kindred Spirits for Digital Equity in Open Government

I've spent part of the last two days at the MIT-Knight Civic Media Conference, a great festival of ideas pulled together by MIT's Center for Civic Media and the Knight Foundation. Assembled are a group of activists, journalists, policymakers, and hackers, thinking about how they might use technology to create better governments, better policy, and better communities. While school-based education isn't a regular topic of conversation at the conference, I've been finding myself surrounded by many kindred spirits.

In particular, I enjoyed the remarks from Christine Gasper, the executive director at the Center for Urban Pedagogy, in a panel on open government. She made several points that resonated with my own perspectives on inequality in the digital age.

The best urbanists are working to make city services and other government resources accesible to the whole population, not just the affluent and well connected. Gasper argued that "available is not equal to accessible." Putting something online doesn't mean that people can get to it. If we want to engage the full range of people in participatory government, we have to both work to expand access to broadband and computer resources but also engage people with whatever technologies they have. She explains, "If we are going to get to a truly open place, we can't just be digital. Face to face is part of that. Using phones that aren't smart phones, like with Vojo. We use paper -- it's not some weird steampunk thing. Maybe it can start digital but it finds its way into the world in other ways." Without these active efforts to target the populations we most want to reach, opening new doors just makes it ever easier for the same people who self-select and participate in government to have more capacity to influence policy, direct city resources, obtain services and so forth. It's possible that all of these open government tools simply provide conveniences to those already engaged.

To me, these issues in open government resonate deeply with my own thoughts on inequality and open education—you can replace "government" with "education" in that last paragraph and it makes the same sense. Putting something on the Web opens more opportunities for people, but those opportunities will be taken up differentially by the powerful and the non-dominant. If we want to address inequalities, we have to do it very deliberately, using some of the strategies that Gasper articulates. Ultimately, we need a set of design principles in open government and open education that will help ensure that new access to public goods doesn't simply benefit those who already have great access to public goods, whether we're fixing potholes or practicing long division.

Many thanks to Erhardt Graeff and his liveblogging colleagues for capturing the panel on Open Government.

For regular updates, follow me on Twitter at @bjfr and for my publications, C.V., and online portfolio, visit EdTechResearcher.

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