Equitable Adaptation Legal & Policy Toolkit

Participatory Data Collection and Technology Access

In many instances, the ability to collect data electronically depends on the access to the tools and technology, including Internet access, to engage the community in the collection of data. Equitable access to the Internet has multiple benefits beyond building the technological infrastructure to inform policymaking. For example, early studies have demonstrated that there is a relationship between broadband access, health and equity.See footnote 1  By investing in digital infrastructure, cities will contribute to building essential services that can foster economic development, job creation, and an overall better quality of life.

Ensuring Equitable Digital Access

Children sit around a table, each with a laptop as well as paper and markers in front of them and work on schoolwork.
(Source: Seattle Information Technology)

The ability to manage climate risk requires data and knowledge to inform both communities and policymakers. Community access to information must occur before, during, and after a sudden climate hazard. Unfortunately, many of the residents most likely to be overlooked in traditional planning processes and most likely to be impacted by climate-related hazards are also most likely lacking digital access. Low-income communities are often unlikely to make the investment in the devices or Internet subscription services that would provide internet access or lack the training to fully engage those tools.See footnote 2 Ensuring equitable digital access can bridge a gap between low-income, immigrant, and senior residents and policymakers while connecting residents to economic opportunity.

The City of Seattle is actively engaged in a multi-year study and assessment to ensure that all residents have access to equal, affordable, and competitive broadband Internet services while developing innovative business models to fund the initiative.See footnote 3 The Digital Seattle Program identified four key strategies to ensure that every resident has the necessary technologies and skills to participate in digital communications. These include programs that address: (1) skills and training; (2) connectivity through affordable Internet access; (3) resident access to devices including laptops; and (4) application (app) and Online Services.See footnote 4 The program has been effective in reaching hundreds of community-based organizations and low-income residents with free or discounted Internet access and training at public libraries, parks and recreation centers, and senior centers. Seattle collaborated with a user group to assess the city’s website to ensure that online tools were easy to navigate and included voice-activated online services.See footnote 5 Seattle also provided individuals and community organizations with laptops, tablets, and computers to ensure that residents had the equipment for training. Executing the program has been the product of collaboration across multiple agencies including the city’s departments of Economic Development, Information Technology, and Immigrant and Refugee Affairs among other departments.See footnote 6 The city also partnered with private Internet service providers to assist with providing free or discounted subscriptions. Under these programs, Seattle’s overall Internet access penetration is now at 95% up 10 points from 2013 with internet access by phone up from 58% in 2013 to 93% in 2018.See footnote 7 Together the tools and programs offered under the Digital Access Program have helped residents overcome key barriers to digital access and increased access to tools for economic opportunity essential to thriving communities.

Funding and Financing Broadband Access

Funding and financing improved broadband access is an obstacle in low-income communities. Despite the role of federal, state, and local governments in regulating aspects of broadband performance, private companies are the primary owners and operators of broadband infrastructure and ultimately choose the locations for investments and services. Low-income residents are less able to pay for subscription services compared to wealthier residents. As a result, businesses may overlook low-income communities after concluding that risking the capital to build infrastructure in these areas is unlikely to provide a sufficient return on investment. Although the federal government has provided some grants through 50 federal broadband programs, like the HUD ConnectHome Program and the Healthcare Connect Fund administered by the Federal Communication Commission (FCC), that make broadband build-out and service costs more affordable, overcoming the cost barrier to low-income communities remains a challenge.See footnote 8

Cities are developing a number of innovative and tiered approaches to funding the build-out of broadband to increase access to residents. In 2019, Governor Jay Inslee of Washington signed a bill that established the state’s Broadband Office with the goal of providing broadband access to all residents of the state by 2024.See footnote 9 With an initial budget of $21 million, the office plans to attract funding through a combination of federal grants and loans to ensure that all residents have reliable Internet access. State-led programs with direct access to federal programs may provide a first tier of funding but cities, like Seattle, have developed a variety of public-private partnerships leasing arrangements and other collaborations to pool funding to finance broadband investment.

There are several key public-private partnership (PPP) investment structures that have aided local governments to fund broadband access that include:

  • Private investment/public facilitation: this (PPP) arrangement is a model where the public sector entity can encourage greater private sector investment. Google Fiber, the Internet service provider operating in a handful of cities, offers competitive access relative to other larger internet service providers.See footnote 10 
  • Private execution, public funding: this model mirrors the municipal utility ownership model and while significant logistical barriers are removed, the public entity provides the primary investment structure while the private entity provides the execution of the business.
  • Shared investment and risk: this model is an arrangement between the public entity and the private interest where the parties conduct a risk, benefits, and control assessment of how they would share in the capital, operating, and maintenance costs of a broadband network.

Each of these approaches provides municipalities with the opportunity to benefit from the expertise and technical knowledge of private interests while providing essential services and ensuring digital access to all residents.

Considerations of Data & Metric Tools


  • Digital access to low-income communities can both inform the communication infrastructure for effective adaptation planning processes while ensuring communities have the tools for job searches, remote learning and telecommuting, and other economic opportunities.
  • Data and metric tools can direct policymakers to engage in communities where the costs of adaptation are more likely to exceed the financial capacity of underserved and low-income residents.


  • Software that pinpoints areas with an increased incidence of pollution and historic environmental degradation can prioritize areas for adaptation planning.
  • Access to the Internet may also provide residents with the tools to monitor and report environmental conditions. 


  • Ensuring that the community has access to the tools and technology to contribute to and engage in participatory geospatial data fosters community engagement and improves the quality of data for planning purposes.
  • Access to online resources provides the community with the tools to contribute to the collection and reporting of data and metrics.  Community access also expands the ability for policymakers to measure, manage, and highlight the benefits of adaptation planning processes while enhancing transparency by sharing and reporting outcomes.
  • Digital access provides communities a platform for holding governments accountable for whether or not the implementation of the policy was actually responsive to the needs and concerns of the community.


  • Providing communities with information about climate hazards before, during, and after they occur can help local officials identify and disseminate information to residents most in need of policy intervention.
  • Cities and local governments can develop training programs to facilitate community engagement, and improved data collection and metric selection to build community capacity.


  • State legislation and city ordinances can direct planners to prioritize the use of specific data sets and direct agencies to include data in planning and decisionmaking.
  • Municipalities can review the regulatory requirements for permitting processes and other rules that can help incentivize investment in broadband infrastructure and equipment by broadband Internet service providers.

Lessons Learned

  • Equitable Digital Access is essential for providing communities access to information about climate hazards before, during, and after a hazard event.
  • Comprehensive Digital Access programs can include access to low cost or free subscriptions for services, devices including laptops and tablets, and training to ensure that all residents have access to tools that can foster social cohesion and economic opportunity.
  • Funding arrangements to expand Digital Access can include public-private partnerships between a state or local government and a private interest to share the risks, benefits, and control of the infrastructure project. Additional funding is typically pooled from a combination of state and federal grants and loans and philanthropic investment.



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