According to a recent study, 32 percent of Chicago’s residents are not online. The main reasons are cost, skills, and interest. Unfortunately, this affects our residents’ ability to fully participate with their communities and hampers their access to critical information and services. The bottom line: Being online matters.

To help address this, Mayor Emanuel announced that Chicago would serve as a pilot city in Connect2Compete’s national EveryoneOn campaign that aims to address cost as a barrier to broadband adoption. More than 1.1 million Chicagoans will now be eligible for new low-cost wireless Internet service. This new program builds on the success of the Comcast Internet Essentials initiative the Mayor announced in 2011.

And last week, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) released its Broadband Adoption Toolkit to help connect Americans to resources, education tools, and best practices to get people online, build digital skills, and increase their access to jobs, education, health care, and other vital services.

We’re excited that NTIA’s Toolkit highlights two Chicago projects as best practices. The first is the Local Initiative Support Corporation’s (LISC) Smart Communities broadband awareness campaign which promotes digital access for families, businesses and other institutions in five Chicago neighborhoods: Auburn Gresham, Chicago Lawn, Englewood, Humboldt Park, and Pilsen. The campaign showcases personal stories from individuals that live in these communities to illustrate the advantages of broadband access and digital skills.

The campaign works because Smart Communities uses an interactive approach from the beginning. LISC solicited input from local agencies, non-profits and community leaders to understand community needs and to design the campaign.  The ads featured real residents from the Smart Communities on buses and trains that ran for several months. The Smart Communities team also produced T-shirts, tote bags, buttons and other materials that were distributed to community residents at various events. There was a strong multimedia component, also featuring residents discussing their experiences.

This outreach, combined with training programs, led to more than 32,000 new households across the five neighborhoods obtaining broadband subscriptions. Overall increases in Internet use were 15 percent higher when compared to similar neighborhoods. You can read a study of the impact of the Smart Communities program here (PDF).

The NTIA Toolkit also highlights DePaul University’s Digital Youth Network program. The Digital Youth Network expanded an existing media literacy program to middle school students in several schools in each of the five Smart Communities. Students were offered media arts classes at school as well as optional after-school production “pods” to learn how to use digital tools to make music, write poetry and produce video.

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