Emerging Technology Plan: Bring the internet to rural Yolo

October 20, 2019

In my most recent reflection, my imagination was captured by the way that a public service providing internet access in New York seemed like just the sort of community-nurturing, forward-thinking service that a modern hyperlinked library ought to nurture. As Hyperlinked Library readings have continued to emphasize the importance of access to technology, I’ve been reminded of the Yolo County Library system—which spans from the more affluent college-educated regions near UC Davis out into more rural farming areas.

When I volunteered at the Yolo County Library in 2016, I got some insight into the way that the split between technology’s “haves” and “have-nots” tends to follow the divide between urban and rural. As West (2014) acknowledged in looking at the “21st Century Digital Divide,” those who are offline (who are more likely to be on the rural side of the aforementioned divide) tend to need specific targeted services that will provide not just access to the technology, but also the understanding, skills, and empowerment necessary to embrace that technology. Looking into the Yolo County Library Facilities Master Plan for 2018-2035 confirmed my impression that the rural areas of Yolo County tend to lack internet access:

“The Library is the sole access point for Internet access in many communities”

-Yolo County Library Facilities Master Plan for 2018-2035, p. 5

This facilities master plan already includes an outline for bringing the library to underserved rural portions of the community via a “Library on Wheels” tech/bookmobile. More than just providing library access to the rural communities beyond the reach of the current physical library spaces, though, I propose having the Yolo County Library system provide computers and WiFi internet access, along with motivation for further community connection by providing education about internet safety and privacy–perhaps even nurturing a community network along the lines of the open source portal in Chattanooga and the international communities organized under netCommons

Goals/Objectives for Internet-mobile:

  • Bring internet access to rural areas in Yolo County
  • Provide basic technology literacy for tech “have-nots” by bringing information literacy to them
  • Spark interest in community networking using new technologies
  • Increase underserved community members’ access to public services (via internet access)
  • Assuage concerns about digital privacy by offering opportunity to work on a local internet project
  • Lay infrastructure for long-term internet connectivity throughout Yolo

Description of Yolo County:

According to the Yolo County Library Facilities Master Plan for 2018-2035, the Yolo County Library system is composed of eight branches, with 104 public computer stations and a staff of 35. The physical library spaces are struggling to keep up with population demands, and the current staff is also stretched thin—a problem that is only likely to get worse in the coming years. The service area population was estimated around 160,000 in 2017 and is estimated to grow to approximately 200,000 by 2035—with most growth occurring in the urban areas where income and education levels are (on average) higher. As of 2017, the median age in Yolo county was 30.9 (which is lower than California’s median age of 35.2) and the median income was $54,989 (lower than the California median of $61,818).

The younger demographics might partly be attributed to the city of Davis—which houses many young adults who attend or have recently graduated from UC Davis—while the lower household income can likely be attributed to the substantial portion of farmworkers and other underserved, non-English speaking groups in more rural areas.

The “outlying areas” of the western region served by the Yolo County Library includes Dunnigan, Rumsey, Guinda, and Capay Valley. These are underserved communities with an estimated population upwards of 2,000 people. There are currently plans to develop funding sources and explore “library service locations” in store fronts and other frequently-visited places, in addition to serving the community via book kiosks, books by mail, and a library on wheels (which will be parked at the West Sacramento Arthur M. Turner Community Library).

The Arthur F. Turner Community Library is the branch from which plans currently state that the bookmobile will be based. The “library on wheels” service is planned to serve the Broderick, Bryte, and Southport areas (though there are plans to serve the above-mentioned “outlying areas” with a bookmobile as well). There is not sufficient parking for the patrons, staff, and planned bookmobile—though having the bookmobile roving rural areas during peak hours could prevent this from being an issue.

The Mary L. Stephens-Davis Branch Library also does not have sufficient parking space, and has been recommended for renovation to address issues of overcrowding. The South Davis Montgomery Branch Library is also not meeting current population needs. The Knights Landing branch was identified as the “main source of high speed internet in the community” as of 2017 (Sweeney & Flug, p. 11). This single beacon of high speed internet reflects a trend in rural areas, one that the American Library Association listed first among the challenges faced by rural America—where broadband services are more expensive and individuals are more likely to access the internet primarily via phones and tablets (p. 3).

Action Brief Statement:

Convince those living in rural portions of Yolo County that by becoming involved in internet outreach services offered alongside traditional library lending from a roving bookmobile they will discover new ways to connect with one another and feel empowered to carve out their own connections online, which will democratize internet access because libraries are more than repositories for books—they are portals into new realms of knowledge and facilitators of community bonds.

Evidence and Resources to support the Internet-mobile:

“…bottom-up initiatives, known as community networks (CNs), have in common that they are not-just-for-profit initiatives that contribute to the social good by sharing knowledge and resources. For example, in Mexico tens of indigenous communities enjoy mobile phone communications thanks to Rhizomatica, an NGO that helps these communities setup the equipment required, and empowers them to manage the infrastructure collectively. In South Africa, Zenzeleni Networks is undertaking action research on complementary means to make CNs in remote rural areas sustainable (sustainability is one of the key challenges of CNs), and in Slovenia, Wlan0 members freely share their surplus of Internet access with their neighbours and passers-by.”

IFLA Trend Report 2018 Update (IFLA, 2018, p. 15)

Affordable community-initiated networks (particularly those in rural environments, similar to the international examples cited in the IFLA trend report update above:

  • netCommons: an exploration of community-based networking as “a complement, or even a sustainable alternative, to the global Internet’s current dominant model”
  • Chattanooga’s Open Data Portal shows the potential for a community to collect and make use of data in a way that is organized and bolstered by the public library
  • MAZI: four Europe-based pilot studies in “location-based collective awareness” serving complementary objectives of improving internet connectivity and supporting local communities (complete with a toolkit that could serve as a template for bringing this connectivity to rural California
  • RIFE: a push toward more affordable internet access with a prototype being tested in Spain

Mission, Guidelines, and Policy related to the Internet-mobile:

Policies will need to be set by the library administration involved in establishing the bookmobile onto which the internet services will be appended. Guidelines for use will need to include some sort of filtering software for the library-provided WiFi to be compliant with CIPA. Patrons of the bookmobile should be educated about their right to ask for such internet filters to be removed, and should be further educated on how to navigate the internet safely (i.e., staying away from viruses, malware, misinformation, phishing, etc.). Formal classes should be planned as much as possible, since “the availability of formal [technology] classes tends to decrease with population density” (ALA, 2017, p. 6).

Plans have already been outlined for connecting all of California’s public libraries to high-speed broadband (Maginnity & Keller, 2014). But these plans are costly and depend largely on the very infrastructure that rural areas tend not to have. The ultimate mission of the internet-mobile will be to motivate the patrons to create their own network using Raspberry Pi, and this community creation—as long as it is created by materials provided by the community members themselves—should be an independent service beyond the scope of library policy.

Funding Considerations for Internet-mobiles:

Since plans are already in place to deploy a tech/bookmobile in the region, the staff time has largely been factored into the organizational planning for the Yolo County Library system. The current bookmobile cost estimate is $250,000 based on custom builds from Farber Specialty Vehicles. Additional funding will be necessary for ensuring the Library on Wheels has the capacity to provide forward-thinking internet service I have in mind, though.

Beyond just the WiFi hotspots themselves (both on the bookmobile and available for checkout), there should be an investment of training the library staff who will be driving the bookmobile and serving as liaisons for the technology they will be offering alongside the more tangible services of the bookmobile. Depending on community members’ enthusiasm for developing a community network, there might also be cause to support community efforts to build their own network independent of the mobile WiFi service being provided (using Raspberry Pi, either emulating the existing WiFi service or building a unique network).

Since the Yolo County Library system serves local community members who are already digital natives as well as these rural individuals the bookmobile is striving to reach, it may be possible to solicit tech donations—creating a sort of tech version of the food pantry Joe Hardenbrook wrote about in the context of an academic library. Digital natives may be willing to donate extra gadgets, and more expert users may even be able to donate their time and expertise to help troubleshoot setting up the bookmobile (and keeping it functional as an internet hotspot that demonstrates the value of internet connectivity while also providing enthusiastic guides for how to become involved long-term in an online community).

Action Steps & Timeline:

The plan should be to roll out a bookmobile with fully integrated internet services by the end of 2020.

November-December:

Since plans for a bookmobile are have already been outlined (and a potential vendor selected), it should not take more than 6 weeks to receive administrative approval for a technology focus within the bookmobile program.

Ideally, the bookmobile will be a custom build that incorporates technology needs into its physical offerings. If current plans (or funds) do not cover sufficient resources for internet services that have the capacity to go beyond the physical library on wheels (i.e., if additional hotspots are not available for patrons to check out, or if a reasonable system cannot be established for ensuring expensive items are returned and kept in good repair), then lower-cost options will be pursued.

The primary low-cost technology that should be considered is Raspberry Pi. These low-cost little computers can be programmed to serve as WiFi access points (either connecting to a wired Ethernet connection to access the internet, or connecting to other access points as a standalone network). Keeping at least one Raspberry Pi on the bookmobile, along with internet and computer access (whether or not they can be checked out by patrons) should be sufficient to pique community-members’ interest in building their own networks.

Staff training on Raspberry Pi should happen concurrently with the administrative consideration of the plan, with at least 8 library staff members (one from each physical branch) sufficiently trained to serve as a primary tech liaison whether or not administration determines there is a need for the mobile deployment of these skills into rural neighborhoods.

January:

Setup of the bookmobile (already approved/ordered) and establishing the routes and lesson plans should take three weeks to a full month. At this point the broader community should be involved to crowdsource materials and topics for instruction as needed (using social media to draw on the resources of the digital natives who might be able to donate resources or knowledge). The “Internet-mobile” will begin its service as soon as the bookmobile is ready to go into the various Yolo communities, and ongoing evaluation of the service will inform how the technology services need to be bolstered (e.g., better advertising, more training on specific technologies, more focused instruction).

Staffing Considerations for the Internet-mobile:

Though adding internet service to the bookmobile would require extra effort and training, the ultimate deployment of the service would be supported by already-existing staff working the library on wheels. Pushing the internet opportunities of the bookmobile should (hopefully) motivate the community to become involved in creating their own independent network that will bring internet functionality to rural areas even when the bookmobile is not in physical range—bringing library services (and other public services) to the community on a more permanent basis.

Training for the Internet-mobile:

Keeping up-to-date on internet safety, services, and emerging technologies should be built into the culture of a modern library and incorporated into the training of library staff. That said, extra training related to the specific internet services and technologies being offered should be incorporated into the training for the team that will be involved in deploying the bookmobiles and physically maintaining them.

Training should be designed by library administrators who are directly involved in securing the physical components that will go into the bookmobile, as well as those who are more familiar with the rural areas that the bookmobile will serve. It might be useful to arrange for summer training that could draw on the aforementioned knowledge of digital natives (many of whom may be young people who are on summer breaks, and who—with parental approval—might be able to give insights into current tech trends that could shape the direction that further training takes). The current plan is to roll out the service before summer, but continual re-evaluation of the project and staff training to keep up with changing trends will mean that such engagement with digital natives will always be relevant and welcome.

Part of the training should also be dictated by the rural community members the bookmobile will serve, and will need to take place as-needed, on an ongoing basis for as long as the bookmobile is serving the communities around Yolo.

Promotion & Marketing for the Internet-mobile:

Since the target audience will not already be online, promotion and marketing will need to take place primarily via fliers and word-of-mouth. Flyers can be distributed at schools and local businesses, in addition to being displayed in public places already considered as potential rural library hubs (i.e. post offices). Library staff already talking with bookmobile patrons about more “traditional” library services should be advocates for the benefits of taking advantage of internet services so that patrons can engage with a broader set of information. Social media will be useful in marketing the program to receive donations and funding (and to tout its successes).

Evaluation:

“Around the world, the Internet is facing a crisis of confidence, due to a lack of understanding, a lack of trust, and, general unease about the power held by internet giants. Rather than falling victim to the web, libraries have the potential to make the Internet more useful, fair, accountable and more inclusive.”

-Cassie Robinson (qtd in IFLA Trend Report 2018 Update, p. 6)

The Yolo bookmobile will prove its success as an internet-mobile if it successfully combats this crisis outlined in the most recent update to the 2016 IFLA Trend Report.

Some quantitative data useful in measuring success:

Some qualitative measurements of success:

  • rural patrons talking more about the library’s online resources
  • decrease in patron mistrust of new technologies
  • decreased dependence on the Knights Landing WiFi
  • increased quality of life of rural patrons who are more capable of accessing public health information
  • decreased need for a bookmobile (due to increased patron engagement online, and patrons in rural communities expressing interest in developing new or different programs—whether those be in conjunction with the library’s mobile services, out of a satellite or new library facility, or in a new community hub created through the connections made via connections made possible by technology services made available through the mobile library)

Yolo county residents tend to be poorer than other Californians, and “poorer people feel the least benefit to themselves from the internet” (IFLA, 2018, p. 13). The goal is for rural residents of Yolo county to feel the benefit of the internet, and to be supplied with the tools for doing so (both in terms of hardware and education) by a library service that comes to them.

Ultimately, the goal would be for rural Yolo communities to establish their own virtual community, and to develop some form of a netCommons that would serve as a model for a democratized internet. Such local interconnectedness cannot be forced, but Yolo County–as a region that has been established “at the forefront of the agriculture and food industry as a leader in policies and programs to enhance sustainability” (Sweeney & Flug, 2017, p. 4)–has proven to be an environment that nurtures forward-thinking and creative individuals. At the very least the goal would be to shift toward a library system like that of the Los Angeles Public Library—where “our website is now our mobile branch.”

References:

Chattanooga Open Data Portal. (n.d.). https://data.chattlibrary.org/

Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA). (2000). Retrieved from https://www.fcc.gov/consumers/guides/childrens-internet-protection-act

Farber Specialty Vehicles. (2019). Bookmobiles. Retrieved from https://www.farberspecialty.com/new-vehicles/bookmobiles

Hardenbrook, J. (2019). Starting a food pantry in an academic library. [Web blog post]. Retrieved from https://mrlibrarydude.wordpress.com/2019/09/13/starting-a-food-pantry-in-an-academic-library/

IFLA. (2018). IFLA Trend Report 2018 Update. Retrieved from https://trends.ifla.org/files/trends/assets/documents/ifla_trend_report_2018.pdf

MAZI. (2016-2018). The Mazi Project. Retrieved from http://www.mazizone.eu/toolkit/

Maginnity, G. & Keller, J. (2014). Needs assessment & spending plan. High-Speed Broadband in California Public Libraries: An Initiative of the California State Library. Retrieved from: https://cenic.org/files/publications/Public_Library_Broadband_Assessment_2014.pdf

netCommons. (2015). Network infrastructure as commons. Retrieved from https://netcommons.eu/sites/default/files/netcommons_summary.pdf

Note to Self. (2013). Bringing the Internet to Public Housing, Your Neighbors and a Unicorn. Retrieved from https://www.wnycstudios.org/podcasts/notetoself/episodes/bringing-internet-public-housing-your-neighbors-and-unicorn

Raspberry Pi Foundation. (n.d.). Setting up a RaspBerry Pi as a wireless access point. Retrieved from https://www.raspberrypi.org/documentation/configuration/wireless/access-point.md

Raspberry Pi Foundation. (n.d.). What is Raspberry Pi? Retrieved from https://www.raspberrypi.org/help/what-%20is-a-raspberry-pi/

Real, B. & Rose, R. (2017). Rural libraries in the United States: Recent strides, future possibilities, and meeting community needs (July). ALA Office for Information Technology Policy. Retrieved from: http://www.ala.org/advocacy/sites/ala.org.advocacy/files/content/pdfs/Rural%20p     aper%2007-31-2017.pdf

RIFE. (n.d.). About. Retrieved from https://www.rife-project.eu/about/

Sanford, T. (2018). Tribute to the traveling branch. Los Angeles Public Library. Retrieved from https://www.lapl.org/collections-resources/blogs/lapl/tribute-traveling-branch

Sweeney, J., & Flug, J. (2017). Yolo County Library Facilities Master Plan, 2018-2035. Retrieved from https://www.yolocounty.org/home/showdocument?id=45857

West, J. (2014). 21st Century Digital Divide. Retrieved from http://www.librarian.net/talks/rlc14/

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