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April 30 - May 1, 2025
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Understanding Internet Inequity

At its best, we use data to illuminate truths in the world around us and then take action based on those truths. Data points are gathered, analyzed, and presented to inform and to tell stories. But what if no one is listening?

In his popular 2018 book, Factfulness, Swedish physician and statistician Hans Rosling suggested that our human tendency for dramatic thinking prevents us from seeing and understanding data that shows the world is in much better shape than many of us think. While critics accuse him of cherry picking, at Data Universe we appreciate his optimistic outlook and his dedication to finding hope and doing good with data.

In fact, two of our founding principles are that data can—and should—be used to advance the human condition, and that we ensure those stories are heard. There are many organizations dedicated to funding and illustrating how data can be used to improve the lives of humans, including The Nielsen Foundation, Columbia University, Data For Good (Canada), and The Data For Good Foundation (Denmark). This week, we want to highlight the work of and an initiative it funded with the University of Chicago revolutionizing measurement techniques that will address disparities in high-speed internet access that exist from neighborhood to neighborhood in the U.S.

Mapping Opportunity

Access to healthcare, education and employment has changed dramatically in the past five years. While nearly all interactions with those institutions were in person several years ago, the pandemic has had lasting effects on the delivery of those services. For many, the primary way they now interact in those environments is remotely. Affordable, reliable access to high-speed internet, therefore, is vital to  engaging with of many educational, employment and health opportunities as they exist in developed economies today—especially in the U.S.

Throughout the pandemic, as schools shifted to 100% remote learning, the notion of a ‘digital divide’ arose. Educators could see that students in certain areas had less reliable access to high-speed internet. Ability to afford and knowledge of how to use the internet also varied widely—especially in urban areas—and contributed to the gap. If a digital divide existed in education, many thought, then it naturally would extend to the increasing number of remote jobs and a layer of healthcare that was happening online, as well. But closing the digital divide first requires understanding at a granular level where its effects are most acute.

Enter the University of Chicago Data Science Institute.

Continuous Measurement

Researchers have long used census data as the basis for understanding internet access, but there are several drawbacks to this including that the data is self-reported and that the census only occurs every ten years. The University of Chicago program, for the first time, is enabling researchers to continuously monitor access and other data at the individual household level, creating hyper-accurate datasets that more truthfully describe conditions on the ground. Researchers there have created and deployed unique devices dedicated solely to continuously collecting internet data at the household level.

This information will enable internet service providers (ISP)—such as Comcast, one of the initiative’s partners—to respond to gaps in service quickly and take advantage of public programs that previously didn’t know where to direct their efforts.

Called the Internet Equity Initiative (IEI), the project has deployed 150 devices in the city of Chicago that the impact report said, “generated a unique dataset on home internet performance containing measurements of upload and download bandwidth, latency, and reliability along with supplemental survey and geographic data, enabling unprecedented comparisons of disparities between neighborhoods.”

From Oct. 2021 through March 2023, the IEI devices have generated more than a billion unique data points across 11 standard network performance measurements. In 2022 alone, the dataset grew by 500 percent. Until now, the IEI says on its website, “available data on the state of internet access and functionality in the U.S. offer a skewed and sometimes erroneous portrait of our current Internet infrastructure, capabilities, and service options.”

The data available to policymakers before the IEI devices were deployed significantly under-represented specific geographies, especially those that lack good connectivity and have fewer Internet subscribers. The IEI says the devices represent “a completely new approach to internet measurement, gathering data at all ‘levels of the stack,’ from physical infrastructure to quality of experience, and at varying granularities, including hyper-local.” The group expects the groundbreaking work occurring in the City of Chicago will be replicated and deployed nationwide and eventually globally.

Data for All, Internet for All

In addition to measurement techniques and the resulting expanded datasets that directly address currently unknown questions and evaluate the effectiveness of different interventions, the IEI initiative has two other mandates: data-driven collaborations with underserved communities and additional research about how internet connectivity can improve social and individual conditions.

The group built a website to make the data publicly available along with a nationwide heat map displaying internet adoption, usage and performance at a household level.

IEI is collaborating with both private and public entities. Local ISPs in Chicago are using the data to extend internet infrastructure to underserved communities and fix inaccuracies in other commonly used measurement tools. It also established partnerships in Chicago and beyond with state broadband offices in Illinois, Massachusetts and Michigan using the data to improve the digital divide there.

The value of new investments in Internet infrastructure based on the data IEI is collecting hinges on whether these investments lead to improved outcomes in society. IEI said it will continue to investigate the individual and social effects of public and private attempts to promote Internet inequity. It has several collaborations doing so now including a program with Chicago Public Schools to examine the outcome of a pandemic-era internet connectivity program and a partnership with UChicago Medicine evaluating if the presence of Internet connectivity can improve health outcomes.

In the meantime, more data will be necessary. IEI said it plans to scale the number of measuring devices in Chicago from 150 to 1,000. For more information, visit the

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