No more gut-based strategies: Using evidence to solve the digital divide

Gregory Rosston and Scott J. Wallsten at the Hill: “COVID-19 has, among other things, brought home the costs of the digital divide. Numerous op-eds have offered solutions, including increasing subsidies to schools, providing eligible low-income people with a $50 per month broadband credit, funding more digital literacy classes and putting WiFi on school buses. A House bill would allocate $80 billion to ideas meant to close the digital divide.

The key missing component of nearly every proposal to solve the connectivity problem is evidence — evidence suggesting the ideas are likely to work and ways to use evidence in the future to evaluate whether they did work. Otherwise, we are likely throwing money away. Understanding what works and what doesn’t requires data collection and research now and in the future….

Consider President Trump’s belief in hydroxychloroquine as a cure for the novel coronavirus based simply on his “gut.” That resulted in the government ordering the drug to be produced, distributed to hospitals, and 63 million doses put into a strategic national stockpile.

The well-meaning folks offering up multi-billion dollar broadband plans probably recognize the foolhardiness of the president’s gut-check approach to guiding virus treatment plans. But so far, policy makers and advocates are promoting their own gut beliefs that their proposals will treat the digital divide. An evidence-free approach is likely to cost billions of dollars more and connect fewer people than an evidence-based approach.

It doesn’t have to be this way. The pandemic did not only lay bare the implications of the digital divide, it also created a laboratory for studying how best to bridge the divide. The most immediate problem was how to help kids without home broadband attend distance learning classes. Schools had no time to formally study different options — it was a race to find anything that might help. As a result, schools incidentally ran thousands of concurrent experiments around the country….(More)”.