The Knight News Challenge accelerates media innovation by funding breakthrough ideas in news and information.

4 of 9

Chicago Public Library Increases Internet Access Through its Innovative "Hotspot at Home" Program; lending service will include laptops and digital skills training.

Via its network of 80 branches, Chicago Public Library (CPL) is the city's largest provider of free Internet access. CPL supports digital literacy and skill development by providing in-library experts, CyberNavigators, who help Chicagoans through 98,000 Internet basics sessions per year, focusing on tasks like creating an email account or completing job applications or finding credible health information. Recent studies have shown that, although outreach and training are partially effective in improving Internet use in low-income communities, the lack of access in the home remains a significant barrier. CPL proposes to attack this problem by providing FREE LOANED HOTSPOTS, along with loaned laptops, and enhanced, targeted skills training.

Photo of Catherine Brown

Written by

1. Who are the users or target customers of your project, and what have you learned from them so far? Please give specific examples.Chicago Public Library is actively engaged in trying to increase the number of digitally connected and technologically savvy Chicagoans with a special focus on those with low digital literacy and access. CPL already serves these customers through free public computers, free Wi-Fi, and free digital skills coaching. These services are available throughout the Library’s network of 80 community libraries. Evidence suggests that these individuals will become more adept Internet users only after practicing digital skills and exploring career websites, health information, social media sites and other Internet basics on their own time. The pilot will take place in 6 neighborhoods in Chicago that have a broadband adoption rate in the house of 50% or less. This “Hotspot at Home” initiative will allow CPL to test this idea, and then refine it through several iterations.  As a 2014 winner of the Institute of Museum and Library Services’ National Medal, Chicago Public Library is committed to spurring innovation and patron-centered services throughout its branches; this project represents a great opportunity to meet changing patron needs.
2. What assumptions are you making in what you propose, and how will you test them?
We are assuming that many people who do not use the Internet on a regular basis are missing opportunities to participate as fully in civic and economic life as they otherwise might.
We are assuming that the “Hotspot at Home” program will eliminate significant barriers – cost, equipment, and knowledge – for these individuals to begin engaging online. The program will allow people to “test drive” the Internet in their own space, and on their own terms.
We are assuming that these individuals will begin to see the power and relevance of the Internet to their own needs and interests, and that they will become less intimidated and more willing to explore opportunities for deeper, more sustained engagement.
We are assuming that in order to increase rates of in-home Internet usage, we will need to provide both the technology and the ongoing individual support, to increase the users’ skills and comfort with technology.
We will test these assumptions by asking users to answer brief surveys, either online or in person, both before and after their experience with having this service in their homes.  Their candid responses and perspectives will deepen our understanding and allow us to make improvements to the pilot.
3. How will you get your project in front of the necessary people or organizations? Chicago Public Library is already a key and strategic partner, along with Smart Chicago Collaborative, World Business Chicago, the Chicago Department of Innovation and Technology, Chicago LISC and others, in a citywide effort to achieve greater digital engagement, as outlined in the Chicago Tech Plan.  We believe these partnerships will allow CPL to ensure the widest possible outreach, engagement and dissemination of this project.
CPL’s participation in this robust partnership will also insure that we have the right expertise to help analyze the results. Our citywide partners will bring their neighborhood-level knowledge data sets and broad experience to help CPL identify failures or successes quickly.  Most importantly, his group has the resources and expertise to help CPL scale this work quickly, once we have a grasp of best practices.  We also have a strong public platform as a 2014 winner of the National Medal for Library Service from the Institute for Museum and Library Services. 
4. What are the obstacles to implementing your idea, and how will you address them?  We will need to test various different approaches for distribution, individual support while identifying the right provider(s) and data plans for the partnership. Clearly, we will also need a plan for addressing issues of damage, loss and theft.  Fortunately, our experience with other tech lending initiatives will help us surmount these challenges.
While this approach has not been implemented within the United States, libraries outside the US are now testing similar services in their communities. CPL is very active in the larger Global Library community. This includes hosting an international conference this summer (attended by library representatives from 40 countries) on emerging library service models. This global network will be invaluable as we experiment with this lending model. If funded, we will bring in our broader network from within and outside the US to both inform our approach and then share what we learn. 
5. How much do you think your project will cost, and what are the major expenses?  We estimate costs to operate the project at six branches for one year to be approximately $165,000. This includes: 30 hotspots per branch, and ten laptops and/or tablets per branch. This budget also include enhanced and targeted digital skills classes and coaching by CyberNavigators, and some project management support. The biggest variable at this point is the potential participation of Internet
service providers, equipment manufacturers, or other tech companies; if CPL was able to engage one or more of these sectors as partners, up-front and operational costs could be significantly lower.
6. How will you measure the near-term indicators of success?   As noted above, the project’s short-term success indicators will be based on responses to user surveys, both before and after their experience of the service. The surveys will help assess participants in the following areas:  
1) increased comfort with engaging online; 2) increased interest in engaging online; 3) increased intention or plans to acquire at home or smart-phone based Internet access; 4) perceived increase in access to information 5) perceived increase in opportunities to search for employment, and  6) increase in digital skills and 8) greater understanding of how in home broadband access increases economic, civic and educational engagement.

Like many American cities, Chicago is moving energetically to establish itself as a hub of the 21st century's knowledge economy as outlined in the City’s recently released Tech Plan, in which the Library plays a prominent role. The success of this effort hinges in large part on robust, widespread access to information and opportunities to engage with the economic and civic life of the city, in all its forms. A 2011 study revealed that in-home broadband use in many of Chicago's lowest-income neighborhoods barely hits the 50 percent mark, and in a subset of the lowest income areas, is significantly lower. CPL is committed to increasing the number of digitally-connected, information literate and engaged children and adults in Chicago. 

CPL will create a Wi-Fi hotspot lending program pilot at library branches in neighborhoods with low in-home broadband use, encouraging residents in these communities to borrow Wi-Fi hotspots for up to three weeks at a time. To help community members build their digital skills, CPL will also provide one-on-one digital literacy and skills coaching along with access to effective online tutorials. This training will be provided by the library’s current digital training corps, called CyberNavigators, and with the assistance of outside organizations as training partners. 
For community members who lack both broadband access and a computer at home, CPL will launch a pilot computer-lending program, in which specially-tagged and outfitted laptops would be loaned in combination with the hotspots.  

Library patrons who are able to visit their local branch take full advantage of its free, high-speed internet services, but many residents, due to work schedules, family responsibilities or other personal circumstances, are unable to use the Internet access at the library during regular hours of operation.  CPL hopes to tackle this challenge and in the process increase in-home Internet access and adoption for underserved communities. It is our belief that the users who borrow hotspots will increase their usage of the Internet over time and be more likely to later purchase a service for their home than those that only use the service in the library.  The convenience factor of having Wi-Fi and a laptop in the home will also increase their digital literacy because users will be able to use the technology often enough to build proficiency.

If successful, this pilot program could be expanded to include more Library branches, more intensive training, and longer-term hardware and software lending arrangements. The popularity of CPL's CyberNavigator program is strong evidence that Internet access, and the development of the digital skills necessary to take fuller advantage of that access, remain a critical role for the Library to play in supporting the city’s civic and economic vitality. 

CPL has recently been honored as the inaugural Social Innovator Award winner by the Chicago Innovation Awards and recognized by German university study as the top urban library system in the US. CPL is a finalist for the IMLS National Medal for Libraries in 2014. The library team will build this pilot into its Library Innovation process, which means it will use a Human Centered Design approach to build out the program, test its viability and measure the program's success. 

In ONE sentence, tell us about your project to strengthen the Internet for free expression and innovation.

The Chicago Public Library's "Hotspots at Home" program strengthens the Internet by allowing thousands of families access to in-home internet use, thereby deepening their opportunities for educational, economic and civic engagement and, in turn, enriching online communities through these families’ inclusion.

Who will benefit from what you propose? What have you observed that makes you think that?

CPL patrons who reside in low-income communities with low percentages of in-home broadband access will benefit most directly from this pilot project. Children might use the in-home access to engage with CPL’s online homework helpers from home, and their parents might use the access to apply for employment, for benefits or to research election information. Chicagoans in general will benefit, as the city's overall level of digital skills is improved. The evidence for these claims is affirmed every time a CPL patron creates an online resume and applies for a job, locates important health information, or accesses needed guidance about eligibility for SNAP or other support programs.

What progress have you made so far?

The City of Chicago's Tech Plan laid the groundwork for the Library to test this new approach to increasing digital access, establishing CPL along with Smart Chicago Collaborative and LISC at the center of the City's strategy to vastly improve digital inclusion outcomes. CPL has conducted research and begun exploratory conversations with providers of broadband and hotspot technology and services. In addition, CPL's deep experience with providing digital skills training through its CyberNavigators will help determine the optimal mix of training options to be provided as part of this program.

What would be a successful outcome for your idea or project?

The immediate and near-term indicators of success would reflect 1) a patron's diminished anxiety and increasing comfort with digital technology and 2) his or her willingness and ability to use the technology across a broader range of goals, from checking a child's school records to applying for jobs online. The longer-term goal would be the patron's valuing his/her in-home broadband experience so deeply that s/he took steps to acquire that access for him/herself, via a low-cost option like Comcast's Internet Essentials.

Who is on your team, and what are their relevant experiences or skills?

Brian Bannon
Brian Bannon has served as the Commissioner of the Chicago Public Library (CPL) since 2012, serving as the chief executive officer of an 80 branch library district for the 2.6 million residents of Chicago. CPL is the largest and most visited cultural institution in Chicago and among the largest public library systems in the United States. More than 11 million customers visit CPL libraries each year and library’s web site receives 13 million visits annually. As the largest provider of free public technology access, CPL is central to the City's workforce and broadband adoption strategies. CPL has one of the largest free homework help programs in the country, serving more than 70,000 kids through weekly and online individual homework assistance. CPL has received national and international acknowledgement for its leadership role in engaging youth in technology and STEM learning and recently won the coveted Chicago Innovation Award for its Innovation Lab.

Prior to joining CPL, Brian was a senior executive at the San Francisco Public Library and served in leadership roles at the Seattle Public Library and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Brian is very active in work related to information access, public technology, and bridging the digital divide. He holds his MILS from the University of Washington iSchool and BA from Pacific Lutheran University.

Michelle Frisque
Michelle Frisque is the Director of Library Technology at the Chicago Public Library (CPL). In this role, she ensures that information technology systems support the library’s programs, services, operations and strategies. Before joining CPL, Michelle was the Head of Information Systems at the Galter Health Sciences Library at Northwestern University. She is a former President of the Library & Information Technology Association (LITA), a division of the American Library Association. She has a Masters of Learning and Organization Change from Northwestern University’s School of Education and Social Policy and a Masters of Library and Information Sciences from the University of Pittsburgh.

She will lead this initiative with support from a program team of Masters level librarians at the selected libraries and CyberNavigators, who are trained to teach digital skills.

Andrea Sáenz
Andrea Sáenz serves as First Deputy Commissioner for the Chicago Public Library. In this role, she leads program design and evaluation and supports strategy and organizational development. Before joining the Library, Andrea served as chief of staff to Chicago Public Schools CEO, coordinating strategy, implementation of district-wide initiatives and foundation, corporate and government grant development. Sáenz was previously policy advisor to the Assistant Secretary of Vocational and Adult Education at the US Department of Education in Washington, DC and executive director of the Hispanic Alliance for Career Enhancement (HACE), a national organization working collaboratively with business and non-profit employers, universities and schools to increase Latinos' entry into and success in professional careers.

She holds a Bachelor's degree in Latin American Studies from Scripps College and a Master's degree in government administration from the University of Pennsylvania.


Chicago, Illinois, USA
11k 15 81
Congratulations to all our contributors!


Join the conversation:

Photo of Chile

Great idea that is needed for the community.

View all comments