Think of all of the points in your day today when information has mattered—from the simplest kinds to the most complex. To get to work or school today you had to know what time it was, how to get there by bus or car or foot, what the weather was going to be like, if there was traffic. To register for classes, you needed to know what classes were being offered and at what times, what prerequisites you might need, where and when the classes would be held, and if the professor was any good. Access to accurate, useful information is central to everything we do. Thanks in part to the internet and smartphones, accessing information has become so simple that it is easy to forget its significance.
Information is foundational to all kinds of equity. Information is foundational to all kinds of equity. Take health equity as an example. What information do people need to live a healthy life? To secure health insurance for their family? To help a loved one who is sick? To deal with a chronic illness? How can people know the information is accurate? What if your health insurance company no longer covered an important medication you or someone in your family relied on? Who would you call?
Beyond individual interests, our entire democracy depends on an active and informed public that has the information needed to participate:
Democratic political systems…make claims to legitimacy partly on the basis of their citizens’ ability to seek and obtain reliable, credible information about issues that affect them, information that allows them to interact with other citizens and with their governing institutions….no social arrangements, indeed, no culture or society, can exist without information….a primary requirement for a “good society” is equitable information access and use.” (Lievrouw and Farb, 2003, pp. 504–505)
In other words, if people in a society do not have access to information they need to advocate for their interests, that society is not really a democracy.
Let’s use another health equity example to discuss the relationships between information, democracy, and equity. What if someone in your family developed asthma because of the bugs or old carpeting in your apartment? What is your landlord required to do? Most cities have laws that spell out your rights as a tenant and the responsibilities of your landlord. But as a renter, you need to know these laws exist and know where you can get a copy. You might also need help understanding legal jargon or translating the document into your first language. There are non-profit organizations that may be of help, but again, you would need to find them. There may even be agencies at other levels of government, like a county office of health that might help, but where would you begin your search?
…it’s not just the information about the particular issue that is important. People also need information about how democratic processes work.As Lievrouw and Farb state, it’s not just the information about the particular issue that is important. People also need information about how democratic processes work. Let’s say you worked through the process on your own behalf and wanted to advocate for clearer laws so that other people wouldn’t have to deal with what you went through. You have a lot of information about why it is important based on your personal experience, but would you know what government agency or body has the authority to create programs for tenants’ rights? Would you know how their decisions get made? Are they elected officials or appointed? Do they have public meetings? You would also need information to find other people or organizations who shared your goals so you could organize.
If you have ever looked at a city website you have probably noticed that there are meetings scheduled just about every day of the week in which decisions are discussed and made about issues ranging from housing to education to transportation to social services. What information would you need to actively participate in those meetings? Depending on the meeting, you may need to know about zoning, traffic safety, historic preservation, or parks funding. You would also need to know about the processes those meetings follow. When are you allowed to speak and what recourse do you have if the decision goes the other way? You also need to feel comfortable speaking up. Who do you think is comfortable speaking up in a public meeting? Who do you think people in power might be more inclined to listen to or agree with? Who might not feel comfortable going to a public meeting at all?
Government agencies and officials are not the only bodies that make decisions that impact people’s ability to live the lives they want to live. Private corporations may be accountable for decisions that impact access opportunities and resources. What companies make decisions that impact your health care or credit score? Why are there fewer grocery stores in your neighborhood? What kind of internet or cell phone services can you choose from?
Information is central to what people call personal agency – whether you are able to live the life you envision for yourself.To unpack and understand all of the issues at play in information equity, let’s start with two big categories: agency and social capital. Each describes a different—but often related—way that having or not having fair access to information can change someone’s life. First, let’s think broadly. Information is central to what people call personal agency—whether or not you are able to live the life you envision for yourself. Where do you want to be in five, 10, 20 years? Are you considering graduate school, travel, starting a career, having a family, owning a home? Now think about all of the kinds of information you will need to pursue each goal. Where would you find that information? How would you know it was up to date? Is it all available on the internet and do you have reliable access? Would you “phone a friend” for advice?
The phone-a-friend example brings us to another key element of information equity called social capital. Social capital is the benefit people derive from having relationships with others. If financial capital is about how much money you have to spend, social capital is about what kinds of personal relationships you are able to tap to your benefit. Information is key to building social capital and is a key benefit of having social capital—to finding and meeting and interacting with people who will benefit you and offering them advice and support in return. Information is also a key benefit of having social capital. Your social network is an information resource—and the social networks of people in your network are also valuable. Has a relative ever made a call to a friend for you about a job? Do you know someone who is a nurse or doctor who gave you medical advice? Do you have an older sibling or friend who taught you to drive?
Our personal agency is impacted by government policies and corporate actions. Our personal agency is impacted by government policies and corporate actions. Information is key to understanding these impacts and advocating for our interests. What if a new bill were introduced that drastically cut access to student loans or that offered loans only for certain majors? Where would you get information on the bill? How would you find other like-minded people to start a petition? What if banks lobbied to raise interest rates on loans? How would you know that was happening and where and how to stop it?
In addition to making decisions that impact our personal agency, corporations may collect information about us without our knowledge and use that information to shape our decisions and choices. At the most benign level, internet search engines remember what products we have looked at and put them up in sidebars to entice us to go back and buy them. In a now famous story, Target used a teenager’s internet search history to determine that she was pregnant. Her father got his first hint when a Target catalog of baby products came to the house addressed to his daughter. Aware of how disturbed consumers were by these targeted ads, Target dropped its strategy of including a selection of targeted products in an otherwise general-seeming catalog (Hill, 2012). Other companies use similar information to decide which products they do and do not want to sell you. The term “Weblining” describes the practice of denying people opportunities based on their digital selves. Your “digital e-score” can determine the prices and services you are offered:
FTC Data Broker Report: May 2014: “the scoring processes used in some marketing products are not transparent…consumers are unable to take actions that might mitigate the negative effects of lower scores, such as being limited to ads for subprime credit or receiving different levels of service from companies.” (Yu, Mierzwinski, Robinson, Yu, Llc, 2014, p. 30)
Your ability to access and control your financial information impacts every aspect of your life. You may be able to find information on an affordable apartment to rent, but if your credit rating is low because it includes incorrect information, you might not be able to make it through the landlord’s screening process.
These are just a few examples of how the category of information equity includes whether or not we have access to information and how our own personal information is used. But we still haven’t set out a definition of information equity. What is its goal? What does society look like when everyone has fair and just access to information?
Can we summarize information equity as having fair and just access to information? ….yes and no.Can we summarize information equity in this way—as having fair and just access to information? As the above examples show, yes and no. Access is fundamental to information equity. And we are far from the point where we have equal access, let alone fair and just access. “More affluent, better-educated, or higher-status individuals and groups are found to have access to more information sources, a wider range of media and content consumption choices, and more online access than other groups” (Lievrouw & Farb, 2003, p. 513). Let’s say that we were able to provide everyone with the same access to the same information in the same format. Would that solve the problem? Would everyone have personal agency, the ability to build and sustain social networks, and the opportunity to participate in democratic society? It depends on what the information is and whether or not everyone is able to understand and use it:
Information resources are valuable only insofar as they are meaningful or useful to the people who have access to them. The ability to derive a benefit from a resource depends to a great extent on people’s skills, experience, and other contextual factors….Consequently, the task for researchers is to assess the quality as well as the distribution of available resources, and whether and how well people use them. (Lievrouw & Farb, 2003, p. 514)
So it’s not just having access to the information that matters. The information itself must matter and be understandable to the people that need to use it, and people must understand the processes—governmental or private—through which they can advocate for their interests. If we think of environmental design as a set of ongoing processes, we can track whether people have the information they need to have a voice in these decisions.
In order for people to participate in these processes, what information is important? First, people need to know that something is happening and what the opportunities are for them to give input. If you are a soccer fan you may have heard that the Minnesota Major League Soccer (MLS) is building a new stadium in the Midway neighborhood of St. Paul just south of the GreenLine light rail. But the first time many residents and business owners in the immediate neighborhood heard about it was after the decision to locate the stadium had happened and when planning was well underway.
Artist and community organizer Lula Saleh remembers when she first saw the drawings for the new building and the changes to the streets and sidewalks around it. “It was at a community meeting about something totally different and someone from St. Paul brought these big images of what the stadium was going to look like and people were shocked. It was the first time that they had heard anything about a stadium and here were these big pictures of the design.” A long-time Midway resident summed up his concerns this way:
My immediate response is simply this: I need a lot more information before I can endorse this plan.…I need to know more about the potential impact regarding traffic and potential traffic congestion on the major streets that would be traveled by customers of the stadium, potential interference with emergency vehicles during stadium events, parking options for event customers, air pollution…noise volume and the impact of that noise on the neighborhoods within two miles of the stadium. We need more information. (Melo, 2016)
In order to get current information to concerned residents and business owners, and to connect them to decision makers, African Economic Development Solutions (AEDS), a local non-profit business organization, convened a meeting outside of the official public participation plan. They invited public officials and an official representing the MLS Stadium, and opened the meeting by sharing a report on the economic impact of African immigrants in Minnesota, establishing the importance and value of the voices of the people assembled. Participants asked lots of questions: Would the stadium lead to an increase in rents in the neighborhood? Would it impact parking for local businesses? What about the business owners who rented space in the shopping plaza that was set for demolition in the next five years? On their website, AEDS followed up by sharing dates of the next official meetings and articles written about the project.
But the question remains as to whether or not, even if people know about and participate in a meeting, their opinions matter in the final decisions. This example illustrates the importance of investing development dollars in community engagement and information sharing. But the question remains as to whether, even if people know about and participate in a meeting, their opinions matter in the final decisions. But what if, instead of responding to a new development project or transportation plan for your neighborhood, you wanted to do something yourself? What if you wanted to add on to your house or turn a vacant lot into a park? Get a light on your street fixed? Get a new pedestrian crossing or bus shelter? Who do you talk to? What are the permits? Who else might have the same interest?
One organization using design to improve information equity is the Center for Urban Pedagogy (CUP) in New York. Take a look at the project called Rent Regulation Rights (at http://welcometocup.org/Projects/MakingPolicyPublic/RentRegulationRights). What information equity issue were they trying to address? How might this project impact people’s agency or social capital? With whom did they partner to make this project happen? CUP is unique in that it uses design processes and products, especially graphic design, to bridge the information gaps that prevent New Yorkers from being able to advocate for themselves around big equity issues like housing, transportation, and education. In the next two chapters we will look at design processes to figure out how they happen, who they benefit, and how design might be an important tool in creating more equitable systems and places.
Hill, K. (2012, February 16). How Target figured out a teen girl was pregnant before her father did. Forbes. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/kashmirhill/2012/02/16/how-target-figured-out-a-teen-girl-was-pregnant-before-her-father-did/#4a094a8e6668
Lievrouw, L. A., & Farb, S. E. (2003). Information and equity. (1), 499–540. https://doi.org/10.1002/aris.1440370112
Melo, F. (2016, May 15). Minnesota United soccer stadium hopes varied in Midway. Retrieved from https://www.twincities.com/2016/05/13/thoughts-on-minnesota-united-soccer-stadium-vary-in-midway/
Yu, P., Mierzwinski, E., Robinson, D., Yu, H., Llc, Y. (2014). Weblining and Other Racial Justice Concerns in the Era of Big Data. Retrieved from http://www.nclc.org/images/pdf/conferences_and_webinars/webinar_trainings/presentations/2013-2014/weblining_and_other_rj_concerns_in_the_era_of_big_data.pdf
- The two are also related. Depending on the kind of social relationships you have, you may have a better chance of finding out about a job or an apartment or other opportunity. A Forbes article title sums it up this way, “Your Network Is Your Net Worth: 7 Ways To Build Social Capital. Forbes article available at https://www.forbes.com/sites/bonniemarcus/2014/10/20/your-network-is-your-net-worth-7-ways-to-build-social-capital/#251ecaea6af7” ↵