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Hacking Garbage Trucks to Bring Broadband to Those in Need

Shreveport, Louisiana, is bridging the “digital divide” one hack at a time

Millions of households lack the broadband access they need to learn from home, work from home, and generally keep up in our internet-dependent world. What if cities could pinpoint which neighborhoods were in need? What if cities collected real-time information that got services to the people who need them most? And what if they could do it faster and cheaper? They can. One city is bucking the system and using open source hardware, DIY ingenuity, and a pandemic-induced urgency to address the digital divide in real-time, paving the way for others to do the same. 

Put a Maker in Charge

Want to get something done? Put a maker in charge. That’s just what happened in January 2019 when the newly elected Mayor Adrian Perkins of Shreveport, Louisiana, who’d made a Smart City platform central to his campaign, appointed Keith Hanson to be the city’s first Chief Technology Officer (CTO). Hanson, like Perkins, is young for a public official (both are 35) and a Shreveport native who is committed to retooling the city’s systems for the 21st century. Indeed, among the first plans they put in place was an interactive online budget — dubbed the “People’s Budget” — created with open source software to provide greater transparency into city spending, and the hiring of a dedicated data scientist, who quickly discovered an accounting oversight that reaped the cash-strapped city an unexpected windfall.

Keith Hanson, the first CTO of the City of Shreveport, with an inexpensive Raspberry Pi computer he used to discover which neighborhoods lack broadband internet access.

A self-described geek and serial entrepreneur, Hanson had returned to his hometown in 2010 to found Twin Engine Labs — a custom app developer and creator of the breakthrough storybook app “The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore” (in collaboration with the Oscar-winning 3D animation firm, Moonbot Studios). Frustrated that local businesses had to search further afield for tech talent, Hanson (who’s been coding since he was a kid) worked with local partners to develop Minecraft U, an after-school program that teaches kids to code using the popular game. They envisioned it as an apprenticeship to train budding software developers for employment right out of high school, but soon came face to face with the profound lack of access to technology faced by many in the community: kids were simply unable to continue at home what they were learning because they lacked access to a laptop or home computer with the right software. 

This lack of hardware — the pre-pandemic focus of the “digital divide” in the public discourse — inspired the development of community partnerships that helped raise awareness of the problem and provided sorely needed laptops to kids in the Minecraft U program. And simple solutions like USB wristbands with a custom Linux OS installed with Minecraft made it possible for kids to use school and home computers without the acquisition of costly software, thrilling administrators and parents alike.

“We believe that if we can help build a cutting-edge, apprenticeship-based technology workforce, more employers will look at Shreveport like the Dreamport it could be,” Hanson noted in celebrating the program’s first graduates — even he railed against the “same old story” of huge tax breaks and financial incentives that the state provides to tech companies for setting up shop in Louisiana without a concomitant investment to develop local tech talent and support small businesses. 

No Access, No Awareness

While Hanson and his deputies in the newly minted city technology department were working to bring efficiency to labyrinthine procurement processes and update necessary tech like police and fire scanners, Covid-19 began its inexorable march across the US. As schools closed, businesses shut down, and jobs that could moved online, the “no access and no awareness” problem in the region that Hanson had been working to resolve through his community initiatives came crashing into the foreground. As he put it bluntly, “The pandemic has made the digital divide painfully obvious.” People who didn’t understand the call for Smart City technologies or the push for universal broadband suddenly saw the scope of the problem as students struggled to get online for classes and dial-up speeds defeated efforts at meaningful work. 

As the pandemic dragged on, attendance at many parish schools dropped, revealing the long tail of a crisis in a region that had been struggling for decades with employment losses in the oil and manufacturing sectors. Echoing a sentiment all too familiar in communities across the country, Keith Burton, Chief Academic Officer for Caddo Parish Schools noted, “Covid-19 has increased the gaps in educational opportunities in far too many families, especially low-income and families of color. Because of the digital divide, many students cannot engage in virtual learning or complete their homework due to limited internet availability. While expanding high-speed internet isn’t the only solution for families, it has become a necessity for learning in 2020.” 

For Hanson, this was match point and he needed a solution fast. As he had identified when he took office, the first ask was not the delivery of IT, but learning where, and for whom, the “digital divide” was a daily grind that limited access to essential services. Although Shreveport is Louisiana’s third largest city and is largely wired for the fiber-optic internet used by government, utilities, schools, and private companies, availability is not accessibility is not adoption. Moreover, the data on where internet service was lacking simply didn’t exist in sufficient detail. The American Community Survey (an annual federal survey that provides statistical information for the distribution of some $700 billion in funds) data is good, but it’s not good enough to see which kids in Shreveport lacked access to fast, reliable internet for completing their school work. 

What goes everywhere and smells bad? Hint: it’s not the internet.

What Goes Everywhere (and Smells Bad)?

“When we were thinking about how we could understand who had internet access and who didn’t, we needed a way to find out who was connected and who wasn’t,” Hanson recalls. That meant a way to scan for active wireless networks, collect the data, and map it across the city to find the holes.

Hanson’s solution was a DIY marriage of inexpensive and easy-to-build open source tech with on-the-ground operations that literally cover every road in the city. Hanson programmed inexpensive Raspberry Pi Zero microcomputers to scan for publicly broadcast SSIDs and log their locations using GPS, and then partnered with the city Public Works department to attach them to garbage trucks. Brilliant — they’re already driving everywhere, every week.

The scanners deliver fine-grain detail in real-time about where city residents lack internet connectivity. Hanson readily acknowledges that the simplicity of the tech is part of the plan (so simple, in fact, that it offers a model for classrooms interested in exploring citizen science projects). He built the first device himself as proof of concept and then had his department create roughly 25 more devices (for a total cost of around $6,000) for the city’s fleet of garbage trucks. The genuine urgency forced by the pandemic helped to fast-track approval, propelling the project off the ground quickly and cheaply.

A fleet of garbage truck Wi-Fi scanners based on tiny Raspberry Pi Zero computers and GPS modules, during assembly. The next generation is based on low-power ESP32 microcontrollers.

The outcome: A map that showed where IT investment would be most meaningful, and how to get schoolkids — many suffering it out on mobile phones — the broadband access their education now required. Hanson’s system has allowed his team to identify locations of greatest need and match them with Shreveport Recreational Centers, whose networks will now be expanded to the surrounding neighborhood rather than just the parking lot. Real-time delivery of the information allows the team to update GIS maps and observe changes over time. You can see the map and search it at shreveport.maps.arcgis.com/apps/webappviewer/index.html?id=8ea289c1fb9843a18c01d06de9d6def3.

Wi-Fi deserts: Dark areas of the map reveal neighborhoods where few homes are using broadband internet.

However, even the simplest devices still run into user error — garbage truck drivers, among all their other tasks, need to put the devices in their trucks, turn them on so that they collect data, and recharge them for the next day’s rounds. The second iteration of the device, currently in the works, dispenses with human operators altogether using low-power ESP32 microcontrollers and solar power to recharge the device automatically. 

As those who work in or with the government are painfully aware, the pace of innovation and adoption can be maddeningly slow. And expensive. Hanson points to the savings and immediacy of his approach and sees opportunities to replicate the process for other issues, including creating simple devices that help deter crime and that lessen the need for constant monitoring of remote locations, freeing staff to focus on other issues. Hoping that other cities will follow the lead (as other city departments in Shreveport already are), Hanson and his team have continued to post their updated code and build details on GitHub.

Hanson and team in a pandemic Zoom meeting, working on the Shreveport Wi-Fi scanning project.

Affordability Matters

Getting a decent internet connection to every household isn’t much use if people can’t pay for it, as Shreveport’s story shows. It’s no secret that many rural areas still resound with the staccato squeal of dial-up internet; places where the companies that provide the patchwork of infrastructure and service simply see no opportunity for growth. However, as cities have embraced fiber networks and jumped on bandwagon pitches by cable and telecommunications companies to get citizens connected, research on the digital divide has made it clear that these efforts have also fallen short. FCC data show that around 21 million Americans lack access to broadband, but recent studies have dug deeper into the data, offering a perspective that highlights the difference between access, adoption, and affordability. The 2020 BroadbandNow study, which manually checked more than 11,000 addresses collected by the FCC, doubled that number to 42 million households. Microsoft, analyzing usage data rather than providers (which can skew results by capturing whole blocks as individuals), estimates that nearly 120 million Americans do not regularly use broadband. 

A Day in the Life of the Disconnected is the subtitle of the report Hanson and his colleagues created to share their ideas on Shreveport’s digital divide, but this is not a local problem. Across the US there are people — many of them school-age students — sitting in Walmart parking lots, inside McDonald’s, and on the steps of the LA Public Library trying to catch enough signal to turn in their homework, file for public assistance, or submit a job application. Growing dependency on the internet during the pandemic has pushed forward a paradigm shift long in the making. These changes have created new freedoms for many — the ability to work and learn from anywhere — but they have also sidelined the millions of people reliant only on cellphones or public facilities to make vital economic, medical, and social connections. Although many hoped the pandemic could become a great equalizer, throwing everyone in the same boat, what has emerged is a picture of just how unequal American communities are across states and within cities. 

Geeks For Government

As Hanson discovered after the fact, Shreveport is not the only city to employ its garbage trucks for extracurricular data collection. The Australian city of Bendigo (a metropolis of 120,000 about 150km northwest of Melbourne) also exploited its garbage trucks to map the strength and coverage of its internet networks, using the information collected by just four trucks over a week to create an award-winning IoT network across the city. Indeed, the intrinsic value of open source tools and good data analysis to cash-strapped local governments — and the built-in values of transparency and affordability — is a growing trend, as increasing city initiatives and GitHub repositories reveal. Before taking his role as Shreveport’s CTO, Hanson and some colleagues formed a group called Geeks For Government to “inspire better policy decisions through data-driven analytics” (Tellingly, the group is on hiatus as two of its three founders took jobs in local government).

With his knowledge of how private sector contracts work, a predisposition to collaboration honed in startup culture, and a childlike glee for open source software and hardware, Hanson clearly relishes the outsize opportunity his inside role as CTO provides: “Some days I have to remind myself that it’s worth it, and some days I can’t believe I get paid to do this,” Hanson says. “I am surrounded by deeply complex, intractable problems, and drowning in a sea of opportunity to fix them. Although the government can be difficult to work within, sometimes that is part of the fun — the constraints are ridiculously hard to deal with, but the payoff is huge for the greater good.”

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