ROC Ripples – Special Edition

Rural Outreach Center’s Summer Enrichment Program – working to reduce the digital divide for rural children.

Dear friends,
Over the past several months of social isolation, we have observed that many of the children at the ROC have regressed in their social/emotional health and fallen behind in their academic progress because they don’t have access to digital resources being required by schools. In response, we have developed an exciting, robust summer enrichment program that we will describe in detail in several weeks (keep tuned – it is shaping up to be an absolutely amazing gift for our ROC kids). The recent Buffalo News article, below, highlights the digital divide that we have been trying to address for several years.

How our reporters exposed the extent of the digital divide in Western New York

Since Covid-19’s arrival in Western New York, all of our journalists have followed their beats to unpack issues, and in many cases inequalities, brought to light as a result of the virus’ far-reaching impact. For Jay Rey, who covers education and Buffalo Public Schools, that meant using data to explore pre-existing digital disparities in an era where online learning has become the new normal for students across Western New York and the nation.

“There are a number of kids, in a number of districts, that don’t have either a computer or high-speed internet,” Rey said.

Rey needed the numbers to understand the true extent of the problem. He partnered with Caitlin Dewey, one of our enterprise reporters who’s experienced in analyzing data to tell stories.

From her previous work, Dewey knew the U.S. Census would have the most accurate data on broadband availability by households. “I isolated the school districts in the eight counties of Western New York and looked for the ones with the highest percentages of children under 18 without computers or broadband access,” she said.

“You’re looking at these big spreadsheets, and you have to let your questions guide you through the data,” Rey said. “Who has the least access? Who has the most?”

When asked about his most surprising finding, Rey pointed to the prevalence of our region’s digital divide, but especially in the far, rural counties.

“The data told us exactly how big the problem was for certain districts,” said Rey. “We’re looking at rural counties where half the student population doesn’t have access to the internet. I knew it was high, but I didn’t know it was that high.”

In rural districts, Dewey added, “You aren’t talking about a ton of students. But the lack of access impacts a much larger portion of the student body. That seems like such an enormous instructional challenge in 2020, even before the switch to remote-learning.”

The deep impact of our region’s broad digital divide stands as a critical barrier to education — one that Rey hopes his concrete findings will keep from being overlooked.

“I wanted people to realize how big of an issue this is for families and kids out there,” said Rey. “If they’re going to continue to do this remote learning, digital access is a fundamental issue that we have to get straightened out.”

Mapping Out The Full Picture

The written analysis of our findings is important, but its visual counterpart is another key step in presenting readers with the full picture. Patrick Lakamp is our enterprise editor and the creator of the map included in this story. Here, he shares what goes into the art of mapping and his approach to bringing this particular one to life:

Lots of choices are made when visualizing data: What to map, how to approach it and how much detail to include. For this story, I chose to use a choropleth map, where areas are shaded in proportion to a statistical variable. Choropleth maps work best when showing just one variable — in this case, the percentage of those under age 18 in each school district who have computer access and a broadband subscription.

The result illustrated some clear regional patterns in the data: Low access in rural areas in Chautauqua and Cattaraugus counties as well as poorer urban ones, like Buffalo and Lackawanna. Meanwhile, school districts in Amherst, Orchard Park, Pendleton and Lancaster had high rates of digital access.

The other key part of an effective map is that the color key makes sense and is quickly decipherable. I’ve benefited over the years from advice from Vince Chiaramonte, our design guru. We try not to overwhelm our readers with too many colors on a map. The more colors, the harder it becomes to remember what they mean. For this map, I used a sequential color scheme for most of the categories, from dark blue (for school districts with higher rates of digital access) to light blue (for districts with lower rates). I picked beige for the districts with the worse digital access so they really stood out on the map, like digital deserts. The sequence of light to dark color enables our readers to quickly spot the districts with low and high values.

– Patrick Lakamp

Frank Cerny, PhD, MDiv
Executive Director

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