Visualizing Internet Coverage in Pittsburgh

by Inez Khan and Robert Burack

August 7, 2017

When you move into a new home, or change your address, the first wave of mail you receive usually includes offers from internet providers. The choice of providers — if you have the means, or even have the choice to begin with— is an increasingly important one; the internet has become an essential pathway to information, a direct line to employment opportunities and services, and a tool for community building and participation.

While the Federal Communications Commission makes this kind of data on providers public, the format is neither accessible nor easy to visualize. Being able to quickly view and understand which internet options are available in a neighborhood, and see where there might be a lack of options, can not only help inform individual choices, but propel community-level and policy efforts to close the digital divide.

A New Tool for Pittsburgh

Today, the City of Pittsburgh has released a new tool to visualize the availability of, and advertised speeds for, internet coverage throughout the city. Pittsburgh IPs, an internet coverage map built by Inez Khan, a Data Science intern in the Department of Innovation & Performance, is designed with an eye toward accessibility.

 Users can begin by typing any city address into the address search bar of the coverage map. Once an address is entered, users are automatically brought to that location on the map. From there, they can see which providers are available in the surrounding area (the census block in which the address is located), as well as internet speeds from each provider and if the service is available to consumers, businesses, or both. In addition, users can click on the surrounding areas in the map to see what providers are available nearby.

The Public Value

Khan hopes that the map might “introduce residents to lesser known, more affordable options for internet access.” By bringing this data together in an easy to use map, “it makes the decision on which provider to use less complicated, and hopefully will help highlight areas where coverage options are lacking.”

Toby Greenwalt, Director of Digital Strategy and Technology Integration at Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, sees the map as a tool to aid their efforts to close the digital divide. “We think of the digital divide as a three-legged stool,” said Greenwalt. “You’ve got to consider skill-building, access to hardware, and access to bandwidth. Most employment portals, for example, aren’t designed for mobile use, so the Library offers non-mobile ways to get online and has also begun allowing patrons to check-out wireless hotspots.” By seeing potential gaps in bandwidth access, the Library can better focus its outreach efforts.

Previously, no such cohesive map existed for internet coverage in Pittsburgh. While the Federal Communications Commission’s (FFC) National Broadband Map had previously met this need, the Commission has stopped updating the map in recent years.

Where is the data from?

The data is drawn from the FCC’s most recent internet coverage data set, updated in June 2016. The Commission aims to bi-annually release census block-level information on internet providers and their available speeds (upload/download). The Western Pennsylvania Regional Data Center has, in conjunction with the release of the City’s map, published the raw data on its open data portal.

What’s next?

“This map ties in with the overall theme of the work the City has been doing recently around open data,” said Khan. The popular Burgh’s Eye View tool has made a host of City data easy to access and view.

While previously released tools utilized City and County data, Pittsburgh IPs finds the City experimenting with how to communicate and incorporate Federal data sets.

The map was developed internally and at no cost using RStudio, the same software the City used to develop Burgh’s Eye View.

 

Inez Khan is a Data Science intern at the City of Pittsburgh’s Department of Innovation and Performance. Originally from Cambridge, MA., she currently studies Statistics and Machine Learning at Carnegie Mellon University.

 Robert Burack is a Fellow at the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation at Harvard’s Kennedy School. He is based in Pittsburgh where he works with the Chief Data Officer to further the City’s open data and analytics efforts, and to support regional open data collaboration.


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