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The last day of our SHIFT: Connect conference featured keynote Dr. Laxmi Prasad Pant, who spoke on rural broadband and equity issues, and Dr. Kate Mulligan who spoke on access to health. We also had two amazing workshops from the folks at PLANifax and our own student Natasha Juckes who presented on women’s perception of safety in Halifax. Mayor Mike Savage opened our day, as he usually does, with a reflection on how things have changed in a year–in the midst of COVID, Halifax grew by 4,500 jobs and 1,700 new companies since January 2020.

Dr. Pant spoke about the history of industrial innovations–in the mid-20th century (the third industrial revolution) we still had 50% of people without broadband internet, and now we’re entering a time when human jobs are being replaced by technology (the fourth industrial revolution). Providing ultra-fast internet is starting to happen in the US: Kansas City was the first Google Fiber City with 1000 Mbps, but it was not very equitably distributed. In Canada, the most common perception is that the last mile is the most affordable for large providers to serve, but we have such a huge land mass this isn’t true. The most common has become public-private partnerships (e.g. Internet for Nova Scotia), as well as First Nations owned/operated satellite-based broadband, hyper-local municipally owned networks (Utilities Kingston), and community-based networks (O-Net, Olds Alberta).

The Broadband for Nova Scotia Initiative is aiming for 99% coverage by 2023, with speed targets of 50/10 Mbps down/up for wired and 25/5 Mbps down/up for wireless/satellite. Eastern Ontario Regional Network has been much more ambitious, aiming for 1000 Mbps and 95% coverage of the region, which will allow more telecommuting, encourage jobs to come to the region, and increase property tax revenue. In England, Broadband for Rural North (B4RN) is aiming for 1000 Mbps synchronous for just 30 pounds/month, to be completed by 2025 for 95% of the population. This is a community-owned/operated network funded through a PPP–local people with expertise in installing the networks formed a limited company and asked for community volunteers to build it. Dr. Pant told a great story about a person from the Himalayas who studied in the UK and felt very isolated when he returned home. He wrote an op-ed piece in the UK to ask for help from volunteers in building computers and connecting to the internet, and it was actually done. Dr. Pant noted that public participation is important because the types of connection that are possible are only possible with the partnership of local land owners to install fibre lines, as well as public and private investment–but these community-based networks are vulnerable to mergers with large-scale ISPs (who up until now only serve populated areas and affluent users). PPPs don’t bring down the price of internet nor do they close the rural-urban divide.

I attended Natasha Juckes’ workshop on women’s safety and perceptions of safety in Halifax. She pointed out that street safety is perceived differently in each culture, and that videos showing street harassment have shown this. Her survey of 90 women found that 37% of respondents felt unsafe, with the average safety score 2.6 on a 5-point scale. The most common factors that negatively affected their perception of safety was people on the street and stories from friends and the media, while factors most positively affecting safety were the presence of people on the street and the time of day. Safest times were in the morning from 7-9am and afternoons 4-6. Natasha also used crime data for Halifax and a Google streetview audit of land uses to rate streets. Commercial areas are rated higher, as were areas with more light. you can view her app here and website here.

Dr. Mulligan told us that Etobicoke, North York, and Scarborough have been more effected by COVID-19 because there are more of them working in essential jobs (manufacturing, health care), living in precarious housing and racially segregated areas, live in areas with low transit access and that are less walkable, and have higher food insecurity. Their access to mainstream health care is lower as is their access to internet. Similar to responding to natural hazards and emergencies, countries with strong community health systems and engagement fared better during the pandemic. Social prescribing helps use a health care visit to connect people back to resources in their communities, and to track the benefits of this approach. Rexdale Community Health Centre and Black Creek Community Health Centre worked with their community members to locate in spaces that felt safe, codesign their services, communicate in clear, trusted, and culturally relevant approaches, and use government resources (which came in later from the municipality and province). They used social prescribing so when people come in for their COVID tests, they could refer them to a social prescribing navigator to understand what help they need (e.g. access to a food bank to address food security). The navigator can walk them through the services and even go to the first visit with the client. This approach has had a major impact on individuals’ well being in the longer term: in Dr. Mulligan’s pre-COVID research in a range of communities, clients reported a 12% increase in mental health, 49% decrease in loneliness, and 19% increase in social activities. During COVID, the health providers said 57% of their clients reported an increase in their well being after one month and 86% after three months. Other organizations have taken the same approach, like services for seniors, programs to combat social isolation, and the University Health Network creating a mobile health clinic which helps meet other needs like housing and tax services.

Thanks to our students Travis Nikkel, Gail Armour, Victoria Hamilton, Harrison Ellis, Jack Graham, Eric Lindsay, Katie Vaughan, Courtney Kowal, Katherine MacLellan, Nathalie Vogel, and Jacob Quinton for organizing this amazing conference, and our sponsors for helping to keep SHIFT free for over 25 years.



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