Digital Equity for Returning Citizens

Daniel Lander, a 2017 Summer Fellow with the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics, is a Master in Public Policy Candidate at Harvard University.

My name is Daniel Lander, and though I was born in Boston, I’ve spent most of my life looking across the Charles river from Cambridge where I grew up and live now. Currently, I am a masters in public policy candidate at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government where I study social and urban policy. My focus has been on the potential of Cities to reduce inequality (of many forms: economic, racial, gender-based, etc) and to serve as drivers of economic mobility and diversity. Prior to graduate school, I was in New York City working at the civil rights law firm Neufeld, Scheck & Brustin helping to advance criminal justice reform on behalf of wrongfully incarcerated individuals. I also spent time at Just-A-Start, a community development corporation in Cambridge working to engage the residents of the agency’s affordable housing developments.

I first heard about the New Urban Mechanics several years ago and remember talking with some friends about how exciting I thought the work the Office was doing. I have had the opportunity to work in legislative settings before, where the policy focus is on thinking long term. What struck me about the New Urban Mechanics was the focus on improving the lived experience of everyday Bostonians as quickly as possible. I was very interested in spending my summer getting a chance to explore urban policy making to build upon my academic work. Getting a chance to be a summer fellow here has given me an opportunity to get inside City Hall while still learning about how to shake up the status quo of what government can mean to citizens.

This summer, I have explored the role of technology in the reentry process of Citizens returning to Boston from incarceration to develop a digital equity framework for how to meet the needs of this population to help them make the most of their second chance. This is a vital issue for Boston because every year over three thousand citizens come back to the City’s neighborhoods, and average of eight a day. To understand the problems facing returning citizens I tried to get a broad portrait of reentry in Boston. I was very lucky that so many community providers were willing to give up their time to tell me about their work helping these citizens access vital services including legal help, medical care, and job training. I also canvassed the country, speaking with dedicated public servants trying to improve reentry in Cities across the country, from Baltimore to Los Angeles. Most importantly, I had the chance to sit and hold focus groups with returning citizens about their reentry journeys and the challenges they have faced coming home.

It became clear to me through this conversations that while what returning citizens need most are the basics like secure affordable housing, available medical treatment, and stable employment, technology can play a crucial role in easing the transition back from incarceration. For older individuals returning from longer sentences, technology is confusing and sometimes frightening. Even navigating the MBTA via a CharlieCard is a new difficult experience that can serve to isolate individuals. Though almost every citizen who comes home can operate a smartphone, the vast majority return to the City with almost no digital fluency. Reducing this skills deficit won’t be a panacea, but can help returning citizens more easily access social services that can help them succeed.

The Mayor's Office of New Urban Mechanics is Boston's Civic R&D Lab / Incubator.