City Planner Karl Allen Earns National Honors for Digital Equity Work

Karl Allen, Chelsea’s Economic Development Planner, was awarded the Transcending Barriers Award at the inaugural Transcend International Gala in Salt Lake City, Utah, late last year.

The award was created to honor leaders in the public sector who are working to create or further an initiative, intervention, or program focused on improving the quality of life for a particular group or community.

Allen was honored for his role in bringing accessible broadband internet access to the city through a digital equity program.

“As part of our work on digital equity here, we first applied in conjunction with Everett and Revere, and the regional planning agency, MAPC, to do a digital equity plan,” said Allen. “In the process of doing that, the three communities applied for a national Build Better Broadband grant. We were one of six groups selected nationally, and that provided a couple of technical experts who wrote a digital action plan for us.”

The plan went through the process of figuring out what community needs were and doing preliminary design of what a municipal broadband network would look like. One of those experts had been working with a foundation that was looking to do a video as part of their work and suggested Allen would be a good person for them to interview.

When Transcend International wanted to hold their initial gala, Allen was nominated for the work he was doing with Chelsea’s Housing and Community Development Department to further digital equity.

Transcend International is a data-driven 501(c)3 organization that looks to technologies, strategic investments, and partnerships with corporate, government, and community organizations to accelerate inclusion in the financial and educational sectors. Transcend International’s largest project is focused on minimizing the digital divide by utilizing public dollars for public infrastructure for public good. During their Transcend International Charity Gala, the organization raised $2 million dollars that will go directly toward research and creating resources for communities striving to implement digital equity plans just like the City of Chelsea.

“The pandemic really showed us how unequal access is,” said Allen. “The federal program to address digital equity tends to focus on geographic disparities. There are lots of people in rural America who have no access to the internet and that’s where most of the federal money to date has been going.”

But there is also an economic digital divide, Allen said, where companies provide subpar service because they can’t make enough money off of the community they are serving.

“This is the digital divide in Chelsea we are trying to address, and we are hoping to address it aggressively over the next couple of years,” said Allen.

Addressing the digital divide is just one way the Housing and Economic Development Department and Chelsea’s planners have taken a bit of a different approach to urban planning.

“We are much more on the ground than planners traditionally were, and that has been a very rewarding experience,” said Allen. “We are serving the residents of Chelsea, and they need more help than the state or the federal government is providing, and we are trying very hard to be creative in filling as many of those gaps as we possibly can.”

For Allen, working in the public sector is something that came a little later in life.

Allen had a successful career in the software industry, then returned to graduate school when he was in his fifties to study resource economics and urban planning. He has used that degree as a springboard, devoting the latter part of his career to public service, starting in the Chelsea planning department at the end of 2016.

“This is by far the best job I’ve ever had,” said Allen. “You are actually helping people, as opposed to profit maximizing, so I am very happy that we can make a difference in people’s lives.”

One of the next steps in the city’s digital equity initiative will be the creation of a Broadband Resident Advisory Committee. Anyone interested in participating can contact the economic development department at (617) 466-4180.

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