Fighting the Digital Divide

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Originally written Spring 2015

By Andrew Jones

 As the Internet is increasing in size everyday, minorities and low-income communities are being left behind. Not only is there a lack of access to technology, there is also a lack of knowledge on how to use certain technology. America is transitioning from a consumption of product culture to a consumption of information culture. The Digital Divide is an urban issue for several reasons, the lack of access and out of date technology in low-income urban communities is affecting the job growth and education.

Digital Divide is defined different depending on the circumstances of where you are, and there are also different types of divides within the Digital Divide. One researcher defined the Digital Divide as:

[blockquote author=”” link=”” target=”_blank”]… a division between individuals and households at different socio-economic levels, regarding their chances to access or use information and communication technology. A theoretical distinction exists between the first-level and second-level digital divide. The first-level digital divide deals with problems of access to computers and the Internet, while the second-level focuses on the user profiles of new technologies (Korupp,2005).[/blockquote]

The Digital Divide isn’t just about the access to the Internet and other technologies; it’s also about being able to use the technology efficiently. Some researchers argue that the usability divide is far worse than the economic divide of the Digital Divide.

Far worse than the economic divide is the fact that technology remains so complicated that many people couldn’t use a computer even if they got one for free. Many others can use computers, but don’t achieve the modern world’s full benefits because most of the available services are too difficult for them to understand. Almost 40% of the population has lower literacy skills, and yet few websites follow the guidelines for writing for low-literacy users. Even government sites that target poorer citizens are usually written at a level that requires a university degree to comprehend. The British government has done some good work on simplifying much of its direct.gov.uk site information, but even it requires at least a high school education to easily read. Lower literacy is the Web’s biggest accessibility problem, but nobody cares about this massive user group (Nielsen, 2006).

Even if we were able to give everyone who needed a computer, a computer it wouldn’t fix the issue because people still wouldn’t know how to use them. They wouldn’t know where to look for certain information, which would be the point of having a computer. This is not a national issue this is a global issue, close to 60% of the world’s population do not have access to the internet or a computer. About 70% of Americans are broadband Internet users, but only 62% of Black people are on the Internet compared to 74% of White people (PewResearchCenter).

Some of the factors associated with the Digital Divide are age, income and educational attainment, community type, disability, and what language you speak specifically Spanish. In households were the average income is at least $150k, 90% of those households have broadband Internet, compared to 64% of the households that make less than $30k (PewResearchCenter). Only 54% of people with disabilities use the internet, and only 41% have broadband internet at home, in comparison 81% of all adults use the internet and 69% have broadband at home (PewResearchCenter). For people whose first language is Spanish 71% use the Internet and only 38% have broadband at home (PewResearchCenter).   

Causes of the Digital Divide include: lack of access due to affordability, lack of knowledge on how to use technology, and lack of knowledge of the benefits of technology (Hulegaard). Other research shows that human capital (education, use of a PC at work), family context (household composition, household income), and social context (generation, gender, ethnic background, region) all determine whether how much you use a computer and the Internet (Korupp,2005).  A lot of researchers agree that the number of people who have access to computers and use the Internet is increasing, and the gap between people who know how to use the Internet and those who don’t is increasing. Age is also a big factor that determines how much and how well you use the Internet. Older Americans (60+) use the internet a lot less than younger Americans, almost 50% of older Americans don’t use the internet (PewResearchCenter).   

There are several organizations in Chicago that are working toward getting rid of the Digital Divide. One organization that is working with Humboldt Park and Pilsen neighborhoods is Smart Communities: Chicago Digital Excellence Initiative. Smart Communities works towards building a stronger digital culture in the community:

[blockquote author=”” link=”” target=”_blank”]

“The Smart Communities program works to increase digital access and use by families, businesses and other institutions in five moderate‐ and low-income Chicago neighborhoods: Auburn, Gresham, Chicago Lawn, Englewood, Humboldt Park and Pilsen. Created with input from residents and led by local organizations, the program is building a culture of digital excellence that supports neighborhood goals—from education to economic development, from safety to youth programs. (Smart Communities, 2015) ”

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Smart Communities came up with five strategies to help them build a stronger digital culture in Chicago neighborhoods: build awareness, expand digital education and training, improve access, generate local content, and help existing businesses. They plan on reaching those goals by setting up technical trainings, family net centers, business resource networks, community portals, digital youth network, and digital youth summer jobs. For each Chicago neighborhood there is an adjusted plan, depending on what the community needs are. In Humboldt Park for example out of 65,000 people only 43% of them used the internet, with 53% saying the reason they didn’t use it was because it was too expensive (Smart Communities, 2010). Planners on the Smart Committee said that the increase of technology use could have an impact on major issues:

For Humboldt Park, technology can be a tool to tackle racial, cultural and socio­economic barriers, overcoming geographic obstacles and building community across all of Humboldt Park — both geographically and across populations. local organizations are leaders in the field of community redevelopment and have seen major victories on a wide variety of programs. With appropriate training, non­profit staff can use technology to become more effective, communicate in real-time and reach out to the community with additional tools at their disposal. this will require a mindset change in how services are delivered, how records are kept, and how to combine good, old-fashioned outreach and organizing with new technology tools (Smart Communities, 2010).

Some of the strategies for Humboldt Park developing a stronger digital culture were engaging youth in the community in productive ways. Some of the ways they plan on doing that is creating youth leadership programs, after school and summer programs, and skill exploration programs. One of the things they do in the skills exploration programs is teach youth how to manage an Internet based radio station and create content as well. The Smart Communities and Humboldt Park leaders believes that engaging youth in the community is a powerful tool:

Providing training, support, and independence to youth is one of the most important strategies in Humboldt Park. We can use technology to capture the talents and dreams of Humboldt Park youth and leverage these assets for other generations (Smart Communities, 2010).  

One of their best ideas was to make the Puerto Rican Cultural Library digital. The cultural center has one of the biggest collections of books on the developing world inside the Humboldt Park community; idea is to make it digital so your able to search it from home like the Chicago Public Library collection.

Some researchers say that through affordable services and diverse content will help close the gap of the Digital Divide. Some of the solutions that the UN provided were: more competition in the market will lead to more usage because of lower cost, stimulate local content creation and consumption, and as well as providing access. Connecting For Good, a non profit group out of Kansas City, Missouri believes that the solutions to the Digital Divide are: internet connectivity for under resourced families, refurbishing old computers to provide them to members of the community for a low cost, digital literacy training, community technology centers, and mobile computer labs that go to different places in the community such as churches and schools and offer workshops and options of buying very cheap computers.  

I believe that the Digital Divide is an issue that we should take a lot more serious. The internet provides individuals with information that they can use to create many opportunities. Having the access to the technology is important, but what I believe is more important is being able to comprehend how the technology works and how it works in your favor and also how it can work against you. The Internet is a crazy place made up of facts and opinions, it is important to have the skills to decipher between the two. If you are not able to tell the difference between what are facts and what aren’t, your decision making process will be tainted. I believe closing the Digital Divide gap will lead to better communities in urban areas, because more information about laws and policies that affect those individuals will be available for their use. Now we don’t know whether or not that making that information easily accessible will lead to people actually accessing it, but at least they would have the choice to. I believe that it would lead to better-informed citizens who could organize themselves better to create change in policies and institutions that they have been at a disadvantage too. 

 

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