Closing the Digital Divide

While we encourage agencies to make information easier to find, we must ensure that our citizens know that any information that they may need is available, where to find it, and perhaps most important, give them the skills they need to undertake the "search and acquire" process.
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Today, a growing movement has begun to focus on increasing civic participation among the broader population by making all the tools that are necessary to access information more readily available to more people. Information is, arguably, in more abundant supply than in any other time in history. This is particularly true of local, state and federal government websites, which provide numerous essential services we all rely on. If you know where to look, you can pay a traffic ticket, learn about job openings, or access city services for the poor or indigent. If you know where to start and how to search, you can seek and apply for help for many day-to-day needs. Yet too many of us find it difficult to locate the information we need, when we need it. Even when online information is available, crawling through online searches over countless government administration websites can be a nerve-wracking experience and may ultimately prove worthless if we don't acquire the information we need.

Urban civic activists, proponents of increasing civic participation among all citizens, are calling attention to the inequities in information access. Broadly, they are concerned with how technologies can be used to create better government, better policy, and better communities. They argue that where and how information is or isn't accessible can reinforce privilege and limit opportunities for individuals in underserved and marginalized communities.

Most of what we hear in the media regarding the "digital divide" and issues of digital equity have been centered on issues of physical access: Are computers readily accessible, available, and up-to-date? Some researchers now suggest that the equality of access orientation must be replaced with an equity orientation, which focuses on the availability of information, online, to people from all walks of life and whether the information is easily locatable on websites, to increase the likelihood that all users, and especially the poor and disadvantaged, can take advantage of information to improve their day-to-day lives. Through the lens of an equity orientation, we consider the educational and social inequities that are inherent in the lives of so many. For example, an equality orientation might be satisfied with the presence of computers in all public libraries and public schools. An equity orientation, however, focuses attention on increasing awareness, amongst all members of the population, that information is available, where the information exists, and how to navigate websites to find information when it is needed. An equity orientation aims to encourage public, private, and nonprofit organizations to make information more user-accessible, online. Additionally, with respect to increasing user skills and knowledge about how to locate and use information, online, an equity orientation goes beyond a one-time how-to experience to deep and regularly occurring opportunities for people to use technology in meaningful ways.

One fairly common equality orientation approach that developed over the past 10 years is desktop computer "giveaways," which improve ready access to information by making computers themselves more available. For example, PCs for People in Minnesota is providing computers with Internet access, along with training on how to use them, to 40 Minneapolis households. An expansion of the Digital Equity Program, the initiative also provides training on computer use. However, the need is much greater than what the program can fulfill and funding, in these times of economic challenge, is often hard to find.

What is needed is regularly occurring training in capital enhancing activities, such as learning where and how to access information that improves human, financial, and social resources, and is essential for increasing civic participation and digital equity. In a Northwestern University survey of college students age 18-22, researchers found that young adults with more education were more likely to visit capital enhancing sites, that is, sites that served to inform and build knowledge including blogs, news outlets and related government, civic and political information sites; career or job seeking sites, and financial and health related service sites.

Now of course, in an ideal world, over the next few years, local, state, and federal government websites will make information easier to find: Website design will be more intuitive and responsive to the user; sites will be regularly checked to ensure that links are active and not broken; language should be conveyed in "plain speak," and easily read by someone with a 6th grade education or beyond; information will be made available in multiple languages, reflecting the multicultural and multilingual society that we have become; and information in the form of videos and images will be available to increase understanding, and provide an alternate approach to sharing important information.

In the interim, while we encourage agencies to make information easier to find, we must ensure that our citizens know that any information that they may need is available, where to find it, and perhaps most important, give them the skills they need to undertake the "search and acquire" process.


Kim Gomez is a professor of education and information studies at the UCLA Graduate School of Education & Information Studies and the 2014-15 Fellow of the Sudikoff Family Institute for Education & New Media.

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