Content and the Digital Divide: What Do People
Kevin Taglang, Benton Foundation
A narrow definition of the digital divide focuses on access to computers
and the Internet. But access alone does not bridge the technology
gap. To realize the potential of today's information tools, people
need the skills to operate them to better their lives and the health
of their communities. The ability to create and share community-relevant
information is part of that equation.
In March, The Children's Partnership (TCP) published Online Content
for Low-Income and Underserved Americans: The Digital Divide's New
Frontier (available online at www.childrenspartnership.org).
The report examines a key element of the digital divide that is
often ignored in debates about access to information technologies.
During five years of work to bridge the digital divide, TCP has
found that it is as important to create useful content on the Internet
- material and applications that serve the needs and interests of
millions of low-income and underserved Internet users - as it is
to provide computers and Internet connections.
been so much focus on the boxes and wires to connect to the Internet
that we almost forgot to ask what people are getting once they connect,"
said Wendy Lazarus, co-author of the study and founder of the Children's
Partnership. "We found a strong desire among people for practical,
local information about their neighborhoods that seems to fly in
the face of the way the Internet is moving in terms of national
portals" like Yahoo, Netscape and Excite. II.
Although the release of Online Content for Low-Income and Underserved
Americans garnered some press coverage earlier this year, not enough
attention was paid to TCP's groundbreaking work determining just
what content is desired by people who have low incomes, live in
rural communities, have limited education, or are members of racial
or ethnic minorities. For Americans at risk of being left behind,
useful content includes: 1) employment, education, business development
and other information; 2) information that can be clearly understood
by limited-literacy users; 3) information in multiple languages;
and 4) opportunities to create content and interact with it so that
it is culturally appropriate.
Through focus groups and interviews, TCP found that underserved
adults want to engage in social, cultural and professional activities
online with special emphasis on local information about entertainment,
jobs, places of worship and educational opportunities.
People want practical information focusing on local community like
local jobs listings including jobs requiring entry-level skills;
local housing listings; and community information about neighborhood
events, local schools and near-by destinations for family outings.
Although the Internet contains many job resources, these sites often
do not include entry-level positions. Similarly, low-rent housing
is in great demand across the country, but it is hard to find such
information online. This population is also interested in finding
information about local service organizations - like job agencies,
day care and after-school programs - and activities at local churches.
For the large population of non-English speakers in the US, there's
a desire for online translation tools since so much of Web content
is currently in English. Many of these people would like to develop
linguistic and other skills and need tools - like interactive Web
sites - to provide grammar practice, vocabulary development and
reading assistance. But information also needs to be available in
other native languages - especially information related to government
like taxes and voting.
Over 3.4 million Limited English Proficient (LEP) students are enrolled
in schools throughout the United States, according to 1998 figures
from The National Clearinghouse for Bilingual Education (www.ncbe.gwu.edu).
Over the next five years, it is expected that another 1 million
LEP children will attend U.S. schools. In June, Lightspan Inc announced
it would be teaming up with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban
Development to provide interactive and online content including:
math and reading activities aligned with state standards; an online
English/Spanish Parent and Family Center to provide homework assistance;
and a series of online research tools, including an interactive
encyclopedia, dictionary and thesaurus. The initial programs will
be established in Delaware, where Governor Thomas R. Carper provided
leadership in facilitating this partnership on behalf of lower-income
The American Association of Museums is also committed to closing
the achievement gap by encouraging museums to meet the needs of
Hispanic students by providing teacher training, using technology
to link to schools with large Hispanic populations, and making curriculum
materials available online.
People also want more spaces on the Internet that allow for cultural
exploration and development, reflecting unique cultural characteristics
and attributes. Spaces that allow for interaction on art, music,
food and sports would allow people to share information about their
heritage and cultural practices. There's also a need for health
information to be presented with the interests of particular racial
and ethnic groups in mind and with local connections.
Not surprisingly, The Children's Partnership included a focus on
the needs of young people. With more hands-on experience, young
people see the Internet as a medium for self-expression - much more
than adults do. Young people want to communicate with other kids
all over the world and expect interaction and multimedia from sites.
They want all-in-one sites that offer games; downloadable plug-ins,
music, video, and pictures; tips and strategies; email; and user
profiles. They are also interested in youth-friendly tutorials and
Effective searches are a problem raised by both adults and children
during TCP's research. As recently reported by the San Jose Mercury
News, the World Wide Web is 500 times larger than the maps provided
by popular search engines like Yahoo!, AltaVista and Google.com.
BrightPlanet, a South Dakota company that has developed new Internet
searching software, estimates there are now about 550 billion documents
stored on the Web, while all Internet search engines combined only
index about 1 billion pages. Until affordable, more effective searches
are available, people want coaches and mentors to guide them in
finding what they want on the Web and suggestions for sites and
activities to get started. Many underserved people turn to family,
friends and other trusted people to get the information they need,
so there's little "felt need" to go to the Web or the
library. This lack of motivation is reinforced when people are confronting
by confusing, slow, or text-heavy searches. III.
TCP's research found a number of barriers between the content people
want and what is available online. Although underserved communities
are gaining access to computers and the Internet, their benefits
are limited because of the following factors:
of Local Information. Perhaps the most far-reaching barrier
of all is the scarcity of the kind of information that users want
most -- local information about their community. While this barrier
potentially affects a great many Americans, it disproportionately
affects Internet users living on limited incomes, especially the
nearly 21 million Americans over age 18 whose annual income is less
than $14,150 for a family of three (the level used by the federal
government to define poverty). TCP estimates that 21 million Americans
are affected by this barrier.
Online content has been primarily designed for Internet users who
have discretionary money to spend. The vast majority of information
on the Net is written for an audience that reads at an average or
advanced literacy level. Yet 44 million American adults, roughly
22 percent, do not have the reading and writing skills necessary
for functioning in everyday life. TCP estimates that 44 million
Americans are affected by literacy barriers.
Barriers. Today, an estimated 87 percent of documents on
the Internet are in English. Yet, for at least 32 million Americans,
English is not their primary language. They are often left out of
the benefits the Internet offers.
Lack of Cultural
Diversity. The Internet can be a powerful tool to share
and celebrate the uniqueness of cultures in this country and beyond.
However, despite the tremendous surge in ethnic portals, there is
a lack of Internet content generated by ethnic communities themselves
or organized around their unique cultural interests and practices.
For many of the 26 million Americans who are foreign born, the lack
of cultural diversity in available content serves as a real barrier.
For additional information on content-based efforts to close the
digital divide see:
- Prairienet - A Home for Community Content
- The Role of the Arts in Bridging the Digital Divide As with
all digital divide efforts, the Digital Divide Network is seeking
to profile and highlight the initiatives around the country
working to close content-related barriers.
If you are connected to or know of such an effort, please let
us know through this form and we will add it to our growing database
of community-based organizations.
Or write to:
Digital Divide Network
c/o Benton Foundation
950 18th Street, NW
Washington, DC 20006