read more...
 
Content and the Digital Divide: What Do People Want?
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.

"There's 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.

What People Want
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 families.

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 training.

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.

Identifying Content-Related Barriers
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:

Lack 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.

Literacy Barriers. 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.

Language 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:
Kade Twist
kade@benton.org

Digital Divide Network
c/o Benton Foundation
950 18th Street, NW
Washington, DC 20006