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Digital Divide is a poor choice of words

I have been thinking a lot about issues and cultural influencers contributing to the digital divide issues in America. I have mentioned certain aspects and manifestations of Digital divide in my previous blog posts here, here and here.

One of the prevalent misunderstandings among policy makers regarding Digital Divide issues is that it is somehow a technology problem to solve. I think its the word “Digital” that throws people off. Its no surprise that this is one of the issues usually handed off to the city/county/state CIO to go away and figure out. A couple of touching speeches, maybe a strategy document, and a few memos later, the problem gets put on the back burner until the next election cycle.

The reason for this indifference often times isn’t that policy makers and government leaders don’t care. It’s that Digital divide issues are actually inherently very hard to “solve”. In fact, shooting for “solve” may be the absolutely wrong thing to do, much in the same way as “solving” social security or immigration problems are quaisi-impossible. What we should then do is to identify and work towards incremental improvements and achievable milestones through a combination of policy, technology, outreach, education, opportunity and competition. Achievable milestones and planning horizons of 12-18 months, are a better strategy to actually get something done in the right direction.

What we need to understand very clearly is that Digital divide issues are often not inherently technology issues. That’s why it may be best to start calling this group of issues by a different name. Sure, technology, or rather access and ability to use technology, is a major component of the “problem statement”. However, that is just defining the symptoms. The root causes are often not rooted in a “lack of access to technology”. While access to technology (computing resources, broadband access, etc.) is an important contributor, the underlying causes are usually more deep rooted in economic inequality, education, language barriers, lack of training/learning opportunities, and the inability of our education system to make technology a corner stone of individual capability and knowledge.

The CTO can do a lot to help, but cannot lead the charge. city level CTOs can certainly move forward in the “Access” area, by leveraging existing city resources to provide high speed access to under served populations in the city. The District of Columbia DC Net, a part of the Office of the Chief Technology Officer is doing a lot in this area, by extending the city’s existing fiber optic network to serve under served areas within the city, leveraging ARRA grants provided by the Federal government. Its definitely a step forward, although there are several issues still unresolved, including typical last mile issues, and the policy/operational issues inherent in the city becoming the de-facto ISP for hundreds or thousands of households within the District. Moreover, while the District has had some success in this area, other cities or localities may not be as fortunate due to a lack of resources, established platforms, or geographical challenges. DC Net is also providing high speed wireless accessvia hundreds of hot spots across the city, including the National Mall.

However, despite these well intentioned efforts, many other stakeholders need to be involved to address the root causes of Digital Divide issues.

In my analysis, the following stakeholder groups need to gear up and get involved:

  1. Policy Makes/Elected Officials: Elected officials and policy makers need to clearly understand Digital Divide issues and make them a priority, establish policies that address the root causes and establish funding and programs that help with the root cause issues. Some examples, such as the recently introduced legislation mandating GSA to provide high speed wifi access within all GSA managed properties are positive steps in this direction, potentially serving surrounding communities, but policy makers also need to address the difficult aspects, including education, training, opportunity, etc. This can be done in a variety of ways, including provide direct (grants) or indirect (tax subsidies) for employers to provide technology training to employees, or for non profits to provide technology assistance and training to underserved communities.
  2. Non-profit and for-profit higher education institutions: There is huge opportunity for community colleges, and for profit colleges (Phoenix, Strayer, etc.) and vocational/adult education schools to offer technology assistance and education programs to under served communities, and providing access to computer resources when they are not being otherwise utilized. This can also be done by offering volunteer opportunities for advanced college students/graduate students, lab technicians and faculty.
  3. Public Education Systems: Public education systems must analyze and modify their curricula to integrate and weave technology education within the education program starting at the primary school level. More that providing computers in the classroom, the curriculum should be designed to be fully integrated with online research, course work, usage of online tools and trusted online resources, including internal knowledge management portals that allow faculty to share resources, notes, questions and ideas across jurisdictions and school systems.
  4. Non-profit social organizations: Organizations such as AmeriCorps, CityYear, and even the peace corps can be powerful players by using volunteer networks to provide technology assistance and training to under served communities.
  5. Departments of Correction: Most local departments of correction offer some programs to re-integrate incarcerated individuals into society upon release. Technology training can be made part of such programs
  6. Departments of Employment Services: Local departments of Employment services often offer programs to provide vocational skills to individuals on the fringe of employability. Technology training and skill development should be included in these programs.
  7. LIbraries: Public libraries can provide free access to computing resources as well as set up volunteer networks within the community to provide technology training to underserved individuals in the community

If you agree with my analysis above, you will agree that the CIO/CTO cannot lead the charge in addressing Digital Divide issues in a holistic fashion. This leadership should be provided by someone who has purview over the large cross section of public and private sector resources to address this issue from multiple angles, and bring the appropriate stakeholders to the table, perhaps the Deputy Mayor for economic/social development.

The question then is, where does the issue/challenge of Digital divide fall in the grand scheme of things and priorities facing localities? What is the “business case” for addressing this challenge (improved workforce capabilities, reduced unemployment, increased tax revenue through higher caliber average employment, reduced cost by moving more services online, etc.). What do you think? Is this an issue that governments at the local, state or Federal level should be focussed on? Is there a real business case to be made, even in the face of oppressing budgets?

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Great post. It’s a difficult problem indeed. Linked to this is a problem that is even more of a “core issue”, and hence extremely difficult to solve: the gap between the rich and the poor in general, and the fact that it is getting wider. Any of these cross-functional problems won’t be solved quickly and will need the enactment of new laws that get to the heart of the problems in our country (and in our world).

What I like about the “digital divide” as a problem to zero in on is that it isn’t as potentially inflammatory as pointing directly towards the inequities in the distribution of wealth.

In either case, the ultimate target is to “bridge the gap”.