Mark Stencel was previously GOVERNING's executive editor and deputy publisher.E-mail: email@example.com
Many programs that aim to close the much-debated "digital divide" emphasize hardware and infrastructure--providing cheap computers to those who can't otherwise afford them or, more recently, promising low-cost access to high-speed Internet connections.
Those efforts may help. But what about those who wouldn't know what to do with a mouse if you put one in their hands?
Some local governments are looking for answers that focus not just on the gap in resources but on the capability gap--comprehensive approaches that emphasize computer training and literacy as much as handing out laptops and setting up public Wi-Fi networks.
Two of the cities that are taking the lead in what is sometimes called "digital inclusion" are Miami and Chicago. In Miami, city officials are focused on helping anyone who hasn't yet plugged in learn how to take advantage of online job-hunting tools, government services and educational resources. Mayor Manuel A. Diaz says the effort is "part of an overall strategy to address poverty in Miami."
In addition to providing discounted computers through corporate partner Dell and hand-me-downs from the city's tech staff, Miami offers introductory Internet courses in local parks and senior centers. The courses are supplemented with free online training material provided by Microsoft, another corporate contributor. Low- income citizens are a key target audience, but so are seniors and those who don't speak English--two major constituencies in Miami.
An advisory council in Chicago began looking at digital inclusion last year, just as that city was preparing to seek a corporate partner for its planned wireless network. A report delivered in May emphasized that Chicago's Wi-Fi plan is only a starting point. The panel called for appointment of a "Digital Excellence Officer" who would coordinate government, non-profit, educational and corporate efforts. Computer courses would be offered through neighborhood community technology centers, with additional help from educational institutions, libraries, corporate partners and "tech-savvy young people." As in Miami, the Chicago plan looks at how to tailor education and outreach programs for different disconnected population groups, including those with disabilities.
The focus on training and education will become increasingly important as the number of people who are not already online shrinks. The truth is the digital divide isn't quite what it used to be. A survey by the Pew Internet and American Life Project found that home broadband use is on the rise, even in areas where data has shown pockets of disconnect, with big increases since last year among African Americans (up 29 percent), in rural areas (24 percent) and among those with annual incomes under $30,000 (43 percent).
Gaps persist, however, and education, income, ethnicity and age are the problems. Closing those gaps will take computer skills and know- how, not just hardware and connectivity. As a Spanish-language page on the Miami program's Web site says, "Saber Es Poder"--To Know Is to Be Able.