Digital Divide


Can Wireless Tablets Bridge The Digital and Education Divide?

Elahe Izadi / DCentric

Teacher Bernadette DeSario works with students conducting historical research on wireless tablets.

Coolidge High School students sit in small groups as they prep for their Advanced Placement U.S. history exam. They’ll be expected to write essays on the materials they’ve learned.

“How or why did the anti-slavery movement become more radical during the period between 1815 and 1816?” teacher Bernadette DeSario asks the students during a class last week. ”We’re going to look at a couple of websites that will provide us with primary source documents.”

The students hunch over small, wireless tablets, swiping the screens as they read letters and other 19th century documents, looking for information to support their answers.

Coolidge doesn’t have many computers, principal Thelma Jarrett said. These students get to use tablets provided by Verizon Wireless, through a program running at four D.C. high schools. It’s intended to level the playing field for high school students in low-income schools, particularly as they get ready for college. The program includes tablets that students can use during class, and also a bus converted into a “learning lab,” stocked with tablets, printers and other devices. The bus, which visits the school once a week, is where students go to get help from Howard University tutors in writing college essays and applying to schools.

Coolidge is a Title 1 school, meaning a high percentage of its students come from low-income homes; 64 percent of the student body qualifies for free or reduced lunches. DeSario said many of her students don’t have access to technology, and that the using the tablets helps them develop good, online research skills.

“It’s putting them so far ahead,” she said. “When they get to college, they’re going to be expected to know how to use this technology.”

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Crowdsourcing Neighborhood Changes

Elahe Izadi / DCentric

A sign on 14th Street and Rhode Island Avenue NW asks "What would you build here?"

Businesses play an important role in the transformation of neighborhoods. A certain restaurant or store can attract newcomers, make a block seem “desirable” or become a gathering spot.

But as it stands now, the public generally doesn’t have a say on what specific businesses open up in their neighborhoods, says developer Ben Miller. Should that vacant storefront be a coffee shop or a pet store?

That’s why Ben Miller and his brother, Dan, started in late 2011. They were trying to figure out what to do with the building they purchased at 1351 H Street NE, and wanted public input. So they posted the project online and asked people to vote on ideas they had already explored or submit suggestions. About 1,000 people responded, and Ben Miller says they’ll announce the final project within a few weeks.

The site is in its early stages and currently features five buildings. People sign up by providing their names and zip codes and can then comment on project ideas or suggest new ones for the featured buildings. Building owners, developers and others then use the feedback as a factor in the eventual outcome, along with economics, construction issues and other things.

“A lot of people aren’t in the process of how neighborhoods get built. They don’t know how decisions get made,” Miller says. “A lot of it can be changed by including lots of people who normally don’t get involved.”

But is targeting an online audience the best way to increase involvement? A persistent digital divide in the District means there’s a good chunk of the population who is not connected, and they’re mostly low-income folks.

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‘If I Was A Poor Black Kid:’ Not That Simple

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“If I was a poor black kid,” technology writer Gene Marks writes on Forbes’ website, “I would first and most importantly work to make sure I got the best grades possible.”

So goes the line of thinking in a post entitled “If I Was A Poor Black Kid,” an attempt at helping solve poverty among low-income, black children. Marks writes that what’s most lacking is personal motivation, since opportunities do exist for children from disadvantaged backgrounds, such as scholarships and free or low-cost technological tools. Marks uses Philadelphia as an example and writes that inequality isn’t the nation’s biggest problem, “it’s ignorance:”

So many kids from West Philadelphia don’t even know these opportunities exist for them.  Many come from single-parent families whose mom or dad (or in many cases their grand mom) is working two jobs to survive and are just (understandably) too plain tired to do anything else in the few short hours they’re home.  Many have teachers who are overburdened and too stressed to find the time to help every kid that needs it.  Many of these kids don’t have the brains to figure this out themselves – like my kids.  Except that my kids are just lucky enough to have parents and a well-funded school system around to push them in the right direction.

Technology can help these kids.  But only if the kids want to be helped.  Yes, there is much inequality.  But the opportunity is still there in this country for those that are smart enough to go for it.

Personal motivation will always play a role in individual success. But assuming that children need to simply be “smart enough” to go after available opportunities glosses over a complicated picture. Children don’t operate independently of the environment or adults around them.

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Three Reasons to Use Phones to Reduce the Digital Divide

By A.C. Valdez

alachia / Flickr

There have been a number of ideas on how to reduce the digital divide, or the disparity in access to technology and the Internet among people of different races and income levels. One strategy: make high-speed Internet cheaper for low-income families, which major cables companies will start doing next summer. But will that tactic actually get more people connected? Maybe not. Here are three reasons why improving mobile broadband access, not cable Internet, might be more effective:

People of color don’t use computers as much as whites do.

But that doesn’t mean, particularly for those who are low-income, they aren’t getting online. African Americans and Hispanics are far outpacing whites in accessing the Internet through mobile devices; nationally, 58 percent of African Americans and 53 percent of Hispanics use mobile broadband, compared to 33 percent of whites, according to the Hispanic Institute.

Those trends hold true locally, too: in a 2010 Public Media Corps survey (which I helped conduct), we found that about 71 percent of blacks and 76 percent of Hispanics in some of D.C.’s poorest wards connect to the Internet using their phones. Meanwhile, about 58 percent of whites in those communities used their phones, while 79 percent used computers.

It’s the money, stupid.

“If you have a low income, you just don’t subscribe,” said John Dunbar, who authored a study examining D.C.’s high-speed adoption rates.

Phones are cheaper than computers, and they’re already in people’s hands. Without government or nonprofit help, pay-as-you-go phone plans may offer convenient payment schemes for people worried about making timely monthly payments on stretched budgets.

Language barriers and dealing with cable companies.

Dealing with a cable company over the phone can be a headache —especially when your first language isn’t English. There are more mobile companies with sales and service locations scattered throughout the city than there are major cable providers.  Dunbar found that, even when adjusted for income, Hispanics in the D.C. region are less likely to use high-speed Internet. That may be due to poor marketing to non-English speakers.


Digital Divide: Cable Providers Discounting Broadband for Poor Families

Adikos / Flickr

Starting next summer, the nation’s major cable companies will offer broadband Internet at a discount price to certain low-income families. The service, part of a Federal Communications Commission initiative, will cost $9.95 a month for two years, The Chicago Tribune reports. The rate is available to families with children who qualify for free lunches, meaning households with yearly incomes of $29,055 or less.

Lowering the cost of broadband as a way of reducing the digital divide could be particularly effective in a city like D.C. where most communities have access to the cables required for high-speed Internet. D.C.’s digital divide “absolutely has to do with wealth,” says John Dunbar, who authored a study examining D.C.’s high-speed adoption rates. “If you have a low income, you just don’t subscribe.”

The D.C. region’s digital divide also breaks down along racial lines. Even when adjusted for income, Latinos in the area are less likely to subscribe to high-speed Internet than whites or African Americans. The reason isn’t entirely clear — it may be due to disparities in education or poor marketing to Latinos, Dunbar says.

An even more obvious reason lower-income families aren’t signing up for high-speed internet? Not having a computer. The FCC is trying to tackle the issue by getting companies such as Microsoft to sell computers for $250 or less. But whether such efforts will be enough to reduce the digital divide is yet to be seen.

Brightwood Beats Back Walmart

Flickr: Racineur

According to Lydia DePillis at the Washington City Paper, preservationists who wish to stop Walmart from coming to their neighborhood are now trying to throw history in the retailer’s path:

In a classic last-ditch anti-development tactic, the “Brightwood Neighborhood Preservation Association,” headed by Ward 4 Thrives member Verna Collins, has submitted a landmark application for the Car Barn that now sits on the site of the Walmart planned for upper Georgia Avenue.

One of the comments under DePillis’ piece included concerns about gentrification, displacement and the digital divide:

It’s a brilliant move, really. These people are already doing everything they can to price the long-time residents out of the real estate market. So now they’ve banded together to prevent them from having access to cheaply-priced products. In the final stroke of genius, they’re using the digital divide to take advantage of the older, original folks in the neighborhood who probably don’t even realize this fight is happening.

MLK Library To Close On Sundays

Paul Simpson / Flickr

The Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Library is located at 9th and G streets, NW.

D.C. libraries offer major resources to residents, particularly for those lacking computers or Internet access. And the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Library, the system’s largest and it’s central library, stays quite busy.

But starting Oct. 2, patrons will have to look elsewhere on Sundays. The library will join the city’s other neighborhood libraries, which have been closed on Sundays since last year.

The new hours at MLK  are a result of a budget shortfall; this particular library has about $700,000 less to work with this coming fiscal year, which starts Oct. 1.

But library spokesman George Williams says that Sunday has been one of the least busy days for the MLK library, when it’s only open from 1 to 5 p.m. The neighborhood libraries, however, had been quite popular on Sundays until 2010 when Sunday hours were cut.

“When the decision was made to close Sundays at neighborhood libraries, patrons made the adjustment” and started coming on other days, Williams says.

Why Everyone isn’t Connected in a Wired D.C.

Declan Jewell / Flickr

D.C.’s digital divide is no longer about lack of access to high-speed Internet — it’s about people not signing up, a new study finds.

An American University Investigative Reporting Workshop study, published Thursday, shows that although nearly all of D.C. is wired for high-speed Internet access, there are entire neighborhoods with extremely low adoption rates, meaning very few households are signed up for service. John Dunbar, the study’s author, says the District’s “very deep” divide “absolutely has to do with wealth.”

“If you have a low income, you just don’t subscribe,” he says. “If you look at the city, it’s an adoption divide. It’s really obvious and it’s really disturbing.”

The study breaks down broadband adoption rates by Census tract, rating connectivity on an ascending scale of 1 to 5. An interactive map (see below) details connection rates, Internet providers and income levels for each Census tract:
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Report: Hispanics Most Likely to Use E-Readers

Flickr: Sean MacEntee

Hispanics are adopting tablet devices, such as the iPad, at faster rates than whites and blacks.

Hispanic adults are more likely to own e-readers and tablets than whites and blacks, according to a new Pew Center report.

The demographic shift in this growing segment of technology consumers happened in the past six months. Back in November 2010, 6 percent of whites and 5 percent of Hispanics owned e-readers. In May 2011, 11 percent of whites and 15 percent of Hispanics owned e-readers. The margin is even larger for tablets.

Those numbers may not be entirely surprising for those monitoring demographic trends in the technology world. Blacks and Latinos are more likely to get involved using social media, and minority groups have been very active at using smartphones and taking advantage of the full range of what they offer. But despite such gains, there is still a digital divide – in nearly all-black large swaths of D.C., for instance, high-speed Internet connectivity is below 40 percent.

Blacks, Latinos More Likely than Whites to Get Involved Via Social Media

Oli Scarff/Getty Images

A new Georgetown University study shows that blacks and Latinos are much more likely than whites to learn about and become involved in social causes using social media.

International Business Times reports that the study found:

When it comes to ‘getting the word out,’ African Americans and Hispanics both value Facebook and other social media websites as valuable (58% and 51%, versus only 34% of Caucasians), and believe that supporting causes is easier using these routes.

New Pew Center data also shows that African-American and Latino Internet users are more likely than white Internet users to be on Twitter in the first place: 25 percent of black Internet users are on Twitter, compared to 19 percent of Latino Internet users and 9 percent of white Internet users.

These findings help debunk common stereotypes that social media is mostly used by whites and that communities of color aren’t reached by Facebook and Twitter. However, a digital divide still exists, and minorities are more likely to access the Internet using their mobile devices than a computer. High-speed Internet connectivity is below 40 percent in large swaths of D.C.’s nearly all-black wards.