Voices of Digital Communities

How to Get from "Stuck" to "Started"

A great deal of attention is paid to digital inclusion of the elderly but the digital exclusion of another group is far more important.

by / November 17, 2010

In my last post, I wrote about Dr. Jack Geller of the University of Minnesota and his research into Internet and broadband adoption in rural areas of his state.  Minnesota has made remarkable progress this decade at extending broadband access.  In 2001, only 6% of rural homes had a broadband connection.  By 2010, 68% had one.  But older citizens have not joined the party.  Overall, almost 70% of Internet non-adopters are 65 years of age or older.  

A great deal of attention is paid to digital inclusion of the elderly – for perfectly good reasons – but I believe that the digital exclusion of another group is far more important.  That group consists of the chronically poor: those with low income, poor education and little prospect of any improvement in their lives or those of their children.  Entrenched, multi-generational poverty is a stain on the life of communities everywhere, but most of all in the industrialized nations with their immense wealth and power to affect the lives of citizens.  The causes are multiple and complex.   Being a member of an ethnic or racial minority with a history of exclusion increases the odds but is hardly conclusive.  More powerful are culture, personal expectations and day-to-day habits.  Such poverty persists because the conditions for it are created anew when each child is born.  The cycle of poverty is refreshed each morning in the mind, through habits of thought and feeling that are stronger than chains.  The British have a wonderful phrase to describe their problem population: "not in work."  They might just as well say "not in the world," at least as the rest of us define our existence.

For the permanently poor, digital technologies risk making things worse.  If being digitally literate becomes a prerequisite for work, civic engagement, entertainment and even shopping, the bar is raised further for those who are not.   That is morally wrong.  It is also a big problem in practical terms.  Excluding people costs money – for social services, acute healthcare and criminal justice – that is effectively a tax on everyone else.  A famous study of the impact of early childhood education in the US, called the High/Scope Perry Preschool Program, followed a sample group of poor children for 40 years.  As youngsters, they took part in an intensive and expensive preschool program designed to equip them with basic life skills that they would not learn at home.  The cost was $15,600 per child in 2000 dollars.  The return on investment was a staggering $243,700 or 1525%, of which 75% went to the rest of us in the form of crime reduction, increased tax revenue, lower secondary education costs and savings on social services.    

But here's the rub.  We still don't know very much about how to attack digital exclusion for the chronically poor.  The communities that we have studied offer useful insights and glimmers of hope, but no ready-made solutions.  

Manchester has focused great energy on chronic poverty, because this prosperous community still has some of Britain's most economically distressed communities.  The Eastserve project there offers some important principles.  First, it is to make the people you want to help your partners in providing that help.  The Eastserve project recruited and trained local champions to staff a program that provided new and refurbished PCs to residents who took a digital skills training course.  By investing in recruiting and training the trainers, Eastserve created a core group of believers who could carry the message of digital literacy to their neighbors.  Being neighbors, they found easier acceptance for their message.  The best of them also had the personal commitment to help people through the difficulties of adopting a new and unfamiliar technology.  The program has gone through ups and downs with cycles in funding but has persisted and even grown, and I suspect that is largely because of the community champions it has created.

I have written before about People's Voice Media, another Manchester program in cooperation with the BBC.  Here, the lesson is different.  It is to exploit the three amazing advantages of digital media: it is cheap, relatively easy to master, and very, very cool.  People's Voice Media trains poor citizens to be digital citizen journalists and distributes their work through multiple community Web sites.  While gaining useful skills, participants can also become "stars" in their own community, which is powerful motivation to gain and improve skills that also have market value.  

From the Gangnam District of Seoul, South Korea comes another lesson: don't miss digital opportunities to level the playing field.  Korean culture places enormous value on education.  Poor families are at a disadvantage because they can't afford to send their children to the after-school tutoring (aka "cram schools") that is the common fate of Korean students.  Gangnam's answer was to offer over 100 online lectures from a famous private academy for only US$21 per year, and to digitize more than 300,000 books in its library system.  Broadband is cheap and ubiquitous in South Korea, and these programs have served hundreds of thousands of kids.  

In Cleveland, Ohio, USA, Case Western Reserve University is doing a study of 140 low-income households located near their downtown campus.  Case Western is one of the founding members of OneCommunity, which gives it access to unlimited Internet bandwidth over a regional fiber network.  The university is extending the network into these homes and conducting a multi-year study of how poor residents can use broadband to transform their lives for the better.  It should be ground-breaking work, and we all need to know the results.

On Monday, I met a Swedish consultant who heades a program aiming to increase digital inclusion in rural villages in central Sweden.  These are places gradually losing their population and economic reason-for-being to Stockholm and other major cities.  I asked him to describe the biggest issue he faced.  He put it this way.  "Are people happy with the way things are going?  No.  Do they want to change?  No."  What is true in central Sweden is true in our inner cities, our prosperous suburbs and in most of our hearts.  Getting from "stuck" to "started" can be the longest journey of all. 

Robert Bell Co-founder of the Intelligent Community Forum

Robert Bell is co-founder of the Intelligent Community Forum, where he heads its research and content development activities. He is the author of ICF's pioneering study, Benchmarking the Intelligent Community, the annual Top Seven Intelligent Communities of the Year white papers and other research reports issued by the Forum, and of Broadband Economies: Creating the Community of the 21st Century. Mr. Bell has also authored articles in The Municipal Journal of Telecommunications Policy, IEDC Journal, Telecommunications, Asia-Pacific Satellite and Asian Communications; and has appeared in segments of ABC World News and The Discovery Channel. A frequent keynote speaker and moderator at municipal and telecom industry events, he has also led economic development missions and study tours to cities in Asia and the US.