Seattle Measures its Digital Divide

It appears the country's radar has an increasingly strong fix on the digital

divide. Since the publication last year of the Department of Commerce study,

"Falling Through the Net: Defining the Digital Divide," new polls and initiatives

to close the gap are being announced daily.

Are we nearing the end of the digital divide or just beginning to define

it? How will we know if we've closed the gap? At your next meeting, ask

everyone for their definition of digital equality or technology literacy.

Digital equality may prove to be as elusive a target as closing the poverty


Still, local and state government IT leaders have a vital role to play in

guiding technology access and literacy and in helping to measure progress.

Quality e-government requires residents to have electronic access and be

sufficiently fluent in technology. In Seattle, we have linked our work on

the digital divide with the broader, more positive concept of developing

a technology-healthy community. I believe this better suits our overall

civic mission.

Seattle's Department of Information Technology and its Citizens Telecommunications

and Technology Advisory Board have been working with technology, education

and community leaders to develop a set of information technology impact

indicators. There are several indicators (economic, social and environmental),

but no comprehensive set of community IT impact indicators.

The purpose of this project is to understand the influence and directions

of IT, both positive and negative, in the Seattle region and to use those

indicators to target programs and resources. Sustainable Seattle, a citizen-based

group, and the Progress Project of the Evans School of Public Affairs at

the University of Washington have been working with us on this effort.

A public discussion to answer the question "what is a technology-healthy

city?" resulted in more than 140 people sharing their values and suggestions

for programs and offerring to assist. It was clearly stated that the digital

divide is not just about access and literacy, it is about quality of access

and fluency.

Five overarching themes helped guide our initial discussions: access,

literacy, infrastructure, content and diversity. We have now narrowed down

the indicators to a set of categories that reflect the critical areas defined

by the community:

* Literacy.

* Learning opportunities.

* Community building and social development.

* Business and economic development.

* Access.

* Human relationships to technology.

* Partnerships and resource mobilization.

* Civic participation.

The project has been challenging, but it has also been an effective

tool in increasing partnerships and facilitating awareness and community

dialogue. We needed to jump in the pool and start swimming. We hope that

others will jump in.

The Indicator Project is one of several Citizens Technology Literacy

and Access projects that the Department of Information Technology has undertaken.

The city has also mapped technology access sites and is working with local

schools, libraries and community organizations to develop community technology

centers and public Internet access terminals. Franchise negotiations with

AT&T resulted in a commitment of $100,000 and 500 cable modem connections

for public access. We included access to computers and the Internet in our

citywide residential survey.

The city has co-sponsored neighborhood technology

forums and established a Technology Matching Fund to facilitate community-driven

initiatives. Our community technology planner is helping steer resources

and build bridges between city departments, industry and community.

Government can play a unique role in gathering data, fostering initiatives

and guiding strategic placement of human and capital resources. Quality

data and strategic coordination are increasingly critical. With a plethora

of studies and polls being released, a comparative matrix of the variables

would be very helpful.

A rigorous examination and comparison of these polls and studies would

help clarify key trends and identify missing data. A national or international

set of information technology impact indicators would be useful and should

include examination of diversity and local community building. IT staff

can start locally by encouraging their departments to examine their role

in building a technology-healthy community and closing the digital divide.

Remember, progress is made bit by bit.

— Keyes is Seattle's community technology planner.


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