Seattle Measures its Digital Divide
- By David Keyes
- May 01, 2000
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
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
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:
* Learning opportunities.
* Community building and social development.
* Business and economic development.
* 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.