Michelle Lee is Cofounder and CEO at Textizen, an SMS civic engagement platform that combines the best of analog and digital outreach. She was a 2012 Code for America fellow with the City of Philadelphia. From 2005-2011, Michelle was a UX Designer at Google on the Maps, Flu Trends, and Docs teams. Michelle created Forms under Google’s 20% time policy, and it is now the fasting growing form of Google Doc online. Previously, she designed online trust and safety tools for eBay, cars for baby boomers, and studied human-computer interaction at Stanford University’s Symbolic Systems Program.

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Does the Digital Divide Have a Silver Lining?

As our team of three Philadelphia fellows met with city officials and local organizations across the city, we heard the number 42 over and over. No, we weren’t hitchiking across the galaxy. Forty-two is the percentage of Philadelphians without home internet access according to a 2010 poll by the Pew Internet & American Life Project and the Knight Foundation. (New analysis of 2010 census data further suggests that 54.8 percent lack broadband access.)

In Philadelphia, 10 percent of homes in the Kensington neighborhood have Internet access while in Society Hill, the number is more than 90 percent, said Mayor Michael Nutter in a September 2011 speech. Even once a family owns a computer and subscribes to home internet access, there are still differences in how they use the internet. Lower-middle-income families spend less time researching products online, accessing fewer savings despite more limited budgets [1].

Even without home internet access, people are gaining technical savvy and internet access in different ways. During the February residency, our team spent a day helping more than 115 first-time computer owners set up their new netbooks. Through the Freedom Rings Partnership, Philadelphia Housing Authority residents had earned these netbooks by completing an eight-hour computer literacy course. Amidst cellophane crackles and installation chimes, an unexpected stumbling block emerged: the courses had been taught at bulky desktop computers, where lessons included the basics of scroll-wheel mice. The new netbooks had trackpads instead, and several people tried to scroll by swiping a finger down the screen. They tried to apply the behaviors from the smartphones they’d already purchased and mastered — devices that are arguably more advanced and complex than desktop computers.

A look at the CDC’s National Health Statistics Report Vol. 39, the most detailed public dataset I could find about household phone usage, confirms the pervasiveness of mobile phones. Eighty-eight percent of Pennsylvania adults live in households with mobile access (termed wireless in this study) — a significant margin over those with desktop internet, even with its modest ranking of 20 out of 50 states.

Beyond its ubiquity across demographics, mobile is far from a watered-down, off-brand internet experience. Mobile’s convenience and location awareness have led successful startups from Twitter to Foursquare to Instagram to embrace the philosophy of mobile first, desktop second. Of the 42 companies in the latest cohort of leading seed-stage startup fund Y Combinator, a full third of them are mobile-first or mobile-only.

All this points to mobile as a first-class channel for connecting citizens to their local governments and to each other. The digital divide isn’t merely a binary chasm. It’s a divide of convenience, attention span, and logistics. Seen this way, the digital divide is, yes, an ongoing problem — but also an opportunity. By building mobile tools for civic participation, we can not only make government more accessible to those who don’t have internet access at home, we can lower barriers to civic participation for all.

These visualizations were inspired by Jake Porway’s Data Without Borders seminar at Code for America and guided by Nathan Yau’s most handy book, Visualize This. I used R, a free software environment for statistical computing and graphics, to generate the basic graphs and Adobe Illustrator to fine-tune visual design.

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