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How will Gov 2.0 address the digital divide?

Last week, I wrote about 

how the internet facilitates civic participation and encourages individuals to connect with each other. But what about those on the other side of the digital divide? Not everyone has access to the technologies that enable this new kind of participation.

As Gov 2.0 becomes the norm, and digital citizenship becomes even more intertwined with “offline” citizenship, how will we ensure that everyone is included in the benefits of participatory governance – not just those already fortunate enough to have broadband access at home and the know-how to use it effectively?

The digital divide refers to the gap between those with access to information technology, and those with ineffective or no access. “Access” includes not only physical access to the technological means, but also the skills and knowledge to use that technology effectively and participate as a digital citizen. “Americans who lack broadband Internet access are cut off from many educational and employment opportunities,” said Assistant Secretary for Communications and Information and NTIA Administrator Lawrence E. Strickling in a press release announcing a new report on broadband usage in America.

For those of us immersed in the world of technology, accustomed to the constant buzz of Twitter and secure in the knowledge that Google is always a click away, it can seem like this technology is everywhere and everyone has the skills to use it.  The fact that you’re reading this blog post probably means that you’re firmly on the “connected” side of the digital divide.

But a November 2010 report from the Department of Commerce showed that the digital divide is still very much a reality in America: almost 25% of American households do not have an internet user. Another new study from Pew Research last week demonstrated that Latinos still lag behind white and black Americans in broadband adoption.

Income and education are strongly correlated with broadband use at home. In fact, the Pew study found that the differences in internet usage between Latino Americans and whites can be largely linked to more general socioeconomic inequalities: “Hispanics, on average, have lower levels of education and earn less than whites. Controlling for these factors, the differences in internet use, home broadband access and cell phone use between Hispanics and whites disappear.  In other words, Hispanics and whites who have similar socioeconomic characteristics have similar usage patterns for these technologies.”

This and other findings make clear that marginalized groups are the ones most adversely affected by the digital divide. Those who are already disadvantaged by income or education are more likely to be excluded from digital citizenship. But that’s precisely the opposite of the inclusive, participatory governments that many hope can be realized through Gov 2.0. Improving access and education to ensure that all citizens are able to participate is a key ingredient in the success of the Gov 2.0 movement.

Another face of the digital divide is manifested between urban and rural locations. “Urban residents were more likely than their rural counterparts to adopt broadband Internet, even after accounting for socio-economic difference,” found the Department of Commerce study. The F.C.C. has recently proposed steps to fund broadband expansion for underserved rural areas. And as an organization devoted to promoting participation through tech-savvy governance for all Americans—though we’ve focused on cities so far—this is something that concerns Code for America too.

Code for America’s model of creating free, shareable Gov 2.0 applications means that towns and counties without the economic means to access these resources on their own will be able to take part in the Gov 2.0 movement. We’re working to make sure that the Gov 2.0 doesn’t create a new digital divide between relatively wealthier urban governments, and smaller urban or rural governments.

We also need to make sure that when we’re thinking about participation, we remember that improving citizen access is the first step to making sure everyone is able to participate in digital democracy. Governments, such as our partner-city, Boston, and organizations like Per Scholas (among many others), are already doing great work in this area. And, there’s room to do a lot more. Making government work better is about making it work better for everyone, regardless of where they live or how much money they have.