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Why Wireless Cities Matter
[Part 3] The urban divide and geographic information
Gregory Daigle (gdaigle)     Print Article 
Published 2005-12-06 18:11 (KST)   

Related Articles
Why Wireless Cities Matter (1)
Why Wireless Cities Matter (2)


This third part of a three-part article reports on discussions at the first Wireless Cities ... Community Context conference. The conference looked beyond e-government services to explore how community members enhance their everyday lives through wireless.

Bridging the Digital Divide(s)

There is not one digital divide... there are several. Age, income, education and ethnicity are factors presenting the widest divides that separate Internet users from non-Internet users and broadband users from dial-up users.

According to the Pew Internet & American Life Project only 26 percent of Americans aged 65 and older go online, though 84 percent of 18-29 year olds do so. Just 29 percent of non high school graduates have online access, contrasted with 89 percent of college graduates. And 57 percent of African-Americans go online, compared with 70 percent of whites.

Teens are avid creators of content. About half of all teens either create content in the form of a blog or Web page, share original content or remix content found elsewhere. Urban teens tend to be greater content creators than those in suburbs or rural areas. Though 19 percent of white teens online are bloggers, they're not far ahead of African American (17 percent) or Hispanic (17 percent) teen bloggers. And the percentage of teens who share self-created media is highest in the lowest income bracket (and lowest in the highest income bracket!)

Since broadband usage is currently the best predictor of a wider range of activities in an online life, broadband holds the key for those on the other side of the divide. Broadband users are up 150 percent from 2002, but not across all income strata. Since 2002, dial-up users with income under $30,000 have increased 50 percent while other groups decreased dial-up usage in favor of broadband. If under-served communities don't adopt broadband they will lag behind the rich online experiences of broadband users.

Where can you find inexpensive broadband that will appear to low-income users? Cable companies compete with telecoms for providing moderately high priced broadband services.

Demographic studies on television usage show that low income families are the least likely to subscribe to cable, so cable modem usage is even more remote for them. This is one reason why municipalities are looking toward wireless broadband providers to offer a lower cost alternative.

Wireless cloud access can be accessed from any neighborhood without redlining, costly installation fees and does not violate rental agreements. Wireless clouds may represent the best opportunity to bridge the digital disparity in our urban neighborhoods.

Local Literacy

Within a concentration of poverty it becomes difficult, if not impossible, for a neighborhood to perceive itself as becoming successful. An economic digital divide brings with it gaps in technology literacy and cost of ownership. In turn, these result in a paucity of content relevant to the local community.

Once access is available there is still the cost of ownership and lack of technology literacy as barriers. As $100 laptops become available technology, literacy is perhaps the more difficult problem in bridging the divide. There are many communities defined by color, income, age and language that need technology literacy to compel usage and develop relevant content. Online content is frequently focused on the interests of existing populations and is less relevant and valuable to low income, minority and immigrant populations.

Getting people connected is much more than just having access and tutorials up on the Web. It is also having "boots on the ground." One such grounded effort is through CTCs (Community Technology Centers). There are over a thousand CTCs in the U.S. providing computer usage training at centers peppered through most urban communities. Other groups such as Content Bank aim to spur the development of online content and tools for and by low-income residents and other under-served Americans. One Economy helps low-income people use technology to build assets and join the economic mainstream.

It focuses around four key areas: access services, online consumer content, technology-related policy initiatives and youth leadership.

One exemplary CTC, the Digital Access Project, also provides training and tutorials for basic computer skills to immigrant communities. A few muniwireless RFPs, notably Minneapolis, specifically require respondents to coordinate with neighborhood CTCs and include multilingual instruction for connection through wireless gateways. Participation of immigrant communities is particularly difficult because of language barriers. Community arts groups such as Intermedia Arts seek to give voice to immigrant communities through exhibits on the Web. Exploring the immigrant experience through content they develop themselves gives an unfiltered viewpoint.

Outreach to the community from resources within that community have the best chance for a positive economic/social impact. The African American Men Project in Minneapolis runs the Right Turn initiative puts technology literacy in the hands of mentors. The initiative takes a team approach to pursue aggressive "street outreach" to young men in jeopardy. It employs community navigators to assess and develop goals with each participant in the process of redirecting their life positively. The project's coordinator, Shane Price, realized that the information model for gathering, managing and correlating data on participants was critical.

Price plans on using wireless laptops to collect information from people where they live. "We'll go out and get people recorded and connected right out in the neighborhood; we'll be able to show them what is possible, right where we meet them, in coffee houses, in libraries and elsewhere," Price said. "You have to build trust right from the beginning. We have the trust that in building our relationships the information will be held in a community organization instead of with the government."

GIS

GIS (Geographic Information Systems) is a statistical method used to collect data from geographical areas (such as neighborhoods) and display that information to users. It's a method for gathering and displaying location-specific information on residents. Data can reflect a variety of measures: pay levels, income percentages, voter participation or just about any information that can be collected and displayed. It's a valuable tool for non-profits seeking statistical data on their clientele. GIS also conveys a clear graphic story to city and county officials concerned with satisfying the needs of their constituencies.

Geographic GIS display
©2005 CURA
Part of the current trend in publishing GIS data on the Web is to offer Google or Yahoo mapping for determining the location of a community's soft assets. Soft assets are the intellectual and participatory skills of residents. A powerful tool for assessing local assets could be created by combining, i) mapping services with, ii) a campaign to assess the assets of a community, and, iii) a wireless network to reach as many assets as possible. Such a tool could elucidate many hidden resources:

  • What are the technology literacy skills of residents within five blocks of each school?
  • Are there concentrations of people with fund raising skills and know-how?
  • What is the distribution of voters in a radius around this bus stop?

    GIS is traditionally used in partnership with neighborhoods, community development centers and state departments of employment and economic development. Until now GIS data has been derived mostly from census data. But now other sources, even data collected through online networks, can be integrated. For example, a software engineer was frustrated looking up each real estate listing on Craigslist. He put the full listing on a single Web-based map linking real estate listings with Google Maps.

    The potential is for wireless usage to allow immediate inquiries and updates to the databases from any location. If real estate listings change they can be updated from the field. If a local author moved to the neighborhood invite them to talk at your book club. In the future it is easy to envision Web 2.0 "mash-ups" with two or more technologies connected seamlessly to list garage sale items, map crime sites within minutes of the crimes, even map sidewalks with the least amount of snow accumulated since the last storm. Employ GIS thoughtfully as a "value-add" for your community and establish ongoing funding to help keep GIS relevant to your community's goals.

    Wireless Matters

    Wireless is a pervasive set of technologies for bridging digital divides, creating relevant collaborative content and revealing the full spectrum of resources within your city, your ward, your neighborhood, even your block. Provision of more efficient e-government and emergency services are just the most obvious usages. Put it in the hands of the community and it becomes a set of tools to celebrate uniqueness, pursue collective interests and discover commonalities.

    Think of wireless as a digital version of cable public access, a community resource available in most cities since the 1970s. With the addition of social networking tools and collaborative content it provides a more participative rich-media discourse for opinion sharing, decision making and relevant content.

    A new model of digital community access through wireless would employ these dynamic elements. The offering would be inclusive, community-oriented and uniquely distinct from standard Web access. The next few years should reveal new models and new ways of interacting within wireless networks that add positively to community life.
  • This article was developed with the assistance of Prof. Brad Hokanson of the University of Minnesota.
    ©2005 OhmyNews
    Other articles by reporter Gregory Daigle

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