Understanding the digital divide with David Sutphen and Aaron Smith

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David Sutphen,Aaron Smith
Wednesday, February 23, 2011; 1:00 PM

David Sutphen, co-chair of the Internet Innovation Alliance, and Aaron Smith, senior research specialist at Pew Internet, will be online Wednesday, Feb. 23, at 1 p.m. ET, to talk about the digital divide and how it impacts youth, communities and more.

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Aaron Smith: m looking forward to chatting with you all for the next hour.

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David Sutphen: Look forward to the discussion!

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Healthcare IT and a New Digital Divide: As healthcare providers move towards greater implementation of health information technology, what do you see as the potential for a new health care digital divide - i.e., either the benefits of HIT are not realized in minority or low-income communities, or HIT ends up exacerbating current disparities in care?

David Sutphen:

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Aaron Smith: Just to add to David's answer, the issue of health is a key one--our recent studies have indicated that people with a chronic health condition or disability are much less likely than other groups to go online, but that once they do get access they are extremely active in engaging wtih patient communities and discussion groups.

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Language of the Internet: With most of the US-based internet resources (news, search, social networks) setup to use English, I am not surprised to learn that Hispanics are less comfortable on the Internet. I would think that any non-native English speaker would find the Internet less inviting. I know there are websites for the Asian and Asian-American community, but probably far fewer for French-Americans or German-Americans or other languages. I think that as technology reaches further into our daily lives, the more important it will be to speak English in order to successfully live and work in the United States.

David Sutphen: Although language barriers are always a challenge, I thought I'd share a few compelling statistics regarding the Hispanic community from VotoLatino:Out of the 50 million US Latinos, 79% are English-speaking.What that tells me is that language-barriers may not be as big of an issue as other adoption hurdles, like digital literacy, cost or doubt about the value that comes from being online.<This is Aaron chiming in>David is absolutely correct that issues relating to cost, digital literacy and the value of online tools are key within all populations. However, we've found pretty consistently that (within the Latino population at least) that language proficiency is a key predictor of whether or not someone uses the internet or has a home broadband connection--even when we control for other factors such as income, education or age.

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Two communities missing an opportunity: How can we get (low income) minorities interested in technology and tech companies interested in minorities? Norman Weekes

David Sutphen: Check out the website: One of the core priorities of Change the Equation is to increase the number of girls and kids of color pursuing degrees in STEM fields.<Aaron>One of the elements that comes through clearly in the research is that a multi-faceted approach is required to get people over the internet/broadband hump--economic issues are a key consideration, but so are digital skills and literacy, showing people how technology can be relevant in their lives. To their credit, many of the public and private technology initiatives out there now are addressing this issue on a number of different levels.

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Computers: Do you think that the cost of computers plays into the lack of access to them? If so, will there ever be a computer that is affordable and not lacking in advanced technology?

David Sutphen: and a failure to see the value proposition in being connected are often greater impediments to people getting online.

Aaron Smith: Cost definitely plays a role, but it's far from the only consideration--a number of non-adopters are not comfortable with technology or have trouble using computers without assistance; others haven't had much exposure to the benefits of technology within their peer networks and as a result don't see "what's in it for them" to invest in using these tools. And of course others simply can't get access even if they wanted it--as the federal government's recent broadband map clearly demonstrated.

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Wireless and the digital divide: Could low-cost wireless services like Cricket and MetroPCS play a positive role here? Is it possible to have an adequate Internet experience using a phone as your sole or primary device?

Aaron Smith: That's a really important question. We know from our work (and the work of others) that wireless technologies (cell phones in particular) are helping to bridge some gaps in access that continue to persist in traditional measures of internet access. But are those folks really able to engage in key online activities like applying for jobs, getting educational material or signing up for government benefits? We're hoping to do some work on this question in the spring, to really nail down the extent to which people are relying on mobile devices and what they see as the benefits and limitations of that mode of access.

David Sutphen: I think it would be interesting for Pew to explore how quickly, if at all, people who first become connected to the broadband Internet through a mobile device, end up signing up for a fixed line connection.

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Educate: What are some of the ways we can better educate people so they become more comfortable with technology?

David Sutphen: Unfortunately, there's no silver bullet answer to this question, however, organizations like One Economy: www.one-economy.com Once people see the true value, it will help them overcome that tech anxiety.

Aaron Smith: For others, illustrating the relevance of technology in their daily lives is the key consideration. We've seen some evidence that social media is playing this role with seniors, for example. Whatever approach is taken, it's clear that getting exposure through one's peer and community networks is a key consideration both in seeing the benefits of technology and overcoming anxiety towards the use of new tools.

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Generational divide?: How much of the digital divide is generational? I would think that older people would be less likely to be current on using computers.

David Sutphen: Age undoubtedly plays a role in adoption and I believe the cut-off where the divide grows most substantially is with seniors over the age of 70.

Aaron Smith: Age is definitely one of the biggest factors in whether or not someone goes online or has a broadband connection at home. Yet while seniors are less likely than other groups to get online, they are really active and engaged once they overcome that initial hurdle. For example, people over the age of 50 are the fastest-growing group when it comes to blogging, or to using social networking sites. Once seniors are exposed to the benefits of technology and get some training to overcome their apprehensions about using new tools, they're just as active as anyone else in their online habits.

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Digital Divide: I understand the need to close the digital divide from the perspective of social good (education, participation in government, etc.), but does the private sector seem eager to develop this underserved market? Can we afford to wait on the profit motive to close the gaps in access and usage?

David Sutphen:

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The wireless guy again: I would love to see a Pew study on whether those applications - jobs, government, education - are accessible by phone browsers. In my experience, some of those aren't even accessible from Macs, or require particular PC browsers, etc.

Aaron Smith: We're hoping to study exactly this question in a survey we're conducting this spring. We know that certain groups (lower-income people of color, for instance) are especially reliant on their mobile devices to connect them to friends, news, entertainment and other online resources. What we're not so sure about is where they run into the limitations of those devices, so that's front and center on our research agenda!

David Sutphen:

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Seniors and Social Media: What is most popular with them? Facebook? Do you think they're taking part more now that it's become so accessible? And not as frightening?

David Sutphen: Being able to connect with family and friends is such a huge draw and benefit to them, which reinforces my earlier point that closing the divide is really about finding those things that people value so much about being connected that they overcome their fears or decide the cost is worth it.

Aaron Smith: That's exactly right--those sites offer a place for older users to interact with people (friends, family members) that they might not see regularly, to find others who share a common hobby or interest. In our past work we've found that older adults tend to view the internet as a "scary" place, so finding out that it helps you share everything from recipes to stock tips to baby pictures of grandkids can be a huge a-ha moment.

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Cable but not Internet?: I have never had cable in my life, and I am using a public computer to send this e-mail. I only get 70 minutes a day if i am lucky. I wish I could afford a wireless or wired device and internet access but I can't.

David Sutphen: Check out the study -- it might impact your perspective on whether you can afford to sign up for a home broadband connection:http://www.internetinnovation.org/blog/entry/savings-in-the-real-world/

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Digital divide between the hearing and non-hearing: It was a great success when Congress mandated, some years ago, Closed Captions for nearly all TV programming. But now, as HDTVs become more common, we are actually going backwards, as CCs are not required to be carried over HDMI cables. Therefore they are not. Thus streaming videos and other digital sources are not captioned, leaving the hard of hearing and deaf without access to these features. What can we do to alert Congress to this oversight? And/or to encourage manufacturers to include CCs on Internet-enabled devices?

David Sutphen: He recently championed an update to the People with Disabilities Act that was designed in part to make the law more relevant to the 21st Century realities facing people with disabilities.

Aaron Smith: I'd just like to share some work that my colleague Susannah did recently on internet use by people with disabilities: http://pewinternet.org/Reports/2011/Disability.aspxThere are definitely some challenges with interviewing the hard of hearing in a telephone survey, but we like to think it's a good start at quantifying the issue.

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Digital Divide: I'm in a rural area and there is basically a government enforced monopoly on wired internet (the cable company) and another monopoly on wireless (the phone company). In addressing the urban/rural gap. Would reforming this out-dated monopoly scheme be of any benefit?

David Sutphen: A large part of the President's announcement in the State of the Union around broadband was driven by a recognition of the need to ensure that rural communities can benefit fully from broadband and the Internet economy.

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Schools: Is there a digital divide in schools, are do most schools regardless of socioeconomic status or region of country have similar access to computers? If there are significant differences among schools, what are these differences?

Aaron Smith: One of the goals of the federal government's new broadband map is to study the extent to which schools are (or are not) connected to the broadband world, so that's a great resource for that information. Schools and libraries obviously play a key role in providing access to groups that might otherwise not have it. For example, in our teens work black/latino students are about as likely as white students to go online--but white students are much more likely to do so from home, while minority students are much more likely to rely on access at their school or in a library.

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FCC, Net Neutrality and Mobile Usage/Access: Will the Net Neutrality rules adopted by the FCC limit access to certain types of content through mobile devices?

David Sutphen:

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Internet access in lower income areas: Part of the stimulus package in 2009 was put towards bringing high speed internet access to rural areas. I know there's now a push to bring wireless access as well. What is the government doing to make sure that people are able to use the internet well and to its full potential, once high speed lines are installed?

Aaron Smith: When the FCC released its broadband plan last year, it placed a major emphasis on barriers to adoption that go beyond access--digital literacy and skills training, and focusing on areas such as education, job skills and health that can help people bridge the "relevance gap". Obviously it remains to be seen how those goals will be turned into concrete programs, but the people in charge of implementing this policy are clearly thinking well beyond "build it and they will come"

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Aaron Smith: Thanks everyone for the great questions--it's been fun!

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David Sutphen: Signing off: #davidasutphen


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