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A Honest Attempt at Dealing with Digital Divides

By Andrea Di Maio | December 21, 2010 | 0 Comments


I still remember the first time I met Bryan Sivak, the CTO of Washington DC. It was February, few days after the major snowstorm. He made time to meet although logistics were challenging, and even apologized for not wearing a tie, as the dressing code had clearly being altered by snow plowing. I had only spoken with him once prior to that day, shortly after he joined, replacing Vivek Kundra who had moved into Obama’s administration as CIO. He was very clear and articulated in his priorities, and both times we spoke he mentioned that he wanted to do something for those on the “wrong” side of the digital divide.

As I flagged in another post, yesterday I came across a very interesting document, which articulates his vision and describes the Citywide Digital Divide Strategy by Washington DC.

The District of Columbia hosts one of the most interesting capital cities in the world, with lots of culture, art, parks, things to see and to do, but also with a traditionally serious divide between more and less affluent parts of the city.

The situation has much improved since the first time I visited DC almost 20 years ago, and I was appalled by the huge differences across different areas: urban developments and improved public safety have made Washington DC a better place to live in and visit. But still, differences are huge. The strategy document highlights how income and social differences in the city are mirrored by differences in broadband usage.

The strategy is not simplistic, assuming that bridging the gap is only about providing more affordable broadband, or cheap technology in homes and schools. It looks at three different barriers: usability, affordability and perceived value. In essence, can you use a connected computer? Can you afford doing so? And, if you do, can you get enough value for that cost and effort?

In particular I like the concept of meaningful access, which is a combination of bare access, literacy, broadband access and understanding the advantages. For instance, the strategy observes that the form factor of mobile phones, that many see as the ultimate solution to the digital divide, may not be the right one to allow users to see and manipulate at ease.

The strategy is really down to Earth, by recognizing that there is little money available and it is unlikely that budgets will grow earlier than 3 years from now. So, rather than suggesting the grand plans that we have seen so many times around the world (with dubious outcomes), it focuses on leveraging funds, initiatives, infrastructures and roles that are already in place. Be they public libraries or schools, existing online government services or accessible grants under the ARRA, all available bits of resources are pull together to give an answer to the three points above: usability, affordability, perceived value.

In its honesty, the document admits that “there is little evidence to date as to the effectiveness of such initiatives in addressing non-adoption”. Nonetheless it is worth trying, but putting a particular emphasis on “incorporating efforts to measure effectiveness of solutions as well as efforts to better identify the targets of digital divide solution”.

Bryan’s may not be the most ambitious digital divide strategy, it may be missing the role of tablets and social networks, but it is for sure one which is grounded in reality and has good chances to be sustainable over time.

I wish all the best to Bryan, his colleagues and all those in Washington whose life will be touched by this worthwhile initiative. And, as we all know, best wishes at this time of the year have greater chances to be heard.

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