Tackling the issues of the digital divide

It’s clear that the digital age won’t be standing still while everyone catches up. Instead it will undoubtedly come out with more inventions and solutions than we can possibly think of at this moment. So what can be done to help those who are falling behind?

Access to technology
Having access to (or lack of) technology is obviously a main contributor to the digital divide, both in developing and developed countries. One strategy already in place is called ‘technology refresh’. This encourages people to allow their old computers to be refurbished and reused in public facilities or offered for low prices to qualifying residents. Other cities are negotiating bulk buys with technology suppliers, in order to bring costs down, or managing to secure credit accounts to help spread costs.
Technological advances, lower costs, and the prospect of endless entertainment delivered over the internet, will all help towards widening access, but it’s not going to completely solve the problem – or even close to.
Access to technology is not always the problem, particularly when considering the digital divide in more developed countries – such as the UK. There are many people out there who just ‘don’t see the point’ in joining the digital life. If we are to change the attitudes of the ‘don’t need, don’t want’ type of people, we need to ‘market’ things such as the Internet and IT Skills, explaining the benefits and uses.

Understanding technology
“It’s not about owning a computer, it’s about understanding the values and life advantages of being online, and until you as an individual understand what that means to you, the piece of kit/technology is irrelevant. For example, people buy dishwashers because they make life easier and you don’t have to wash the dishes.” [John Fisher, CitizensOnline, 2004]
For those who don’t understand the technology out there, the idea of sending an instant message to a loved one half way around the world or buying a book from someone in China, all from your sofa, is enough to give your grandma a heart attack. Projects such as ‘teens teaching seniors’ are emerging to encourage people to learn these new skills and understand what the technology can do. This particular project encourages school pupils to set up local computer courses, with the support of their teachers, for the older generation. There are also many countries who have introduced state, nonprofit, and marketing initiatives that are designed to focus on specific areas, such as providing community access and training in poorer areas, training teachers, and getting schools connected.
Once people understand the things they can do with a computer for example, they’ll be more inclined to explore new technology.

But what about those who are unable to use the technology?
There are still many people who are just unable to use or are disadvantaged when it comes to using technology – the blind, to name but one. Natalia Bakhareva, a teacher at Nizhny Novgotod School, Russia said “For students who are blind or visually impaired, computers are so important. They connect them to the world...”
In order to remove the social exclusion posed by this, new technology needs designing in an engaging, and often simple way, not requiring any special skills. This is being seen in the market today – making technology ‘invisible’ through things like touch screens and voice activation for example. This idea of ‘simplicity’ needs to continue if we are to break the social barrier of the digital divide.
In Kingston-upon-Hull, East Yorkshire, a company called Broadband Capital Limited have set up ‘The Independent Living Campaign on STREAM’. This campaign is designed to target vulnerable older people, providing them broadband access to local services and digital programmes through their existing television. As well as the traditional digital channels, users of this scheme can watch programmes specifically designed for them, such home safety, how-to’s, local events, and keep fit exercises. The whole service is provided with telephone support and a very clear and simple user interface. More about this scheme can be seen on the Broadband Capital Limited website www.broadbandcapital.co.uk .

Tackling those in poorer regions
As for the millions living in poorer regions of sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America, and Southeast Asia, it is unlikely that the wave of technology will hit them anytime soon. There are initiatives such as “cyber-cafes, wired village schools and mobile cellular phone schemes” [Norris P, 2001] which may bring around change, but these are only just being introduced to such areas.
Without the access to computers, and the skills to use them, many people are unable to access useful information such as job opportunities, health and child care information, through media such as The Internet. Considering that in the next eight years, according to Monthly Labour Review Online (November 2005,page 6) 6 out of every 10 new jobs will be in professional and service-related occupations requiring, at a minimum, a basic level of proficiency in computers. So it’s important that we give the vulnerable the support they need to satisfy the criteria of these jobs. This will clearly help bridge the socioeconomic digital divide of the rich and the poor, but there are major obstacles to overcome, as mentioned in a Flexibility Ltd article online :

  • “can poorer people pay market-rate access charges, or will there be a continuing requirement for public subsidy?
  • will initiatives (e.g. learning centres, community portals etc) survive when public funding runs out at the end of projects?
  • will people who do develop their skills have to migrate out of the area to find work?
  • can the new infrastructure being developed be used to bring work in to disadvantaged areas?”

 [Flexibility Ltd, 2007].

There are several companies out there who are helping to ‘tackle the digital divide’, one of which being the software giant Microsoft. Over the past three years, Microsoft have contributed more than $173 million to help thousands of organisations, including libraries and schools, provide technology to all levels of education. The list of ways Microsoft supports communities is extensive, and involves such things as; Starter editions of Windows for first-time users in easy to use local language operating systems, Community Technology Skills Programs to help provide grants and training in programs, and partnerships with governments and companies to help support those who wouldn’t be able to afford a PC otherwise
<Are there any benefits to the digital divide? --- Final Thoughts >

Video from Youtube

Video from Youtube giving details of projects in Uganda - Bridging the Digital Divide in Uganda


telecentrenetwork, 2007, Bridging the Digital Divide in Uganda, [Online],
Available:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qt1rdqf6mHA [Accessed 24/04/08]

Video from Youtube explaining how Microsoft is helping break the digital divide - Enabling Social & Economic Opportunity


B1ackD0g, 2007, Bill Gates on Enabling Social & Economic Opportunity, [Online],
Avaliable: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i4N8xsdo2vQ [Accessed 24/04/08]

 

<Are there any benefits to the digital divide? --- Final Thoughts >