QUICK TAKES: What I learned about the Digital Divide

The below is a personal brain dump from The Washington Post Bridging the Digital Divide conference, October 8, 2015. This is not intended to be coverage of the event. Quick Takes are intended to record questions that deserve further exploration. For coverage by the professionals and to see video, visit http://wapo.st/1QUfT3y. October 21, grab a copy of the print version of The Washington Post for our editorial report on the Digital Divide.

The first time I heard the term “Digital Divide” was in spring of 2000, when then-president Bill Clinton addressed the COMDEX/Spring conference and trade show I ran in Chicago. (Yes, that’s a quote from Yours Truly in the press release). The “Digital Divide” refers to the gap between those who are able to participate in the digital economy, and those who are not. He commented that “Closing the digital divide is one of the most important things we could do that would have the quickest results in alleviating the kind of poverty which is inexcusable in the kind of economy we’re experiencing today,”

Imagine growing up without the skills and tools to find a job online, perform basic white collar tasks, apply for Federal aid programs or even connect to crucial information resources. In 2000, that might have seemed do-able, but in the current age, I’m not sure how one would hope to improve their life circumstances in that condition. Some call it a liberal issue. I fail to see a political justification not to bridge the gap. Our question in the WaPo photo booth was “What in your life would be harder without the Internet?” I agree with the answer pictured.

Fast forward to 2015, at the second Washington Post “Bridging the Digital Divide” conference – it was a great opportunity to revisit the subject. Our headliners were HUD Secretary Julian Castro; Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel; Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto; San Antonio Mayor Ivy Taylor; FCC Commissioner, Ajit Pai; former Rendell Chief of Staff and now Senior EVP of Comcast, David L. Cohen and many others. Here are a few things I learned:

Access has become a tertiary issue. Thanks to a variety of factors ranging from special programs to offer access for very low fees and the ubiquity of smart phones, 85% percent of Americans have broadband access to the Internet – a foundational element of participating in the digital economy. David Cohen noted, however an interesting disparity underneath that number. Of American households with $150,000 or more in income, 95% have broadband access at home. That number drops to 45% when looking at a four-child household below the poverty line. According to Pew Research, the top two reasons the other 55% in the latter category do not have access are that they either don’t see the relevance of the Internet in their lives or don’t have the skills needed to confidently use it.

Schools have become more connected – but what happens when a child gets home? A session called “The homework gap” really brought this point home. The tech industry has really stepped up since 2000, equipping schools with the equipment and access needed to integrate modern technology into classrooms … but for many children, when they get home, they’re stuck. Without a baseline level of technology at home – how do they continue and keep up with that learning? As they mature, they are disadvantaged in a job hunt not only in searching for a job, but securing a job that pays better than minimum wage. Joining the digital age is as much about economic mobility, and realizing the American dream of equal opportunity to succeed as it is about being able to read my silly blog posts.

Some mayors have become excellent bridge builders. I was particularly struck by Pittsburgh Mayor, Bill Peduto’s progress report. Digital inclusion has been integrated right into the blueprint for Pittsburgh’s transformation from rust belt town to high tech center (yes – dig a little – Pittsburgh has gotten pretty high tech, pretty cool and pretty creative). At times, I thought “This guy sounds like a tech CEO.” During one segment he made the point that government has done about as much as it can – that partnerships are what drive the empowerment of city-zens through education and equipment. He talked about mesh networks, about ecosystems of tech partners about investment. I was ready to invest in his tech startup – until I remembered he was talking about a city. It truly is at the local level that these issues either get solved or not.

Looking back at the 2013 Washington Post conference, the headlines were “access, access, access.” In fact the two front page stories of the editorial report were on 1) millions of Americans who lack access to the Internet; and 2) Bringing schools into the technology age.  This year, little of the four hours before the standing-room audience at Washington Post headquarters covered  “we need to get people connected” – the focus was “we need to train, incentivize and empower people to use the tools that are out there.

That sounds like progress to me.