The 2017 Digital Divide

Digital technologies are proliferating, but economic benefits remain uneven, creating new divisions. Can creative ideas bridge the gap?

By Paula Klein

In the 1990s when many Americans — and certainly, people around the world — lacked access to the newly emerging internet and related technologies, the term digital divide was coined to describe the gap between those who could connect and those who couldn’t.

In 2017, the gap is as wide as ever.

Although it’s 30 years later and mobile and cellular technologies have exploded, disparities persist. Sparked by new definitions of digital access — broadband versus cellular, urban versus rural –as well as industrial and sociological differences, the term, and the gap, is top of mind. In fact, MIT Technology Review recently pointed out that the U.S. has “a persistent, embarrassing digital divide” that needs to be addressed at the highest levels. Moreover, the article emphasized that, “mobile broadband access isn’t the same as at-home connectivity,” even though some in the FCC and Trump administration are making that case.

Mobile tech alone won’t solve inequalities.

Many Americans take digitization for granted, yet Pew Research also concluded that “the digital divide persists, even as lower-income Americans make gains in tech adoption.”

Providing mobile-only services is insufficient, Pew argues, because limited access stymies educational as well as economic opportunities, and widens the divide.

Clearly, while digital technology is creating unprecedented wealth for some, it remains concentrated among relatively few people, compared to the broader economic gains driven by previous technological advancements. Part of the problem still lies with basic access to digital technology and the opportunities it affords.

Myriad Solutions

What’s being done? There are many approaches, of course, and leaders from Maine to North Carolina, Budapest, to Indonesia and beyond, are seeking hopeful solutions that meet their local and demographic needs. Tech corporations such as SAP and Google are taking steps, too.

At MIT, the IDE Inclusive Innovation Challenge was specifically formed to identify, reward, and promote technology-based solutions that drive greater economic prosperity worldwide. In August, the IIC named 16 finalists in four categories. One key aim is to connect more people with internet and technology access, regardless of age, location, education, or ability.

In the category of technology access, for instance, the Digital Citizen Fund has built 11 internet training centers and two media centers for women and girls in Afghanistan to gain basic digital literacy so they can better compete in the global economy.

The organization says that only 5 percent of Afghanistan’s population has access to the internet — and few of those are women or children.

The Fund is expanding to Mexico and hopes to expand to other markets in the future.

Digital Citizen Fund training.

Similarly, online education is growing, yet less than 1 percent of the populations of Africa and India have the broadband to access it — cost and speed are the biggest barriers to adoption. Dot Learn is changing that imbalance. Using an MIT-developed technology that compresses video, the company is making online education in Africa as inexpensive as text messaging.

Some of the IDE inclusive innovators are addressing specific niche markets where access is available, but limited. One finalist, the African Renewable Energy Distributor Ltd., has taken a two-pronged approach: promoting green energy as well as digital access. It has developed solar-powered, portable kiosks where people can charge their mobile phones, access Wi-Fi, or access an intranet while offline. Using a micro franchise business model, the Rwanda-based company hopes to empower women and people with disabilities who can run the kiosks. It may seem basic, but it’s a life-line for many rural residents.

Eliminating Barriers 
 
Often, putting technology to use in optimal ways, in addition to providing access, can make the difference between success and failure. In the U.S., for example, 14 percent of the total number of students admitted to college each spring, never actually attend school that year — and of those who do attend, 48 percent don’t graduate six years later.

Boston-based AdmitHub wants to eliminate at least one set of barriers: It has created a virtual assistant, powered by artificial intelligence, to help students navigate the financial, academic, and social situations that accompany going to college. The system primarily uses text messaging, which means communicating with students on their terms and easing complicated transitions that can deter many potential graduates.

Other IIC finalists are addressing financial inclusion, income growth, and better ways to match skilled workers with good jobs in the quest to narrow the digital divide. On October 12, the IIC will announce and celebrate this year’s winners at a gala event at HUBweek. Each Grand Prize winner will receive $150,000 to expand their work. The remaining 12 winners each receive $35,000.

No single program will eliminate the digital divide for everyone, but these efforts shows how passion, hard work, awareness, and creative ideas can go a long way to level the digital playing field. And after 30 years, even small steps represent achievements.

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