Recently we posted a blog that outlined three key findings in our Detroit Digital Divide Project. These findings focused on issues of Internet connectivity, use, and interest among Detroit residents. We argued that the findings of our research run counter to a number of perceptions about Internet digital divides in Detroit, and to a degree that they might be better understood as myths. However, just the recognition of misguided assumptions is not enough. As we continue to analyze the data further, and refine the patterns emerging, the Quello research team has begun to examine what can be done to address these divides in light of our findings.
Below we briefly review these myths before moving to an outline of three possible steps forward.
Myth #1: Detroiters are under-connected
When asked if they have home Internet access, about 78 percent of respondents in our three examined neighborhoods said they do have home access, yet only about 60 percent report having a contract with an ISP. However, almost our whole sample identified themselves as using the Internet in some form. This suggests that Detroiters are finding their way online, but they have to be innovative in order to connect. The problem is that unstable, unreliable or mobile-only connections are simply not good enough.
Myth #2: Detroiters go online primarily for entertainment
Despite claims that Detroiters use the Internet primarily for entertainment purposes, our study found that entertainment and leisure activities are decidedly less central than information seeking and communication activities. In other words, far fewer people are streaming music or watching videos online than the number of people who are emailing, getting news, or health information. For example, just over 50 percent say they go online to watch videos while about 85 percent go online to email.
Myth #3: Detroiters are not interested in home Internet access
We did not find evidence to support the notion that Detroit residents avoid the Internet because of a lack of interest. First, most Detroiters are online. But often, they are limited to using a mobile device to access the Internet. Second, a majority of those who do not have an ISP at home say they would like home access. Third, among those who do not have home access most have access at work or some other public space, and the lack of home access most often comes down to price, not interest. For example, focus group participants who expressed ambivalence on the subject of home access cited barriers such as costs, a loss of family time, and duplication of services as some of the reasons for their “lack of interest”. In other words, among those who say they are not interested in home access are those who have Internet access elsewhere.
A deeper exploration of these three myths requires a discussion of what can and should be done to dispel such misconceptions. For those who care about Detroit and issues of the digital divide, the following guidelines could serve as a starting point for setting the record straight.
- Adopt a more analytically skeptical perspective on conventional wisdom. When presented with statistics about under-connectivity, ask where those numbers came from and how connectivity is measured. For example, are the numbers based on ISP contracts or population surveys? What is the sample size and composition of such surveys? When presented with narratives about a lack of interest or the use of the Internet, think of the people you know in the region, and how we/they use the Internet in everyday life. Detroit residents are among the savviest and best informed Internet consumers our team of researchers has encountered because they have to overcome more obstacles to be online.
- Accept that mobile-only Internet access is not good enough. Many Detroiters have convinced themselves that Internet use from their phone will suffice — largely because of cost barriers associated with home access and the purchase of and upkeep of home devices like desktop and laptop computers. However, the lack of a dedicated ISP and accompanying devices puts Detroiters at a disadvantage. Specialized tasks are more difficult or impossible on the small screen of a mobile phone. For example, students cannot compose homework assignments efficiently without a full keyboard and word processing software (our research also finds that young people face a number of barriers to using the library, so this is not a feasible solution). Job seekers cannot efficiently search job databases or complete employment applications using their phone. Creatives cannot craft or compose on a mobile phone in a manner that is competitive with those equipped with more general-purpose computers. All mobile-dependent Detroiters are limited in their access to content that is not designed to be mobile-first, or even mobile-friendly, and this often includes government forms and databases. Certain file types, like PDFs, are inaccessible, or simply take too long to open. The list goes on, but the bottom line is that mobile-only access is not enough.
- Stakeholders, non-profits, and government need to keep experimenting. There is no magic cure to closing divides, such as in giving households laptop computers, as illustrated by the problems faced by the ‘one laptop per child’ project. But that does not mean that experimentation with initiatives to empower residents in distressed urban areas should stop. More research and experimentation needs to take place to find viable technical and financial initiatives. These two items can be combined to offer a variety of mechanism to narrow the digital divide and measure the effectiveness of the outcomes. Some initial steps might include decreasing the cost of home access and increasing the capacity of home access. This approach can help people as we learn more about best practices.
To learn more about this research, please visit our Project Page.