Mapping access: The digital divide

Sunday, July 1, 2012 | 6:00 a.m. CDT

COLUMBIA — We've talked as a team about the influence of media on young people's perception of the American Dream, but who isn't getting those media messages? Two resources I've recently come across make it clear that American's ability to simply access media is as patchy as American perceptions are varied. 

  1. A 2011 map of broadband service in Missouri shows geography's role in the "digital divide," a term describing gaps in access to Internet technology and all the tools (and toys) it has spawned. Trace the dark blue veins of connectivity, and you'll also be traveling the state's major highways. Compare it to a map of families living below the poverty level, and a correlation emerges between digital access and economic means.
  2.  In "Poverty stretches the digital divide," John Dunbar of American University's Investigative Reporting Workshop assesses the same correlation on a national scale, complete with charts, an interactive map and a "Top 10 and Bottom 10" list of the most and least connected cities in the country. Dunbar notes that more people are connecting to broadband "at a rapid clip" in rural states, but that some Southern states are lagging, for example. 

Consider the unevenness of these trends within communities of all sizes — whether a nation, a state, or a school district — while more and more agencies and businesses are going "paperless." The product is a digitally stratified population, according to Vermont-based librarian and author Jessamyn West.

West specializes in work with rural libraries. She notes that in regions without broadband, even public libraries may still be on dial-up. At a March 19 lecture at MU, she likened the digital divide to an "empowerment divide."

West shared a story of helping a young man apply for unemployment after the state moved exclusively to online forms. She paraphrased him and countless others she has helped use a computer for the first time, whether applying for social services or for a job: "Gee, I wish I would have learned to use a mouse before this." 

But the reality is, while some schoolchildren are getting free laptops, that technology and all it affords remains out of reach for others.

This story is part of the American Next, a special project exploring the hopes, fears and changing expectations of Missouri's next generation in challenging times.

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