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Seeing the digital divide and building bridges across

In this digital age, the pressures of streamlining and efficiency lead to more daily functions that can only be performed online. This leaves behind those who don't have computer access, equipment, or skills.

Last week The New York Times ended its TimesSelect subscription program in favor of providing free access to all its current issues and archives back to 1987. This is a positive development for readers and the Times alike. Now bloggers and other journalists can link to this key new source without sending their readers to a page that can only be read with a paid subscription.

If this development had happened two weeks ago, I might not have thought much more about it than that. But since then I have had the opportunity to meet Shireen Mitchell, executive director of Digital Sisters, a non-profit that seeks to close the digital divide. In addition to a legislative and media advocacy role, Digital Sisters provides hands-on tech education and support to underserved women, crossing race, class and gender lines.

People who read CNET are by definition digitally connected, and for us, the privilege of our wired existence is naturally accompanied by a kind of blindness to the barriers of living without computer access. The problem is, if we develop social systems that assume online access, we may be unintentionally leaving other people behind. Filing a government form, applying for a driver's license, or sending in a resume electronically are only expedient conveniences if you have computer access, equipment and skills.

Through her work as director of Digital Sisters, Shireen Mitchell sees the everyday challenges of living on the excluded side of the digital divide. Mitchell reminds us that there can be a hidden downside to digital efficiency. She says, "The cost to save money by closing offices and putting applications or forms online only serve a smaller portion of the population. It actually has an significant increase on the burden of poverty, unemployment and crime on our society."

Mitchell shared these specific examples with me:

  • A gentleman working at Home Depot had been a trade person, working at plumbing, carpentry and other jobs for home improvement. His 10-year-old son had to fill out the online application because he had never used a computer before. He was very knowledgeable about home repair, but would not have gotten that job if it wasn't for a 10-year-old. He doesn't have to use that skill to assist any of Home Depot's customers.
  • One woman came to Digital Sisters asking to get assistance in filling out an online application to work at Marriott. She didn't know how to access the Internet or use a computer. Digital Sisters assisted her but even the application wasn't really simple. When asked if she would like to take additional classes, she said that as a housekeeper she didn't need it, and she will be wasting her time in class when she needs to take care of her family financially and could work extra hours.
  • There are several other companies that present the challenge of online applications including CVS Pharmacy and Giant Food. In collaboration with one of the collaboratives in DC, Digital Sisters set up mobile laptops and helped people apply for jobs at Giant.

If organizations see the need for a bridge over the digital divide, solutions can be developed:

  • In the late '90s during welfare reform, it was decided by government officials to no longer send checks to families. It would streamline payment and services, decrease paper and make it easier for families to access their money. Digital Sisters worked with a few organizations to advocate about several issues. First it was assumed that everyone had a bank account and knew how to use an ATM card; this left out those clients who had literacy or English as a second language challenges. Digital Sisters had them bring in ATM practice stations. In a situation like this, it is essential to have staff explain the process and delay the roll out of the new system until every family is contacted and trained in the new system.
  • The local Washington, DC, government decided to streamline its services including the DMV. It got rid of the paper stacks in the offices and put all forms online. They allowed people to pay for their tickets, registration renewals and schedule road tests online. However, if you go into the DMV, they will go online and print the forms for you to fill out by hand if you need to, there are agents who can be reached by phone, and you can still call to use a credit card or go into the office and still get all those same services. It is not exclusive to the online services.

Thanks to the advocacy of groups like Digital Sisters, we can all learn to perceive the digital divide and then do what we can to lessen its impact.