Household Information Strategies and Community Responses

by Gwen Urey

For progressive planners, the “digital divide” should be thought of as a “digital wedge.” Technology-based strategies to improve the flow of information at the local level may have perverse effects if we don’t really understand the needs of the most marginalized neighborhoods as suppliers and demanders of information. Technology-based strategies that ignore competing demands for scarce resources within the household may unintentionally exacerbate inequalities between men and women, old and young, and other inequalities. In short, we should keep our focus on the “information gap,” and seek to better understand the many dimensions of that gap, before conflating it with a “digital divide” to be transcended by a digital bridge.

Households and Individuals

Households and individuals generate information needs. A household may need to know which day trash will be collected during a holiday week or if the air quality is expected to be poor today. A teenager may need to know if there is an employment opportunity at a local establishment, or a parent may need to know when the local clinic will provide immunizations against childhood diseases. Individual members of a household may have different or even competing information needs. As with money, time, and other resources, we shouldn’t assume that the distribution of access to information and information technologies within households is equitable. Rather, it is subject to intrahousehold negotiation or conflict.

Individuals can develop personal information strategies, but the collective strategy of a household may involve more difficult choices. A household’s decision to maintain a telephone line usually serves the needs of many members. Intrahousehold competitition for use of that line may intensify with the introduction of internet access to the household’s technological resource base.

The relationship between information strategies at the household level and programs to facilitate those strategies at the community level needs to be better understood. In low-income communities, programs that provide access or training in a community center more often address the needs of individuals who have time and motivation to come to the center.

Programs Serve High-Income Households

The comprehensive and better known community-based programs serve households that tend to have higher incomes, more wealth, more education, and the resources and motivation to get computers set up at home. Two of the better known programs are Santa Monica’s Public Electronic Network (PEN) and the Blacksburg Electronic Village (BEV). BEV was in the vanguard of providing robust internet access to households by collaborating with the local telephone company to install ethernet connections in apartment buildings. Neither PEN nor BEV specifically target low-income populations, however, and profiles of their users reveal a more privileged community. For example, a 1997 telephone survey of Santa Monica households, PEN’s target group, found that 59% used computers, whereas nationally 37% of households had computers. In Santa Monica, PEN found that 30% of households had a fax, 20% had a second phone line; of households with computers, 78% had modems and 58% used the Internet.

In Blacksburg, BEV found their 1997 user profile consistent with previous years: average age was 45 years. Thirty-eight percent of all respondents had completed graduate school. The majority (65%) were members of a church or local club; 66% used the public library. Developing comprehensive programs and programs that can empower more members of a household is much harder in low-income communities. In 1997 field work to investigate household information needs in low-income neighborhoods of Pomona (District II of Pomona, which lies in Eastern Los Angeles County), it was found that very few households had computers. Internet access was limited primarily to schoolchildren, some of whom have limited access to classroom computers. Households relied primarily on face-to-face word-of-mouth strategies for satisfying information needs in basic areas, such as finding employment, health providers, recreational and educational opportunities, and housing.

According to 1990 Census data, the area was 71 percent Hispanic and 61 percent of the adults had less than a high school education, 11 percent of households had no telephone service (and in some block groups the figure exceeded 20 percent), and 16 percent had no vehicle. Data from 1998-99 suggest that the distribution of computing resources within the local school district strongly favors schools with more economically and socially advantaged students. The data are most striking for the middle schools, where the only school with internet access is the one in which Latinos are a minority and the only one where less than one third of students are learning English as a second language.

In the low-income neighborhoods of Pomona, lack of access to computer technologies did not stand out among the concerns of residents. People articulated the difficulties of getting and communicating information, but telephone access and the alleviation of language and literacy barriers were perceived as higher priorities for addressing these issues. The school data suggests that computer and internet access parallel other dimensions of segregation in the school district.

Gwen Urey is Associate Professor in the Department of Urban and Regional Planning, California State Polytechnic University, Pomona.

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