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UI researchers investigate Chicago’s digital divide

BY CHRIS CURTLAND | JULY 29, 2009 7:15 AM

A gap exists between different demographic groups in Chicago — a divide in cyberspace.

A recent study requested by Chicago officials and conducted by researchers at the UI and University of Illinois-Chicago displays a radical “digital divide” among varying communities in the Windy City.

It shows 25 percent of all Chicagoans are not riding on the information superhighway. Another 15 percent have only limited Internet access.

UI political-science Professor Caroline Tolbert, a study coauthor, said she was proud of the city’s initiative.

“It’s the first major city that cared enough to put major money into a study,” she said. “Until you have hard-core numbers, you can’t work on fixing the problem.”

Researchers from the UI Hawkeye Poll, including Tolbert, surveyed a random sample of 3,453 Chicago residents 18 and older in June and July of last year. The resulting report defines relevant barriers in technology use among Chicago neighborhoods.

Tolbert has researched the digital divide for more than five years and has identified a number of other gaps, such as differences in means of access, users’ skill sets, and economic opportunities.

She said she believes these disparities hold serious consequence for the larger society.

“Free high-speed [access] is essential for a 21st-century America, where everything’s online,” she said. “The Internet is the mode of communication these days.”

David Redlawsk, a codirector of the Hawkeye Poll and a UI associate professor, echoed the need for widespread access.

“Those folks who are offline will have a harder time competing,” he said. “They’ll have a harder time trying to operate — and even live — in the digital age.”

With the study, the city of Chicago is now working toward conquering the divide and making a quantum leap to its disconnected communities. Last week, Mayor Richard Daley declared four impoverished neighborhoods “digital excellence demonstration communities,” in which researchers will test the best techniques to bring technology to more people.

Free broadband access will now be available in these areas, Tolbert said, and Microsoft will create technology and training centers there.

“Our work has shown it’s not enough to just give them hardware and software — you also have to give them skills,” she said.

With the latest initiatives, the Mayor’s Advisory Council aims to improve the city’s economic outlook and strengthen the communities as well.

Benjamin Knoll, a political science graduate student who works with Tolbert, is enthusiastic about the project.

“Success is due to a combination of individual effort and available resources, so it’s in the best interest to increase Internet access and proficiency for all groups, especially those who may not have the resources,” he said.

But Tolbert’s vision is a bit more grand.

“My wish is for a larger version of digital infrastructure for the whole country — urban and also rural,” she said. Perhaps then there will be no gaps in the vast “series of tubes.”


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