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Understanding Numbers

I was reading a blog entry today that reminds me to be cautious with simple numbers-based statements to drive strategies. Discussions based on such numbers about “a community which has computers in only slightly more than half of the households” is too simple. This drove speculation about completely disenfranchising those who are on the wrong side of the Digital Divide by using too many digital strategies. Household penetration is a different concept than actual ‘available’ Internet access. Most research studies and censuses combine the numbers for home and work access to determine the base lines for participation in the web-based world. Indeed some studies show that a significant portion of web access is through work computers (banking, homework, vacation arrangements, e-mail, etc).
(Employers may worry about the productivity aspects of this but community qualit of life increases and there are loads of positive unintended consequences to this access when it doesn’t spiral out of control (which is another issue altogether). I once worked for a company that didn’t allow any personal phone calls so productivity plummetted when school let out as every mother worried until she got the call that the kid as home. In the pre-cel world, everyone took a break and headed for the pay phone. Foolish policy!)
You then also need to add to that those numbers the web-literate people who use other options – boys and girls clubs, social clubs, friend’s PCs, shared PC’s in group homes, co-ops and apartments, hotels, government offices, hospitals, and indeed, libraries. Other e-mail devices that are not PCs need to be included too (Treos, Blackberries, gaming devices, etc.)
The availability of web access goes beyond home access and lack of home access is not completely disenfranchising. Indeed there is some competition for libraries in this space – just imagine what the availability of a sub $250.00 laptop would do – Can you say Starbucks – More than WiFi? We need to be careful. If we feel comfortable that the digital divide will protect a core group of digitally disenfranchised library users – the number might be far smaller than we think.
Anyway, the long and short of it is to be careful with statistics. I once heard that less than 50% of people worldwide have ever used a phone – should we stall progress and wait for them to catch up?

Posted on: January 6, 2006, 8:16 am Category: Uncategorized

3 Responses

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  1. I think one also needs to be careful with the numbers in terms of not using the clarification as consolation. If 50% of the world has not used the phone (just to use the example), no, we should not stall progress. What we should be doing is making sure we can empower as many as we can to be able to use the phone, or any other technology. I get concerned over the idea that many people will be disenfranchised because they lack access. And we should label it as a lack. Saying that many of those people will get access at work, at a friend’s house, the public library, the Y, etc. could lead to some people using that as a consolation not to work on making access available to all. Yes, home access is not completely disenfranchising, but “is not completely” means there is still some disenfranchising. I guess what I am trying to say is that the clarification is good, but such can be easily used to assume that they (whoever they are) will get access anyways, so let’s move on with the shiny new toys; they’ll catch up. Anyhow, just a thought.

  2. Angel:
    I agree with your points but I guess I am just coming at it from the other direction. I don’t think some libraries need more encouragement to serve the disenfranchised. I am worried that I commonly hear from librarians throuhout North America the following statements (to my face!):
    1. “Everyone in our community doesn’t have web access so we’re not implementing it”
    2. “We turn off the WiFi when we’re closed”
    3. “It’s too hard to get our staff to learn to use IM, blogging, etc.”
    4. “We disable most technologies that our users request” (using Fortress and Kiosk, etc.)
    and my favourite, the roaringly offensive:
    5. “I am only five years from retirement so I’ll wait it out.”
    The false positioning that techno-love is drowning traditional library services just hasn’t appeared true in my experience of hundreds of libraries this year. The vast majority of people who are trying to experiment with implementing and experimentng with new technologies focus on user needs. I don’t kow if the few who resist these pilots and experiments are thinking of users first or their own comfort.

  3. I have been looking at this over the past couple of days after about a week of disconnectivity visting my family in rural West Virginia. Both of my parents are professors that teach computer courses (physics/comp. sci and education) but when they go home they face an inability to receive broadband access. It just isn’t possible. Nobody there is selling it. Canada is looking at the issue but I worry that the Rural Digital Divide down here in the US is being overlooked. Sure there is access beyond the home, but isn’t that kind of like having to pass a test before you can vote?
    The Rural Digital Divide here, as in much more remote areas of Canada…or, say Africa, is more based around the inaccessibility of community centers resulting from a very dispersed population. For example, one of our more rural counties has nine public libraries that are each open an average of 31 hours a week. Three of the libraries are only open 20 hours a week, and almost all are closed 2 days a week.
    Not to post statistics to a post about statistical caution =) but sometimes the numbers do tell the story. As I have said, and was reminded by your great post featuring some new social software sites I have to check out (I am listing to my new REM Radio on Pandora as I type this) a large part of Web2.0 is creating a community. Disenfranchisement of large parts of the potential community hurts us as much as it hurts them.
    50% of the worlds population have never used a telephone, but maybe the other 50% would have had a much harder time ignoring something like the massacres in Darfur if those in peril had made a few phone calls…