Information is currency. But, just like cash, it can prove elusive for some and plentiful for others. In our increasingly digital era, the ability to access the Internet is the key to greater opportunities. And yet, the digital divide persists, meaning that citizens from different groups are missing out on the Internet revolution.
So how do we start to bridge the divides? And can technology be leveraged to find users who are not in the market for news and information? I dedicated my Knight year to exploring the problem and finding a solution.
Inspiration struck when I participated in the Beta test of the Public Media Corps in Washington, D.C. The short fellowship was started by the National Black Programming Consortium to connect communities and public media outlets. In the course of my work, I noticed information gaps: moments where communities needed information, but it wasn’t available or easily accessible.
One glaring example of the information disconnect revolved around Internet access at public libraries. The free service is one of the few ways low-income residents of communities receive access to the Internet. According to “Opportunity for All: How the American Public Benefits from Internet Access at Libraries,” 77 million people use libraries to access the Internet annually, and 44% of people below the federal poverty line relied on public access terminals. In addition, 26 million people used public library terminals for government or legal services. Still, demand vastly outstrips supply.
The information gap
Unfortunately, wait times for terminals can stretch across hours, and if the computers go down, there is no way to alert people beforehand. This caused patrons endless distress; many used public transportation or scheduled their library usage around their work schedules, which meant a wasted trip.
I discussed with a library staffer creating a simple SMS alert (text message) that people could subscribe to that would notify them of the status of the computers. The idea was well received, but stalled in the implementation phase.
Another moment I kept returning to when conceiving this project was working with local teens – and how they had absolutely no idea that legislation for a nightly curfew and restrictions to public space were being debated. When they heard the news, they were outraged. One boy got out of his chair yelling, “I would like to testify!” But the week before, I had watched a Washington Post reporter try to find teens to comment on a story, and tweet about his inability to find someone to go on record.
Gaming for attention
Finally, I watched how my community responded to a marketing campaign from Verizon to promote the Droid phone. Verizon took over an entire wall near Columbia Heights metro station with a sensor-based game. For roughly a month, every time I went to or from work, I saw people standing and lobbing virtual snowballs. Young, old, male, female – all kinds of people lined up to feed their curiosity. I wondered if there was an information equivalent of that game – something interactive, publicly available, and intuitive.
Initially, the idea for my project was to examine commonalities between information flows in mobile dominant areas like developing nations (especially India, Africa, and the Caribbean) and communities of color in the United States. Then, I wanted to apply that information to helping journalists better understand mobile communication, beyond apps.
News in public spaces
But after a few weeks at Stanford, my project had changed. After attending South by Southwest 2012, I became fascinated with the interaction between humans and technology in public space and wondered if there would be a way to create the public space equivalent of a Newsie. Since we are no longer in the era where children stand on the corner and shout out the days’ headlines, I wondered if there was another way to capture public attention. I divided my project into two main stages.
1. Research and rethink how journalists can approach mobile content, particularly with less affluent news consumers in mind. News organizations spend a lot of time developing applications, but those are generally used by a set of power users who typically prefer to connect through their web browser. Or, as I like to say, “we report on the 99% and the 1% but we develop for the 19%.”
2. Develop prototypes for engagement. Ideally I’d like to build a public space that doubles as an ambient news environment. Do we really need to design for 25 different mobile devices? Or can we create a space where no formal technology experience is necessary? What do we take for granted about our audiences and how can we turn those ideas on their heads? What does an Internet that is not contained on our phones or computers look like? How do we integrate the flow of news into the flow of everyday life for people who are not currently news consumers?
There are a number of projects exploring these questions. Here are some I find inspiring as I work on my prototype:
- The Question Box Project provides entry to the Internet in areas where illiteracy, language, lack of technical expertise or a computer or mobile device is a barrier to access. It is actually a box in a public space with a button that connects to a dispatcher who provides requested information.
- VozMob/Mobile Voices is a platform that helps immigrant and low-wage workers in Los Angeles create stories about their lives and communities directly from cell phones.
- iReveal is a New York Times research labs project. A computer integrated into a mirror displays the latest news headlines, weather reports, information on your health or anything else you’re interested in while you get ready for work. Watch the video.
- The Living Wall is from MIT’s High-Low Tech group. It can send and receive transmissions from a laptop or other remote device. Again, watch the video.
- Luminous Interventions is a Baltimore-based collective that projects images on buildings and other public spaces as a form of information and protest. They recently projected “Rape is Rape” on the Capitol during the presidential debates and sponsored a civil rights walk of historic buildings downtown.