Study urges Web content for poor

March 20, 2000|By Chris O'Brien | Chris O'Brien,Knight Ridder/Tribune

Closing the digital divide may take more than simply connecting low-income people to the Internet. There also needs to be someplace for them to go once they reach cyberspace, according to a new report.

In a yearlong study, the Children's Partnership, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit, found that most content on the Internet is not useful for poor people or folks with weak reading skills. With more of these people getting online, the study urges community leaders, companies and investors to develop content for their needs.

"The good news is that as we start to see more under-served people get connected, we see the next set of questions being raised," said Wendy Lazarus, co-director of the Children's Partnership. "And that question is whether they are finding the applications and services they want and need."

The answer, according to the partnership's report, is no. The overall trend in Internet content and e-commerce is to target national and global communities that are wealthier and have more disposable income.

The authors spent 12 months interviewing low-income Internet users, community leaders and literacy experts. In addition, they examined 1,000 Web sites. Lazarus called the results "sobering."

The study found that only 6 percent of the sites included information that could be deemed useful to low-income users. And only about 1 percent included information on local jobs and housing. A person might be able to find a new home and get a mortgage online, but it is harder to use the Web to get on a list for public housing, Lazarus said.

"A lot of this has to do with the lack of local, practical content," she said. "They really want to know what's in their neighborhood, where can they take a GED and get low-cost housing."

The report also paints a bleak picture for the estimated 44 million Americans who read below the average literacy level. Only 1 percent of the sites surveyed could easily be read by this group and only 2 percent of the sites targeted Americans who don't speak English as their first language.

"It's not enough to just get people on the Internet," said Andy Carvin, a senior associate at the Benton Foundation, a nonprofit organization that researches digital divide issues. "You have to give them a reason to use it."

The report recommends several steps to bridge the divide:

* Creating partnerships with low-income communities to design portals for them;

* Creating simple ways for these groups to find useful information on the Internet;

* Training groups to develop their own content;

* Encouraging investors and venture capitalists to develop business models that would support portals and Web sites that target low-income communities.

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