Technicity Times
    Issue 4 • November 2003

Connecting Los Angeles' Underserved Communities

New Study of Technology Access in Los Angeles

Digital Divide Persists

by Elsa Macias

In today's digital world, access to technology and the skills to effectively use it provides a means for economic improvement, educational success and social integration. However, gaining access to both the technology and the skills continues to be problematic for low-income and ethnic and racial minorities. Community technology centers are a vital resource providing a broad range of technology-related services in locations that are convenient to underserved and disenfranchised individuals, and they have a tremendous potential to meet the technology needs of these populations. But given the often strained resources in many communities and the uncertainty of funding streams, the extent these technology centers are able to manage the demand for technology services and training remains unclear.

A study at the Tomás Rivera Policy Institute (TRPI), Conectados: Connecting Los Angeles' Underserved Communities, assessed the availability of community technology centers in underserved communities in the Los Angeles area, and whether these centers are meeting the information and communication needs of low-income and minority communities, particularly Latino communities. The study consisted of two separate analyses. The first used Geographic Information System (GIS) mapping to plot the physical locations of computer technology centers in metropolitan Los Angles against a series of geographical maps showing the distribution and densities of low-income, Latino, African American and Asian American, and Spanish-speaking households. The second phase involved a survey of a sample of technology center administrators to assess the resources they have available. Additionally, a comprehensive list of technology centers in the Los Angeles area culled from various sources was updated and made available for distribution.

Spanish Speaking Households are Underserved

According to the report, while technology centers can be found throughout central and downtown Los Angeles, there are far fewer technology centers in many other surrounding areas with large numbers of minority and low-income households. Furthermore, technology centers that provide technological training, assistance and programmatic resources to adults, in addition to physical access to computers, are in short supply in areas with a high percentage of Hispanics and in areas with a high percentage of Spanish-speaking households.

Since these are typically populations with the lowest rates of household computer ownership and Internet access, they can also be presumed to have a greater need for public access. In fact, Latino home ownership and Internet access lags behind that of white, non-Hispanic households. The same is true of low-income households. When household access is not available, public access - including via community technology centers - becomes critical. Public access centers often provide more than physical access to technology. They are often resources for technology training and for increasing literacy and education levels, which also impact the ability to use the technology to its utmost potential. The lack of sufficient numbers of technology centers near to these populations, and a related lack of resources in most centers, raises concerns about the extent to which public technology centers are able to fulfill their missions. These results should not be construed as a criticism of the efforts of community-based technology centers, but rather should draw attention to the continuing need for resources by the underserved populations that these centers serve, and the ongoing significance of the gap in access to technology by different populations that we know as the digital divide.

Click on the image above for a larger, more detailed view of the map.

 

 

TRPI Recommendations

Based on the study findings, TRPI made several policy recommendations to increase the presence of community technology centers in underserved communities, and to improve their ability to deliver their vital programmatic and training services. The first was that while funding for technology centers needed to be improved, there was a great need for technology centers that do more than provide access to computers and the Internet. Private and public funding should be increased for "program-enriched" technology centers that also offer training and integrate technology into their educational services since the demand for those services is high and resources to sustain them continue to be in short supply. These centers should have the resources to be able to include Spanish-speaking staff when appropriate to better assist Latino immigrants.

Another recommendation is that communities should partner with the private and public sectors to invest in technology centers in those areas with a demonstrated need for greater services: areas with large percentages of minority and low-income populations, and areas with large numbers of non-English speakers where household access is low. City councils in low-income areas should be informed of the need and function of public access centers in providing access to technology and training to their constituencies, and regional planning strategies should be implemented to ensure greater public access in low-income and minority areas.

Finally, we continue to need reliable data about computer and Internet use, and its distribution, access and utility in low-income and minority communities on which sound public policy decisions can be based. An interactive website and searchable database of technology centers in Los Angeles and nation-wide should be created to make them easier for the community at large, public and private donors, and civic leaders to locate. Resources should also be secured to maintain an up-to-date database listing technology centers, since technology centers-especially smaller centers- tend to close or move often due to funding constraints.

As the federal role of leadership and funding for digital divide projects has declined, the responsibility of ensuring that digital opportunities are available in all communities has fallen increasingly to individual states and to private sources. To help ameliorate this situation, a bill in California was recently passed to create a state fund that would support community technology programs. This bill sets aside a portion of the lease fees the state collects to lease space on state-owned property to wireless telecommunications companies to build cell towers. This is one good step in the right direction.

 

TRPI is a nonprofit, non-advocacy organization whose mission is to conduct objective policy research on issues that are relevant to the Latino community, and is an affiliated research unit of the University of Southern California's School of Policy, Planning, and Development.. To download the entire report in PDF format, please visit http://www.trpi.org/PDF/Conectados.pdf.

 



Elsa Macias is a Senior Research Associate directing the technology policy research agenda at the Tomás Rivera Policy Institute. She can be reached at eemacias@usc.edu .

 

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