Category Archives: digital divide

Digital divide and civic engagement

With the dissertation defended I plan on bringing this blog back to life.

I started a post-doc position with the Cornell eRulemaking Initiative (CeRI), based in Cornell Law School. The project runs a very interesting operation called Regulation Room. It offers a platform and, even more importantly, a process for online public participation in the federal government rule-making process (if you don’t know what rule-making is, you are with the majority of people out there and should definitely go to the Regulation Room, because it has all the explanations). I will be working on collaborative drafting of policy input and consensus building around policy issues; aspects that currently are absent from the platform and frankly not sure will be necessarily a standard part of it. I hope to write about this work as I move along.

Yet, even before I started working on my own piece of CeRI research, just learning about the Regulation Room prompted interesting conversations that easily linked to my interest in the digital divide. The result is a paper I co-authored with one of my new colleagues, Rebecca Vernon, which will be presented later this week at the “New ICTs + New Media = New Democracy? Communications policy and public life in the age of broadband” (CFP) – a workshop organized by the Institute for Information Policy at Penn State University and the New America Foundation.

I am not sure what the policy of the workshop is about publishing the papers, so in the meantime I’ll post the extended abstract. Hope you’ll find the premise interesting. If you are interested in the rest, please email me or just leave a comment.

Between Twitter revolutions and Facebook elections, there is a growing belief that information and communication technologies are changing the way democracy is practiced. But how universal are those effects? In this paper we look into what van Dijk labels “motivational access” in digital divide as an impediment for citizens to actively utilize information and communication technologies for civic engagement. We focus on the Cornell University eRulemaking Initiative as our case and conduct an in-depth investigation into its recent efforts to get the public involved in the Department of Transportation rulemaking process using online tools. Recommendations based on this analysis address both national policy frameworks and agency specific regulations.

The digital divide is viewed as major impediment to information-technology-enhanced democratic processes. But if you build it, will they come? Will making broadband more readily available necessarily increase participation in democratic processes? Will making government information available online motivate citizens to engage with government institutions? Will opening up communication channels necessarily yield productive feedback from people? Are the barriers for meaningful civic participation online primarily technological?

Regulation Room ( is a project of Cornell University eRulemaking Initiative (CeRI). It is an online platform developed to engage the public in the federal agency rulemaking processes. In addition to its technological platform, Regulation Room has developed a set of moderation and outreach techniques to make both the procedures of rulemaking and the content of the rules more accessible to the general public. CeRI works with the Department of Transportation on actual rules the agency is seeking public comment on. As such, it serves as a real-life laboratory to explore uses of technology in democratic processes.

Over the past 15 months, Regulation Room worked on 3 rules that resulted in formal comments submitted to the Department of Transportation. In this paper we unpack what it takes to engage citizens in democratic processes and help them make their participation count. Our analysis suggests that while digital divide defined in terms of physical access and technological literacy may play a role in impeding civic engagement, they may not be the only important factors. In effect, while ensuring that all citizens have broadband access and well-developed technical skills go a long way toward ensuring public participation in democratic governance, it will not result in the desired breadth and depth of participation without further policy changes and investments in new technologies. Practices that evolved around the use of technology on the one hand and the engagement with government processes on the other, play an important role affecting civic online participation.

The paper presents an assortment of lessons and observations from “Regulation Room” and offers policy recommendations that suggest viewing civic online engagement through the lens of socio-technical practice, wherein the technology requirements for citizens to engage effectively in democratic processes are examined in conjunction with the normative assumptions of individuals as they interact with their government through online media.

Intel is doing it smart

At the last WTPF meeting I learned about the Magellan laptop project of the Portuguese government.  Every participant was provided with such a laptop for the duration of the forum, at the end of which the laptops were supposed to be donated “to children in a developing country.”  I am not sure where exactly they went, but many of the participants got to keep their laptops and were provided with a lot of information about the project.

The Magellan laptop

The Magellan initiative, named after the 16th century explorer, is a collaboration between Intel and the Portuguese government.  According to Mr. Mario Lino, Minister of Public Works, Transport and Communications, it is part of the government’s commitment to development of the “information society” in Portugal.  The aim is to deliver those laptops to 1.1 million students registered in their e-school program and supposedly 800K have been already deployed.  Moreover, the initiative is looking to expand beyond the Portuguese borders.  A number of times during the forums it was mentioned that a really large shipment of Magellan laptops (if I remember correctly about 200K) went to Columbia and shipments to other corners of the world are on their way.

The project representatives I talked to at the forum were not ready to say how much it would cost if someone wanted to by a batch of these machines.  They sold them on spot for 250 Euro a piece, but told me that the price will be negotiated per project depending on the quantities and the educational needs of the client.  From my neighbor on the flights back to the US, whose kid participates in the program, I learned that in Portugal those laptops are distributed for 50 Euro maximum (if the family is not eligible for any additional subsidies).  If the family falls in certain category, it would get not only the laptop for free, but also an internet connection as long as there are children aged 8-10 in the household and their participate in the program.

Indeed, the program is very well known in Portugal.  I was lucky enough to receive one of those laptops and carrying it around and taking it on the plane attracted both attention and comments of the locals who were really proud about their local laptop traveling to the US.

Digging into it, Magellan laptop is the Classmate PC in a different cover.  I think Intel have handled it really smart with this project.  They gave the Portuguese government the ability to repackage their Classmate PC so that it could be presented to the world as a Portuguese laptop and the Portuguese government could take the credit.  In other words, the Portuguese government rips political dividend while helping Intel disseminating their technology.  Sort of a win-win situation.

The laptops are indeed assembled in Portugal (from parts made in China), which makes it the first European laptop.  My version came with Windows XP in English, but from my neighbor on the flights back I learned that machines distributed in Portugal come with dual boot of XP and Ubuntu.  Moreover, they come with an educational software, which according to my neighbor was rather buggy and not very useful.  Unfortunately, I didn’t get to see the software.

The size, the design, and most importantly the purpose of the laptop (and the entire program), raised an immediate comparison to OLPC and XO, but on that (and more on the specs of the laptop) in a latter post.  In the meantime, here are few more pictures of the machine with some comments.

Just to give you a sense of its size compared to a standard business card; also note the handle to carry it around

Just to give you a sense of its size compared to a standard business card; also note the handle to carry it around

An open laptop: the keybord is pretty small (designed for kids) and my version has Portuguese layout; the touch pad is nice, but I couldn't figure out how to turn off the tapping functionality; note a built-in webcam above the screen

An open laptop: the keybord is pretty small (designed for kids) and my version has Portuguese layout; the touch pad is nice, but I couldn't figure out how to turn off the tapping functionality; note a built-in webcam above the screen

Right side: USB port, SD card reader, LAN, and power

Right side: USB port, SD card reader, LAN, and power

Left side: Another USB port, headphones and microphone jacks

Left side: Another USB port, headphones and microphone jacks

The bottom view of the laptop

The bottom view of the laptop

Another bottom view, this time with the battery out

Another bottom view, this time with the battery out

OLPCorps Africa – March 27 deadline

Although it received quite a lot of (somewhat just) criticism on OLPC news (here and here with the second post trying to make sense of the first one), I think this is quite an interesting move on behalf of OLPC.  I think there is a lot of the youth potential, which the author of the blog post is overlooking and I would like to share this opportunity with those of you who are interested in OLPC-related activities.  For example, I think it may particularly interest those of you who were at the last ITU YF in Bangkok and had an opportunity to be thoroughly introduced to the XO laptops.

Here is the gist of the initiative:


OLPCorps Africa is a unique grant program focused specifically on learning in Africa. Student teams are equipped with the tools, resources, and know-how to develop grassroots learning environments in an African country of their choice. OLPC is drawing upon the world’s student leaders to spark a university-led grassroots initiative in this global learning movement. Through OLPCorps Africa, OLPC is creating a global network of student leaders who will create a lasting impact at the local level, build a network of student activists, and initiate a grant program that will become renown.  (source)

Eligibility? – Undergraduate and graduate students, over 18 years old, from any country.


$3,500,000 for 100 teams of college students to get $35,000 in support for 10 week projects in Africa. Each group gets 100 XO laptops, assorted hardware, a $10,000 stipend, and 10-day training in Kigali, Rwanda, before being sent out to projects. (source)


The workshop will begin June 8th and end June 17th. Teams should arrive at least 1 day before. However, teams are encouraged to arrive as early as the 6th in order to adjust to the time-difference and leave room for flight-delays or any other unexpected circumstances which may arise. (source)

The duration of the Grant Program is 10 weeks (June – August), including the orientation in Kigali. Teams should arrange with their local partner to stay for at least 9 weeks. (source)

Proposals deadline is March 27th.

Please consult the wiki of the project for further details.  Note that there are many people there who are looking for local partners to form a proposal team.  So, if you are in Africa, you may find good partners there.

I was also excited to see that there is a group of Cornell students who have applied for this opportunity.  I hope to get in touch with them and offer them my help.  If any of you is applying, I would be also glad to hear about that!  Please let me know if I can help, particularly with linking people who are looking for partners.

Good luck everyone!

CFP: Digital Divide mini-track at HICSS

Reposting a call for papers I first saw on eKarine. Hope some of you will find it relevant/useful:

Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences (HICSS-43)
January 5-8, 2010 Kauai

Digital Divide/s and Inclusion/s Mini-track

The mini-track calls for papers that study digital divide/s, inequalities and inclusions in different levels, methods and perspectives. Possible focus may be on international, national, local, sector, communal, and individual level. Both empirical and theoretical papers are invited. Potential contributions may be in the subjects, but are not limited to the following:

  • Conceptualization and theory of digital divide/s, digital spectrum and eInclusion
  • Indigenous communities and technologySocio-demographic factors– gender, age, education, income, ethnic diversity, race diversity, language diversity, religiosity
  • Social and governmental support – for example the use of supportive initiatives, policy and applications to bridge the gap, or how society and community impact eInclusion
  • Access and technology – infrastructure factors
  • Affordability
  • Use – skills, frequency and time, locus, autonomy of use, what do users do online and for what purpose
  • Accessibility focusing mainly in populations with special needs
  • Measurements indices
  • Comparative analysis of policy
  • Comparative cross-country or cross-region research
  • Country or region specific case studies

Contact Information for Mini-Track Chairs:

Karine Barzilai-Nahon [Primary Contact]
University of Washington
The Information School
Suite 370B Mary Gates Hall, Box 352840
Seattle, WA 98195-2840
Phone: (206) 685-6668
Fax: (206) 616-3152

Narcyz Roztocki
State University of New York at New Paltz
School of Business
75 S. Manheim Blvd.
New Paltz, NY 12561-2443
Phone: (845) 257-2935
Fax: (845) 257-2947

Important Deadlines:

  • Abstracts -Authors may contact Minitrack Chairs for guidance and indication of appropriate content at anytime.
  • June 15, 2009 – Authors submit full papers to the Peer Review System, following Author Instructions found on the HICSS web site. All papers will be submitted in double column publication format and limited to 10 pages including diagrams and references. Papers undergo a double-blind review.
  • August 15, 2009 – Acceptance/Rejection notices are sent to Authors via the Peer Review System.
  • September 19, 2009 – Authors submit Final Version of papers following submission instructions on the Peer Review System web site. At least one author of each paper must register by this date with specific plans to attend the conference to present the paper.

Instructions for Paper Submission:

  • HICSS papers must contain original material not previously published, or currently submitted elsewhere.
  • Do not submit the manuscript to more than one mini-track. If unsure which mini-track is appropriate, submit the abstract to the Track Chair for guidance.
  • Submit your full paper according to the detailed formatting and submission instructions found on the HICSS website. Note: All papers will be submitted in double column publication format and limited to 10 pages including diagrams and references. HICSS will conduct double-blind reviews of each submitted paper.

HICSS conferences are devoted to advances in the information, computer, and system sciences, and encompass developments in both theory and practice. Invited papers may be theoretical, conceptual, tutorial or descriptive in nature. Submissions undergo a double-blind peer referee process and those selected for presentation will be published in the Conference Proceedings. Submissions must not have been previously published.

For the latest information visit the HICSS web site at:

The “digital divide” is on the map (again)

In his recent weekly address, Obama revealed parts of his economic recovery plan.  Interestingly, one of the main points he chose to reveal was actually about the “digital divide” even though he is not using the term.  Here is his address:


In case you skipped the video, here are the MICT related highlights:

Third, my economic recovery plan will launch the most sweeping effort to modernize and upgrade school buildings that this country has ever seen.  We will repair broken schools, make them energy-efficient, and put new computers in our classrooms. Because to help our children compete in a 21st century economy, we need to send them to 21st century schools.

As we renew our schools and highways, we’ll also renew our information superhighway. It is unacceptable that the United States ranks 15th in the world in broadband adoption. Here, in the country that invented the internet, every child should have the chance to get online, and they’ll get that chance when I’m President – because that’s how we’ll strengthen America’s competitiveness in the world.

Even though Obama is not using the term “digital divide”, on its face we can see both components of the debate present in his speech.  First, he is talking about access (emphasizing the bandwidth as the key issue).  Second, he is talking about education, which refers to the skills aspect of the “digital divide”.

In a recent study, Erik Nisbet and I found that the skills frame of “digital divide” usually leads people attribute the problem to individual.  In simple words, if you frame the “digital divide” as an issue of access, people will expect the government to solve the problem.  However, if you frame the “digital divide” as a matter of skills, people tend to hold the individual responsible for lack of knowledge.

This is why it is really interesting that Obama is framing the issue in a rather sophisticated way.  In his plan, it is not an issue of children lacking skills, as much as it is an issue of the school systems lacking the infrastructure.  In other words, the issue of skills is being transformed into an issue of infrastructure – if we bring the technology to schools, the students will figure out how to use it in the best possible way.  Re-framing the issue in terms of access definitely makes it more amenable to a centralized solution and rationalizes future government spending on public works, however, I wonder if it actually adequately addresses the issue of promoting digital literacy.  At the end of the day, we do need computers in schools, but we also need the manpower and an educational paradigm in order to empower the next generation through their use of MICT.

Digital inequalities and politics 101

I gave a guest lecture today in an intro Comm class I am TAing this semester for Bruce Lewenstein.  For about a week and a half we have been discussing communication and politics in light of the upcoming US presidential election.   As a result, the 50 minutes class I led, focused on digital inequalities and their political repercussions.  It was a very general talk, yet preparing for it helped me clarifying some of my own ideas and made me see that there is uniqueness in my take on things.

I am posting here a PDF of the presentation.  I am not sure how informative it is without the actual talk, but you can probably get the gist of it.  I removed some of the illustrative-only slides and added some of the more informative ones, so I hope it’ll help.  Also, it has some of the recent statistics about internet penetration in the US and worldwide, which may be useful for some.

You thoughts and comments are welcome!

[link to the PDF]

Affordible technology

Recently i blogged about some number of mobile penetration in Africa.  Now i came across this rather old article (HE) about an Israeli company that develops under $25 mobile phones.  The great part of this story is that these seem to be not just simpler (and thus cheaper) phones, but handhelds that have internet and multimedia capabilities.  Neat…

Some ICT4D numbers

Following John Daly’s lead, I read an interesting article in “Issues in Science and Technology” discussing the link between information technology and socioeconomic development. The article by Renee Kuriyan, Isha Ray, and Daniel Kammen from Berkley explores the viability of business-government partnerships for development.  On the one hand, they ask what degree it is possible to do well while doing good.  On the other, they are trying to see what are the needed conditions for this paradigm to work.  It is quite an interesting read and the authors draw a rather complex evaluation of this approach.

You are welcome to read the entire article, but what I wanted to share here are some quotes containing numbers about information technology and associated investment in developing countries.  So, here we go:

With the explosion of markets for low-cost cell phones, personal digital assistants, and personal computers, the information and communications technology (ICT) sector has been particularly influenced by the BOP business logic. More than half of the world’s population lives in rural or peri-urban areas outside the reach of ICT networks. To bridge this digital divide, the World Bank and IFC have invested $5 billion in loans to ICT projects in more than 80 countries. Most USAID programs worldwide have an ICT component, with its latest report indicating that the U.S. government spent a total of $120 million on ICT for development purposes (ICT4D).

Mobile telephony represents the most dramatic ICT4D and BOP success story. According to the joint WRI and IFC report, between the years 2000 and 2005, the number of mobile subscribers in developing countries grew to nearly 1.4 billion, a fivefold increase. Annual increases in cell phone subscribers exceed 100% per year in some nations, notably in sub-Saharan Africa.

India stands out as a leader in developing ICT4D projects, with over 150 private and public initiatives. Mobile subscribers per 1,000 people increased from 4 in the year 2000 to 48 in 2004. Internet users per 1,000 people went from 5 in 2000 to 23 in 2004. The Indian government has made a concerted effort to deliver low-cost connectivity and ICT-enabled services to the “common person” for development purposes. One of the most popular channels for the mass delivery of ICT4D services is through access to shared computers in rural ICT kiosks (also known as telecenters). The kiosks are equipped with one or more Internet-enabled computers and are generally owned and run by independent entrepreneurs. The Indian government is in the process of installing 100,000 ICT kiosks for business and government services throughout the country through a franchise model. Microsoft Corporation India has committed to initiating an additional 50,000 kiosks on the premise that such kiosks can be drivers of growth and facilitate development through business opportunities. The most recent company to seek its fortune in rural India is Google, with a simplified search engine and mobile phone applications, customized to provide weather information, crop patterns, and other relevant data to rural customers.

There are no new and shocking ideas in these data, but it is always good to put numbers along some commonly shared “wisdoms”.  Again, here is a link to the complete article.

Technologies that help

It’s been a while since i read this article (HE) about two young Israeli entrepreneurs who participated in developing GPS software that would be friendly for the visually impaired people. If you ever used a GPS, you would know that many (most?) of them are capable of providing voice directions. However, it is not good enough if you cannot see properly. The program that they developed makes more use of voice. For example when you select destinations or want to find out where you are at the moment and what is there in your surroundings. One interesting feature of the program is its adjustment for the use of public transportation – it will tell you what bus stop you are at and when you should get off. The main downside of the program at the moment is its price.

Recently I also read this news update about a free email service, RoboBraille, that translates text into audio or Braille. According to this article, it takes the program “can return a simple text in Braille in under a minute while taking as long as 10 hours to provide an audio recording of a book”, which i think is still very impressive (provided that the final quality of the output is good). They report to work on about 500 documents a day and have translated a quarter million texts so far. My only unanswered question here is how a visually impaired, probably blind person is supposed to send that email. That would probably require some more expansive hardware and software, which still maintains a barrier.

Even though I still have some questions, I am really excited when the information technology is used to solve real, substantial problems. If you have more examples, please share!