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Destinations: Bridging the digital divide

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It’s a safe bet that those reading this column aren’t among the digital have-nots of the world - the people stranded on the wrong side of what’s called the Digital Divide. As computers, the Internet and other new technologies evolve and assume a larger role in everyday lives, what happens to those who can’t afford a home computer, don’t have access to one or can’t use the Internet because of a physical disability? We thought the following sites might help focus attention on keeping everyone up with the Information Age.

Closing the Digital Divide
www.digitaldivide.gov

The National Telecommunications Information Administration, which serves as the U.S. government’s main site on digital parity, cuts straight to federal initiatives to bring more Internet access and high-tech skills to Information Age have-nots. Here is the place to dig up studies to give more access and training to minorities, in rural areas and at low-income schools. Of course, there’s the expected bureaucratic spin of a bright, cheery virtual future for all. But this is a good place to find grant money and innovative projects to make the Internet a truly global community.

Digital Divide Network
www.digitaldividenetwork.org

Posted by a nonprofit private foundation, Digital Divide Network keeps track of progress - and setbacks - in the struggle to get more access to technology in poor neighborhoods, rural burgs, inner-city schools and to the disabled. The site keeps a large listing of grant programs and scholarships, news clippings, research and statistics on demographics and high-tech access, and highlights plans from a smorgasbord of private, government and nonprofit programs throughout the country. A great feature of this page is a state-by-state directory of Digital Divide programs where people are working to turn loose even more of the populace on the Internet.

OneNetNow.com
www.OneNetNow.com

This is a slickly designed site that works like magic, which is great if you have access to the Web. But should the sites above deliver better access to those who can’t cough up the money for Internet access, OneNetNow can offer free home pages and online communities for special interests at no extra cost. Still, that’s not revolutionary, is it? What we liked was that the sites throughout this mega-portal wannabe have a noticeable absence of banner advertisements, annoying pop-up windows or other ploys to foot the bill. How will they pay their bills? They don’t say.

Austin Free-Net
www.austinfree.net

The idea here is to get free access to the Internet for anyone and everyone within Austin’s well-known city limits. Volunteers give how-to-surf lessons and write handbooks for just about anything the public would want to do or learn on the Net. But how do you get on? So far, contributors to the network have helped to set up more than 150 computers and printers in 21 locations, mostly in the city’s public libraries. We thought this site was worth mentioning for the simple reason that members of the community got together, scrounged up equipment and funds from corporations, and decided to start bridging the Digital Divide on their own. Nice work, people.

Digital Sojourn
www.digitalsojourn.org

When it came to information on narrowing digital access disparities for African-Americans, we found Digital Sojourn a bit lacking in suggesting just how to pull off the initiative. At best, the site posts a helpful, 3-year-old essay, "Grappling With the Net: The Need for Universal Access," on getting more people of color online and up-to-date on new technologies and training programs. The good news is that the host cuts to the chase in pointing out just how devastating staying off line could be for poor communities as the Net’s influence grows and affects commerce and employment. Bureaucratic back-patting is tossed aside for an urgent call for more action - and more access.

Girlstart
www.smartgrrls.org

Another site originating from Austin, this group wants to make sure that our daughters don’t get short shrift in using technology to learn, find jobs or make money. Rachel Muir, the site founder, tries to help 9- to 15-year-old girls get better acquainted with math, science and technology by offering homework help, scads of links to safe, girl-friendly sites and home pages created by students who have attended Girlstart’s computer camps. Don’t expect an epiphany on how to make your daughters completely tech-savvy but get ready for some friendly encouragement. Girlstart also is working on activities for Dallas.

GenTech
www.shecan.com

This research project was set up to help gender equity in Canadian public schools, especially when it came to information technology fields. Researchers here found that female teachers and students alike were "less likely to find acquire technological competence" and - even more daunting - more likely to be discouraged to do so. Beyond reading the details of research results, check out a slew of links to other sites that offer support and help to women who want to take up some technological slack in the near future.
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