Monday, August 27, 2007

Lafayette's Age-based Digital Divide

Today's Advertiser runs two stories (1, 2) that are both interesting and informative on the gap in computer and internet usage between seniors and the rest of the community.

The gap between seniors and the rest of the population is one of the most marked divides in internet usage—and one remarked upon by Lafayette's own digital divide committee. Today's article documents the divide and notes the narrowing of the gap over the years:
In a study conducted for The Daily Advertiser this spring, 36 percent of those over 65 who responded said they had accessed the Internet in the past 30 days. That figure was 33 percent for a 7-day period in question. Those numbers are significantly lower than any other age group, but even that represents a marked increase over 2001 (8 percent) and 2005 (22 percent) for the 7-day response.
That clearly documents a divide--and an improvement over time. What's really great about this is that it is local data. (Something we very badly need.) Lafayette is unique enough that I've never been confident that the national stats applied very directly. National trendlines are easier to show confidence in but even that makes the old statistician in me a little uneasy—so it is very nice to get better data. The little bit of data given here documents a healthy change over time.

Interestingly this summer, PEW's well-respected periodic surveys of internet usage documents a very similar number —32%—for seniors "using the internet at least occasionally." That sort of phrasing is likely to overestimate usage; the Advertiser's asking if a respondent has used it in the last week is a more reliable and tougher question—and it showed 33%. So while a completely parallel question would be ideal the Advertisers data is still a good indication that Lafayette's seniors do not lag the national average and most probably are using the internet in a bit higher numbers.

We're used to thinking of ourselves as behind the ball in Louisiana but apprently that isn't true of senior internet usage. At least not in Lafayette. Why not? Part of the answer might be visible in the subtitle of the first story: "Classes help some step into computer age." Folks at the university and at the public library have been making education available in a consistent and useful manner. Some organizations that appeal to the elderly, like genealogical ones, are also touting the advantages to interested seniors. All that has to add up.

Of course, as nice as education is, it still leaves more seniors offline than any other category. Arguably seniors with limited mobility, a larger interaction with the trappings of officialdom, and a more persistent need for good medical information would benefit more than the youngsters from internet connectivity. It would be nice to increase their utilization. The second story,
"Why getting grandma online matters," points to the more fundamental problem: showing people who've gotten along without the internet for the whole of a very fruitful life why they ought to want to bother. The story lists activities that make the value evident:
  • Sharing photos with family and friends.
  • Free medical information is available.
  • Shop without leaving home.
  • Apply for certain benefits.
  • You know, when you think about it those are the sorts of things we all find interest--that and staying in touch with friends and our community more generally.

    What would help seniors begin to take advantage of the resources are pretty much what would help us all. We ALL would benefit from being better connected to our communities. That's what the idea of a Lafayette Commons, an online place that makes useful local information easy to access is all about. Worth thinking on.

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