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Neighborhoods still working to close the digital gap

Although we are amid a digital revolution, digital connectedness is on the wish list of many residents in Chicago's low-income neighborhoods this holiday season.

Studies have shown that cost is a major barrier to Internet access, especially in the home. In Chicago, nearly 40 percent of residents do not have the broadband connections required to compete in the Digital Age.

"This is typical of what we see in low-income communities," said Karen Mossberger, professor of public administration at the University of Illinois at Chicago, who co-wrote the study "Digital Excellence in Chicago: A Citywide View of Technology Use."

"People have a little experience, perhaps in libraries or at community centers," Mossberger said. "But when it comes to being able to afford high-speed Internet access at home, and being able to use high-speed Internet at home, there are larger gaps." About this time last year, Mayor Richard Daley announced the Smart Communities program, the goal of which is to increase broadband access in five digitally underserved neighborhoods: Humboldt Park, Pilsen, Auburn Gresham, Chicago Lawn and Englewood.

All of the neighborhoods are predominantly African-American or Hispanic. Both ethnic groups are more likely than whites to cite cost as the main reason for not being online, according to the study of Chicago's digital scene.

So far, Smart Communities has paid for computer training, the installation of kiosks that provide public Internet access in each neighborhood, and summer youth projects. There also are Web-based community portals in each of the neighborhoods that allow users to post their own content, such as job training resources.

In Humboldt Park, the Smart Communities project recently partnered with the nonprofit Bickerdike Redevelopment Corp. and several civic groups. Mossberger's report found that residents in that neighborhood were less likely to go online to get information about health services, political candidates, public transit schedules and government services. Only in job hunts did Humboldt Park residents use the Internet as often as Chicagoans in general, her study found.

Smart Communities is bringing "family net centers" to the community, where residents can access the Internet at social service centers such as Association House of Chicago and Chicago Commons. Having more places to log on to the Internet will likely shorten the long lines for computers at the Humboldt Park library branch each day after school, said Joy Aruguete, Bickerdike's executive director.

Many of Humboldt Park's youth said they are acutely aware that lack of access can be an impediment, which is why Smart Communities launched the Digital Youth Summer Jobs Program to help teenagers gain technology skills.

"The Internet can be used as a big education tool, and students like myself find it very useful for school," said Gwen Pepin, 15, a student at Whitney Young High School. "That's only if high-speed Internet is available, and for many in the Humboldt Park community that's not the case."

Without the high-speed Internet access Smart Communities is providing, many residents in Humboldt Park and other underserved neighborhoods would not be able to get basic information on subjects ranging from health, career and city services to taking online classes, Mossberger said.

Mossberger's 2008 study also found disparities in the workplace. Among workers with a high school diploma, those who use the Internet on the job earn an average of $100 more per week, controlling for factors like education and experience. Given these findings, residents of Humboldt Park and other not fully plugged-in neighborhoods are at a disadvantage in work force skills, she said.

"It's not just that the skills are needed for information they need in their everyday lives. They also need Internet skills to be competitive in the work force," Mossberger said.

Smart Communities also seeks to address the divide among businesses, said Tom Otto, economic development planner with West Humboldt Park Development Council and head of the Business Resource Network. Otto said many of the businesses in the area lack access to high-speed Internet, computers, software and training.

"Little retail shops and other businesspeople don't have an e-mail address and have never been on a computer," Otto said. "It's hard enough for those of us who do have access to keep up with the pace of technology. You have to engage in technology, and it can be as simple as having a Web page or a presence on Facebook. These are not expensive things to do, or beyond the reach of a mom-and-pop store."

Plans call for the Business Resource Network to offer business owners technology assessments, action plans to address needs and access to one-on-one technical assistance. That help will be in everything from file-sharing to using online bill payment systems, Otto said.

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