The digital divide
First Monday

The digital divide: Why the don't-want-tos won't compute: Lessons from a New Zealand ICT Project



Abstract
Why, when computing is available in a socially situated, convenient environment, at no cost, do people choose not to compute? This paper describes a community–based project that wired four computing centres (hubs) in a lower socio–economic urban area in Wellington, New Zealand’s capital city. One of the hubs is situated in a city council high–rise apartment block and after six months of operation it was apparent that many of the residents were not using the free computing facilities. A survey was designed and administered to the non–users in this apartment block. Responses centered on the themes of access, awareness and factors that would encourage residents to use the hub, but the majority stated they were “not interested.” Analysis explores the impact of the social context within which the hub is situated and suggests reasons why some people choose not to compute.

Contents

Introduction
Background
Non–user categories
Reasons for non–use
The Smart Newtown research project
Method and survey description
Survey findings
Analysis and conclusion

 


 

Introduction

A common theme in the digital divide literature relates to identification of the nature and the extent of the divide, the risks inherent in exclusion to population groups if they do not have access and, to a lesser extent, discussion on content (what is being accessed), and extent and type of application usage. An area where very little attention has been paid is the non–user group; those who, despite having easy, and sometimes free access, choose not to engage in Information and Communications Technology (ICT). This paper reports the findings of a non–use survey undertaken in a high–rise city council apartment block of nearly 500 residents. The survey is a component of a larger overall study that evaluated the Smart Newtown Pilot Project in New Zealand’s capital city, Wellington, where a suburb was equipped with free community computing centres.

 

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Background

It is now nearly a decade since the U.S. Department of Commerce survey of Internet access by the “have nots” in rural and urban America found inequalities of access based on age, income, urban/rural location and gender (NTIA, 1995). In October 2000 the fourth report showed that overall, there was a rapid increase in the level of U.S. digital inclusion and that groups that have traditionally been digital “have nots” are now making dramatic gains (NTIA, 2000). The February 2002 report, A nation online, reported similar findings stating that more than half of all Americans used computers and the Internet (NTIA, 2002). However despite the encouraging trend, the digital divide remains a policy concern for the U.S. and governments of other countries, for example, Great Britain (Policy Action Team 15, 2000), Australia (Hellwig and Lloyd, 2000), Canada (Birdsall, 2000) and New Zealand (New Zealand Ministry of Economic Development, 2001).

In New Zealand the government has identified those more likely than others to be left behind in the information revolution. These groups include Maori and Pacific peoples, those on low incomes, sole parents, older people, people with no or low qualifications or poor literacy, the unemployed, people with disabilities and people living in rural areas that lack a sound telecommunications structure (Connecting communities: A strategy for government support of community access to information and communications technology, 2002). In the United Kingdom similar concerns have resulted in projects such as the Wired Up Communities Programme (WuC) where £10 million was allocated by government to ensure “that those people and communities that currently experience social exclusion are not further excluded from engaging with online consumer and government services.” (Devins, et al., 2003).

Initiatives to address the digital divide have resulted in a proliferation of community computing schemes ranging from computer access at cybercafes, city libraries, high–rise apartment blocks and community centres. Many of these provide technology within an environment where computing facilities are accessed in a social setting with the characteristics of a “Third Place” (Oldenburg, 1991). Liff and Steward (2001) note that the social nature of the space in which a community network operates is significant. They cite Day and Harris (1997) as stating a “non–threatening, community–managed public place” is what is needed (p. 16).

The essential criteria for effective Third Places listed by Oldenburg (1991) include:

  • a neutral place away from home and work where people feel comfortable and can come and go at will
  • little interference from a host
  • social inclusion in terms of membership/ participation
  • stimulating connection with others
  • accessibility in terms of hours and locations
  • frequency of regulars

A United Kingdom study of computing centres that facilitated socially inclusive access to and use of computers and the Internet (e–gateways), found many of the successful e–gateways had characteristics that fitted the Oldenburg model (Liff, et al., 2002). Provision of training and user–assistance varied amongst the gateways ranging from no provision, to informal and sometimes, structured training, all delivered under an umbrella of friendly, sociable informality and with admission policies that "tended to be socially inclusive" (Liff, et al., 2002, p. 87). The e–gateway delivery, in conjunction with more formal provisions via institutions, libraries, etc., no doubt contributes to the growth in reported Internet usage and participation. Yet despite the seemingly positive participation figures, there is a significant group of non–users who live physically close to ICTs and choose not to participate. Who is this group?

 

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Non–user categories

Categories of non–users have been identified in the Pew Internet and American Life Project Report (Lenhart, et al., 2003) as:

  • those who once used the Internet and no longer do so.
  • net evaders; those who use the Internet by proxy. That is, non–Internet users live with someone who uses the Internet from home and receive and send e–mail messages, do online searches for information they want, via online family members.
  • the “truly disconnected”; those who have no direct or indirect experience with the Internet.

Wyatt, et al. (2002) identify four types of non–users. First, are the “resisters,” people who have never used the Internet because they do not want to. Second, are the “rejecters” — those who have stopped using the Internet. The third group is people who cannot gain access to the Internet and are considered as socially and technically excluded. The final category are those who have stopped using the Internet involuntarily because of cost or loss of institutional access. These categories are useful when considering reasons for those choosing not to use ICTs, especially when situated within a convenient location.

 

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Reasons for non–use

Evaluation of the Wired Up Communities Programme in the United Kingdom (Devins, et al., 2003) did not distinguish between user–categories but reported many and varied reasons for lack of “take up.” These focus on promotion and marketing of the programme, different challenges with potential participants’ level of inward and outward migration and negative perceptions associated with the value of using the Internet.

An American survey, conducted by Cyber Dialogue, an Internet research consultancy (Pastore, 1999), identified a “solid pool of non–users who believe they have no need for the Internet”; the Resisters who simply do not want to. They claim that approximately a third of all U.S. adults fall in this category. The researchers recognised a second non–user group of adults who have tried the Internet and did not expect to go online again “any time soon”; the Rejecters. Reasons for Rejecters choosing to no longer go online include disenchantment with problems of finding desired information, navigating through the Web, receiving unwanted information and keeping personal details secure (Wyatt, et al., 2002).

Results of a survey of British adults revealed similar findings; that is, of those surveyed and found to be “non–users,” a third stated they had no intention of ever using the Internet (Ward, 2000). Unreliability of the technology platform (recycled computers with hardware problems) appear to be a contributory factor in their decision but almost half of the non–user group cited a “lack of interest” or “lack of time” as the main explanation of non–use. This finding accords with results of the Pew Project where the majority of non–Internet users (56 percent) do not think they will ever go online. They say they feel no need or desire to use the Internet (Lenhart, et al., 2003). Additional concerns cited by a plurality of non–users include worry about online pornography, safety, credit card theft and fraud, the cost, lack of time, finding the Internet too complicated and hard to understand, embarrassment by their lack of computer skills, lack of a computer or Internet connection, language skills and cultural/gender roles where men felt embarrassed by being told by their children or wives what to do (Lenhart, et al., 2003; Wyatt, et al., 2002).

The next section describes the New Zealand, Smart Newtown community project, which began in 2000 with the vision of creating “a community where all residents have the skills and access to become active participants in today’s on–line world — to make Newtown a ‘digital–divide free’ suburb” (see http://www.smartnewtown.org.nz). The Smart Newtown slogan of “People First, Technology Second” indicates the human versus technological orientation of the project.

 

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The Smart Newtown research project

This paper arises from a wider research project that aimed to evaluate, using multiple methodologies, a community initiative called the Smart Newtown Project. The catalyst for the Smart Newtown Project was local government in the form of the Wellington City Council. In 2001 the Council won the Inaugural UNESCO New Zealand Digital Access Award for its commitment to addressing the digital divide and “working consistently for 15 years to translate its vision into action” (UNESCO, 2001). Newtown was chosen as the pilot community because of the suburb’s diverse needs, breadth of ethnic groups, corridor of educational institutions, the proximity of the participating institutions and accessibility to broadband Internet connection.

The Smart Newtown Project is based on a partnership model involving the Wellington City Council, a regional economic development agency, a communications–based charitable trust, three educational institutions (a polytechnic and two universities), a computer corporate (Fujitsu New Zealand Ltd.) and community organisations. There are other partners who provide both tangible and intangible support with resources, information and advice.

The project currently has four community computing hubs, a Smart Newtown Web site (http://www.smartnewtown.org.nz) which includes a Newtown portal, and initially included a business group looking at opportunities for Newtown businesses on the Internet. (The business group has gone into recession due to lack of interest.) The community computing hubs are at the Newtown Primary (elementary) School, the Newtown Cultural and Community Centre (NCCC), The Pacific Islands Network Centre (PINC) and the adjoining library, and the Fujitsu hub at the Newtown Park Flats (apartments). The school hub, the first to be established, works in conjunction with a Computers in Homes programme where students from 35 homes have been given a computer and the families provided with training.

The other three hubs have become operational in stages over a two–year period. A part–time employee coordinates volunteer helpers and delivers basic computing training. Each hub operates differently. The PINC is open all day and is located in the shopping centre of Newtown. The NCCC is harder to find and has restricted hours.

The Smart Newtown project was established with economic as well as social inclusion objectives which aim to:

  • provide opportunities for residents to learn and improve IT skills;
  • staircase residents to further IT training with a tertiary provider;
  • provide better access to the Internet, World Wide Web and other information and communication channels;
  • provide greater economic opportunities through job–hunting, CV development, self–employment or small business applications;
  • provide educational opportunities for homework and parental involvement, etc.; and,
  • strengthen intra–family relationships and cooperation.

The Fujitsu hub

The Fujitsu hub at the council–owned Newtown Park Flats was the second community hub to become established in the Smart Newtown Project. The six–block, high–rise complex provides housing for disadvantaged people in 283 apartments and is one of Wellington’s biggest council housing blocks. Fujitsu New Zealand Ltd. supplied and installed, at no cost, 10 recycled computers, a server, a printer, software and Internet access. The computing corporate provides ongoing help desk and maintenance support.

An easily accessible, ground floor room at the apartments, offering communal access in a quasi–public space, was dedicated as the Fujitsu hub (centre). The Fujitsu hub has many of the Third Place (Oldenburg, 1991) characteristics found to be attractive in encouraging patronage; for example, an accessible location, frequency of regulars and little interference from a host. In addition, the hub has many of the physical, digital, human and social resources necessary for effective use of ICTs (Warschauer, 2002).

Volunteers open the computer room and provide assistance to computer users when needed. The room is advertised as being open 10:00 a.m.–5:00 p.m. weekdays, Saturdays 10:00 a.m.–8:00 p.m., Sundays 1:00–5:00 p.m., and Tuesday and Thursday evenings, when a structured training programme from a polytechnic provider is run with a paid support person on hand to problem solve and offer user assistance as required. However, times of opening are dependent on a volunteer opening the room, and sometimes the hub remains locked. A small number of non–residents from other inner city flats and the wider community use the hub.

The computer room got off to a slow start while coping with a number of technical and personnel problems. Many apartment residents eagerly awaited opening day only to find no Internet access, followed by several months of unreliable Internet connection and hardware problems such as faulty disk drives. These teething problems were disappointing and dampened the initial enthusiasm and expectations of residents. There was a change of personnel when the original coordinator resigned and a replacement was recruited who provided more impetus to the hub. Protocols were established to ensure fair and equitable computer access for those who wanted it.

The researchers began evaluation of the project late 2001, shortly after the opening date, and after six months it became apparent that despite the Fujitsu hub possessing many Third Place attributes, the majority of the apartment residents did not use the ICT facilities. The residents appeared likely to qualify for the Resisters and Rejecters categories, but what were their reasons? To try and find answers to this question, a non–use questionnaire was designed and administered to a sample of the Fujitsu hub non–users living in the apartment complex.

 

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Method and survey description

The survey was designed to investigate non–use aspects of the computing hub. Figure 1 depicts the scope of the non–user investigation.

 

Figure 1: Scope of the non-user investigation
Figure 1: Scope of the non–user investigation.

 

Survey description

A 17–question survey was designed that initially established whether the respondent tenants used the computer room or not. Those who indicated that they were users of the computer room did not participate further in the survey. Demographic information was collected relating to age, ethnicity, sex and occupation. The remaining questions sought information about computer access and usage, tenants’ knowledge of and interest in the Fujitsu hub, factors that would encourage ICT usage, and reasons for tenants not using the hub.

Four mature male university students of different ethnic backgrounds were recruited to survey all the apartments in the six–block complex. After completing a training session the students conducted structured, face–to–face, door–step interviews with a tenant of each apartment within the students’ allocated block of flats. The survey was conducted over four days of the second week of June between the hours of 6 and 8 p.m. The timing of the survey was an important consideration as the residential population is characterised by high occupancy turnover and advice from the Wellington City Council indicated this was the most suitable time for ensuring contact.

Sample description

The population of the flats is ethnically diverse, including New Zealand European/Pakeha, Maori, Pacific Island, Middle Eastern, Chinese, Somali, and Indian, and almost 70 percent receive state–funded benefits. The target population of this study was residents who did not use the Fujitsu computing hub. The total sample was 159 tenants living in 57 percent of the 275 occupied flats. Of the 159 questionnaires, 12 forms were unusable and 26 tenants (17 percent) said that they used the computer room and therefore did not participate further in the survey. This resulted in a sample of 125 tenants responding to the questionnaire as people who did not use the computer room.

 

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Survey findings

Demographics

The survey respondents’ ages varied with 68.8 percent between 19 and 55 years of age, 29.6 percent over 56 years of age and 1.6 percent between 13 and 18 years. There were 62.3 percent male and 37.7 percent female respondents.

The majority of survey participants belonged to three ethnic groups. The largest was 29.5 percent, New Zealand European or Pakeha, 13.7 percent Pacific Islander and 12.9 percent New Zealand Maori. Chinese accounted for 10.6 percent of the responses. Other ethnicities included Somali, Indian, and other European, each approximating three–four percent. There were 18.9 percent who selected “other ethnicity.”

A comparison of ethnicity breakdown for the flat population as a whole and the survey’s findings is provided in Table 1. According to Wellington City Council’s statistics for tenants of the flat complex, 23.35 percent are Pakeha, 15.95 percent Pacific Islander, Maori 17.12 percent and Chinese 6.61 percent. The similarity of these figures suggests that the survey sample is reasonably representative of the wider flat population.

 

Table 1: Comparison of non–user survey participation and the Newtown Flats tenants’ profile.
 Non–user surveyTenants’ profile
Ethnicityn respondentsPercentage of responsesn tenantsPercentage of tenants
Pakeha (NZ European)3929.56023.35
Pacific Islander1813.74115.95
New Zealand Maori1712.94417.12
Chinese1410.6 176.61
Somali43.0 93.50
Indian43.0 41.56

 

The largest occupation category was beneficiaries, accounting for nearly 70 percent of respondents. Among this group, 6.3 percent stated they were looking for work, 19.7 percent indicated they were not looking for work and 18.9 percent were retired. Tertiary students accounted for 20.5 percent of the responses, 1.6 percent were caregivers or householders, and 6.3 percent were in the “other” category. The percentage of tenants working either full–time or part–time was 26.8 percent.

Computer access

Respondents were asked a series of questions about whether they had access to or used a computer anywhere else. Although 82 percent of survey respondents said that they did not use the Fujitsu hub, 25 percent indicated that they had a computer in their apartment. In comparison, the New Zealand 2001 census reports that 37 percent of households had access to the Internet. While it cannot be assumed that apartment residents with home computers had Internet access, it at least indicates a high likelihood of a positive attitude on the part of these respondents towards ICT.

The majority of residents, 75 percent, did not have a home computer. Furthermore, a very high number of respondents, 96 percent, indicated they did not use a computer in another apartment, and 92 percent that they did not use a computer at work. With nearly 70 percent of survey respondents indicating that they were either on a benefit, including national superannuation, or were a student, this result is not surprising. However, 25 percent did say that they used a computer somewhere else.

These results highlight the access barrier that the respondents face and the lost opportunities for ICT skills development and competence building by not being in employment. Not unexpectedly, 92 percent of non–users responded that other family members did not use the Fujitsu hub.

Awareness of computer room

A more positive finding was that 78 percent of respondents knew about the computer room at the flats and 44 percent had visited it. While this indicates a high level of awareness of existence of the computer room, the fact that 82 percent said that they did not know the hub’;s opening hours, suggests that there may be a need to actively promote the accessibility and benefits of this facility at the flats on a continuing basis considering the high tenant turnover.

Encouraging participation

Non–user participants were asked if they were interested in using the computer room in the future. Only 37 percent of the respondents not using the computer room currently were interested in doing so. These respondents were then asked a further question about what would encourage participation. The question listed 10 variables ranging from access, such as the hours of opening of the computer room, through social variables such as “someone to go with,” “women only” and “no kids,” and cultural factors such as “ethnic groups only.”; Five variables related to computer training such as “more classes,” “more computer help,” “more computer demonstrations,” “more confidence in using computers,” and “one to one teaching.” The respondents who indicated positively that they were keen on using the computer room listed “more classes” and “hours of opening” respectively as the two top encouragement factors.

The majority, 63 percent, of non–user respondents said they were not interested in using the computer room. Again these respondents were asked why not against 11 variables that explored social features, “too shy” and “no friends to go with,” cultural and gender preferences, “I would visit with women only/men only/own ethnic group,” motivation such as “not interested,” time factors, “no time,” “room not open when I’m free,” and computer issues, “no computer skills” and “worried about computers.” The variable most nominated was simply “not interested.”

 

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Analysis and conclusion

The dominant message from the results confirms that the digital divide will not be addressed in environments like the Newtown Park Flats through universal physical access to computer technology, albeit within an environment with many of Oldenburg’s Third Place characteristics. Quite a large number of residents lack the motivation to use the computer room. They are the Resisters who simply do not want to compute. The lack of interest may reflect the fact that the computer room has not been “sold” persuasively enough in the early days to some and may also reflect the high turnover of residents in the apartments. Tenant turnover in inner city council residential environments highlights the desirability of wired community projects to develop sustained publicity programmes that can be activated as soon as new tenants move in, and for regular awareness–raising for longer term tenants. The lack of interest also reflects the struggle for people on low incomes who are either unemployed, looking for work or on sickness and other benefits.

The polarisation of the "haves" and “have nots” that is determined simply by physical access and the belief that all want to participate in ICTs is flawed. As this research shows, not all “have nots” necessarily wanted to be “haves” and neither did they view engagement in ICTs as a positive force that would transform the quality of their life. Results of a 1999 major survey sponsored by the Kaiser Family Foundation and the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard revealed that a small but not insignificant minority of persons who don’t have a computer and don’t plan to get one “seemed consistently most contented” (Winner, 2000). This group believe they are able to do their jobs, communicate and when asked if they felt “left out” of the world evolving around them, three quarters answered “no.” While our questionnaire did not seek to measure contentment, the finding that the majority of respondents selected “not interested” from a choice of 11 variables would indicate that whatever their contentment rating, ICT participation was not of interest to them and made no contribution to their social world.

Researchers for the Pew Project (Lenhart, et al., 2003) also examined social differences between Internet users and non–users and found that those who are socially content — who trust others, have support networks, feel in control of their lives and participate in other technologies (cell phones, watch television) are more likely to use the Internet than those who don’t. People possessing these characteristics could have “graduated” through Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. These are (in order) physiological needs, the needs for safety and security, the needs for love and belonging, the needs for esteem. The highest level of the hierarchy is self–actualization. This is the point where people become fully functional, act purely on their own volition and thus possess a “healthy personality” (Maslow, 1998). The socially content people of the American study may be closer to “self–actualization” and therefore be more likely to have the confidence and interest to explore new technology.

The contradictory results of the two studies suggests that social contentment is not a satisfactory explanation as to why people do not participate in ICTs. However, an inference from these studies and the non–use survey results is to accept that across the spectrum of society there will always be Resisters, a small group who do not want or need ICTs. Those in this user category could, when they find a need or interest that they see computing may satisfy, become full participants or engage in ICT by proxy, moving from the Resister category to become Net Evaders (as identified by the Pew Project). The dichotomous position of use and non–use access is too extreme and ignores the reality of a gradation of access (Warschauer, 2002). With approximately 70 percent of the apartment population on state benefits the struggle to meet basic needs is greater than for those people in work. Interest in accessing computing, even when situated in a convenient social space, and offered at no charge, is unlikely to be seen as a priority for daily living.

The Fujitsu hub wiring experiment emphasises the need for careful planning to ensure that community expectations are met. There were technical difficulties along the way, a delay and initial unreliability of Internet access and a change of hub coordinator. An unresolved, and perhaps irresolvable question, is whether the non–participation factor would have been different had there been an enthusiastic champion/driver resident within the flats providing continuity of coordination from the outset. Nonetheless with a change of coordinator many residents began using the computer room and there is anecdotal evidence that some have effectively staircased the skills they have learnt for higher vocational, educational and social purposes.

Is Newtown Park flats an effective Third Place for such a digital divide experiment? It certainly has frequent regulars and is accessible in terms of location within the flat precinct. It is a neutral place where people can come and go at will and there is little interference from the host. Perhaps Oldenburg’s (1991) other essential criteria for effective Third Places such as social inclusion in terms of participation and stimulating connection with others, provides the great challenge for such community wiring projects in general.

It would be useful to conduct more qualitative research to explore the nexus between personal motivation and participation in virtual community projects such as the Newtown Park Flats. Inner city public housing is a frequent site of community development involving ICTs (Hopkins and Thomas, 2002) and greater knowledge and understanding of success and failure factors is important. Such research must acknowledge the social and political contexts in which such experiments are embedded. As we proceed with the whole research project we can compare the findings from tenants who are non–users with those other tenants who have so willingly embraced the brave new world of the computer room. This may illuminate whether the “don’t want tos” become “nevers”; or whether there are incentives or a socialisation process that can transform disinterest into motivation to participate. End of article

 

About the authors

Dr. Barbara Crump is Senior Lecturer, Department of Information Systems, at Massey University, Wellington, New Zealand. Her research interests include community informatics, women in computing, the culture of the computing learning environment and the gendered patterns of work in the computing industry.
E–mail: b [dot] j [dot] crump [at] massey [dot] ac [dot] nz

Dr. Andrea McIlroy is Associate Professor and Head of the Department of Management and Enterprise Development at Massey University, Wellington, New Zealand. Her research interests include community informatics, management education and development and gender issues in employment.
E–mail: A [dot] McIlroy [at] massey [dot] ac [dot] nz

 

Acknowledgements

Evaluation of the Smart Newtown Pilot Project was funded by the Wellington Regional Economic Development Agency. Massey University is funding on–going evaluation for 2003–2004. We are grateful for the contributions made by the two Special Advisors, Professor Léonie Rennie, Professor of Science and Technology Education and Dean, Graduate Studies at Curtin University of Technology, Perth, Western Australia and Dr Judy McGregor, Equal Employment Opportunities Commissioner, Human Rights Commission, Wellington, New Zealand. Dr McGregor led the Smart Newtown Pilot Project during 2001–2002. We are also grateful to the Newtown Park Flats’ residents who freely gave their time to participate in the survey.

 

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Editorial history

Paper received 23 September 2003; accepted 11 November 2003.


Copyright © 2003, First Monday.

Copyright © 2003, Barbara Crump and Andrea McIlroy.

The digital divide: Why the “don’t–want–tos” won’t compute: Lessons from a New Zealand ICT Project
by Barbara Crump and Andrea McIlroy.
First Monday, Volume 8, Number 12 - 1 December 2003
http://firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/1106/1026





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