Thinking Locally and Acting Digitally in San Francisco

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June 17, 2011; Source: New York Times | A recent story in the New York Times looks at a section of California’s digital divide and the steps that three San Francisco entities have taken to close it. According to the Times, “Though it rarely makes headlines these days, the digital divide . . . remains reality for thousands in the Bay Area, a remarkable situation considering this is home to Google, Apple, Facebook and many other titans of technology.”

Where city politics and financing problems have prevented San Francisco from enacting legislative solutions, in the Mission District, two small grassroots nonprofits, and a small Internet company with “cramped” and “funky” offices, are making real headway.

One in five adults in California does not use the Internet, according to the story, and about 30 percent of the state’s adult population does not have access to broadband, a percentage that is in line with the national average. The divide is felt most acutely in the state’s Latino community, where 35 percent of adults do not use the Internet at all and only 50 percent have broadband access at home.

Caminos, a nonprofit that has taught computer skills to low-income Latina immigrants since 1999, is one organization producing measurable change. Ada Fuentes, a six-year resident of California and an immigrant from Honduras was able to develop Web and word processing skills with help from Caminos and then establish her own online company selling cleaning products.

Similarly, Mission Loc@l, a bilingual nonprofit online news site, established in 2008 and affiliated with the University of California Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, has also had success. Referring to the prevalence of the divide, Lydia Chavez, Mission Loc@L’s managing director, told the Times, “You can’t report in this community and not be aware of it.” In response, last week the publication began producing a bilingual print edition as a step to engage Latino seniors.

And the Internet service provider Monkey Brains has been “researching and deploying new and old technologies as we find ways of using them” since 1998. The two-person run company has made universal Internet access a focus as part of its “social contract” with the community.—Anne Eigeman