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Closing the Digital Divide One Government App at a Time

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Welcome to the brave new world of social (media) government -- a world where you can use mobile phone apps to get information from Uncle Sam so you don't actually have to talk to him.

On July 2, the White House relaunched its usa.gov website and rolled out 20 sleek new multiplatform apps that allow phones to perform wonders such as reading bar-codes and searching the database of Consumer Product Safety Commission recalls, and getting up-to-the minute travel advisories from the Transportation Security Administration.

Do an (iPhone) App store search and you'll find "official" tools like apps to get mission updates from NASA, and the Environmental Protection Agency's UV index app next to "unofficial" ones like the Bailout-Stimulus app that "will help you get a better understanding of money spent on government contracts and grants as part of the $787 Billion Recovery act package."

If you wanted to get recently arrested fugitives' profiles, most wanted reports, and breaking news from the U.S. Marshals Service - or top stories about the U.S. Department of Agriculture - they too are available on your smart phone.

It all sounds very trendy - "Federal Government? There's an app for that!" - and indeed, the winds of change may be at long last sweeping into governmental IT infrastructure, finally breathing fresh life into the strained relationship it often has with its incredibly diverse users.

"Trust in government has plummeted from 1987 to 2007 with the exception of the period after 9/11," said Vivek Kundra, U.S. chief information officer, during a telephonic briefing before the release of their initial app crop. "Today, two thirds of people surveyed believe that if the government runs it, it is not effective. The only way to change that is when people have good interactions with government services."

Kundra went on to stress the dire necessity for government to reach people where they are: in front of their computer screens, on their mobile devices, with easy searches. "The old usa.gov was engineered 10 years ago for the bureaucracy it represented, not the American people it was to serve," he said. "Today we don't go out to a site to navigate hundreds of links and see what the government can offer us, that's why the new site was fundamentally re-engineered using contemporary search technology."

For those of us "netizens" who can barely remember a time when both pleasure and business wasn't conducted over the Internet, it's only natural. But the so-called Digital Divide always stands sentry over any debate about the use of technology in delivering government programs and services to "the people."

It is true that the poorest in our communities don't have the kind of unlimited, free access to high-speed Internet and appropriate hardware that would allow anyone to proclaim that there is no digital divide. But the gap is closing fast due to ubiquitous and affordable internet-enabled mobile phones that serve as many families' e-mail and Internet connections. Also, government programs that put laptops in kids' schools - and therefore in their homes - and myriad other community programs offering computers and high speed internet connections to residents are bridging the gap. (Just a few weeks ago Chicago Mayor Daley announced $16 million in federal funds - plus $6 million from other local organizations - would be dedicated to offer low income Chicagoans more access to technology and training in underserved communities. One program run by a non-profit group will be providing free computer and internet access to more than 11,000 people at neighborhood community centers.)

It's easy for me to picture Kundra's vision of an interactive web-based government - in time - becoming the de facto method for residents of all classes and incomes to connect with public programs and services.

The Pew Internet and American Life Project released a May 2010 report, "Government Online: the internet gives citizens new paths to government services and information." The authors not only detailed the skyrocketing number of American adults who looked for information or completed a transaction on a government website in the year preceding the survey (82 percent of all Internet users, representing 61 percent of American adults) but also debunked a common minority myth.

They found that while, yes, high-income and well-educated Internet users are more likely to use government services and information online, it is also true that African Americans and Hispanics are just as likely as whites to use tools such as blogs, social networking sites and online videos to keep up with workings of government and are significantly more likely than whites to believe that government outreach with these tools "helps people be more informed about what the government is doing," and "makes government officials and agencies more accessible."

Despite a growing body of research that African-American, Hispanic, and low-income users are increasingly accessing the web to connect to government services, as well as for support agencies and entertainment, it's still a relatively common opinion that government outreach through the Internet or phone apps is somehow elitist.

Not so, Kundra argues. "A recent study showed that one in three people use mobile apps. So when you talk about priorities ... it's not that we don't care about the other 66 percent - but I think one-third will soon become two-thirds. That's how the American people are conducting their business: on their phones."

Though the General Services Administration opted not to share the cost of the overhaul of the site and the app development, Jeffrey Zients, OMB deputy director for management, did speak of agencies taking the initiative and working with independent, third party developers to make available a vast array of BlackBerry, iPhone, and Android government apps.

Now if we could only get more African American and Hispanic students into high-tech careers that would put them at the forefront of the government app-building frenzy, we might close the digital divide forever.

Esther J. Cepeda writes about the Digitial Divide, Latinos and technology and much, much more on www.600words.com