The Developing World Comes Home

07/23/2010 04:57 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

I've recently begun to work closely with an organization that is doing great work in the development of progressive approaches to K12 science and technology education in New Mexico. In a recent conversation with them, I mentioned that at Nature Education we are launching a mobile version of our online science learning space in order to reach more students throughout the developing world. Students in these countries frequently have much better access to smartphones and cellular data networks than they do to laptops and desktops.

The organization then surprised me a little by observing that while we may be developing our mobile site in order to reach students in sub-Saharan Africa and East Asia, actually this approach is quite relevant to a state like New Mexico, where access to internet can be just as poor as in the third world.

Why was I a bit surprised? I'm aware that there are many communities in the United States that are underserved and lack sufficient internet access, among other resources. After all, this is why the federal government is putting so much weight behind the National Broadband Plan, and it's why our group is committed to science resources that are accessible in many different forms. What took me by surprise was the idea that internet access in many school systems here could be equally as limited as in the developing world. I've been to school systems in rural areas in Ghana, Egypt, China, India, Uzbekistan, and other developing countries, and have seen how rare computer access can be even in advanced schools in those communities. Could communities in the U.S. really be in a comparable situation?

So I decided to dig in, using New Mexico as an entry point. And here's what I found.

We'll start with a global view of internet access. According to Internet World Stats (a useful resource by the Miniwatts Marketing Group), estimated internet penetration by continent in 2009 was as follows:

North America: 76.2% (i.e., 76.2% of people in North America have internet access)
Oceania/Australia: 60.8%
Europe: 53.0%
Latin America/Carribean: 31.9%
Asia: 20.1%
Middle East: 28.8%
Africa: 8.7%

Next, we need to drill into state-by-state penetration rates in the U.S. According to 2007 U.S. Census data, internet penetration rates for states ranged from a low 45.97% of households (Mississippi) to a high of 74.90% (New Hampshire). New Mexico came in at 54.75% (42nd on the list, above Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, and West Virginia).

So how does that compare with, say, countries in Africa? Let's imagine for a second that New Mexico were a country in Africa. According to the Internet World Stats, New Mexico would be #1 out of 58 African countries, with more than double the internet penetration rate of Egypt (21.1%) and quadruple that of South Africa (10.8%), both of which are usually considered to be in the vanguard of African development.

Now this is by no means a scientific, apples-to-apples comparison. The Internet World Stats are from 2009, while the U.S. Census Data is from 2007. A few of the data tables I have used measure internet access only in households, others measure access in households, libraries and schools. But the implication is clear enough: New Mexico, one of the states in the U.S. with comparatively low internet penetration, would be easily the star if it were in Africa.

And yet, I think this is really beside the point. We learned in 2004, for instance, that the idea that there are blue states and red states is a misleading simplification. There aren't blue states and red states: there are blue (mostly urban) communities and red (mostly rural) communities in each and every state. The relative proportion of the two determines the state's overall complexion.

Applying the analogy, the issue for us is not so much how New Mexico as a whole compares to countries in Africa, but how the communities within New Mexico that have particularly poor infrastructure stand. How to identify these areas? Often in public discourse there is an underlying assumption that rural and inner city communities are the most underserved ones. We'll start with that assumption, and see whether the data supports it.

Let's dig first into rural areas of New Mexico. That, it turns out, is a bit difficult. There aren't any widely available sources of precise county-by-county internet access data. But there is this piece summarizing an interesting 2007 survey by the USDA about internet usage on farms nationwide. Here we find that of 14,026 farms in the 25 rural counties in New Mexico, 46.9% reported some level of internet access. Using this as a kind of proxy for internet access across rural areas of New Mexico as a whole, it seems that rural areas are not too far behind the overall New Mexico penetration rate of 54.75% that we looked at before. New Mexico's rural counties, it appears, would still be easily #1 in Africa.

So let's dig then into inner city areas. Going back to this survey, internet penetration in urban areas in New Mexico was 58.35% in 2007...higher than the overall state average, and so easily enough to be #1 in Africa if these communities were an African country.

In other words, while we've found data that is plenty concerning -- a situation in which roughly half the households in a state in the world's most economically advanced country lack a critical access point for current information is in no sense a good thing -- we haven't seen anything yet that supports a comparison of New Mexico to the developing world.

And that is because doing this kind of analysis by splitting New Mexico out into geographical components is ultimately a red herring. The reality of the so-called "digital divide" is that it's not a matter of geography, but of education and income. Nationwide, internet penetration in 2007 among families whose income was between $15,000 and $20,000, for instance, was 35.47%, compared to 65.68% for families with an income between $35,000 and $50,000, and 92.08% for families between $100,000 and $150,000. Similarly, internet penetration among families whose householders didn't have a high school diploma was 28.16%, compared with 84.06% for families whose householder held at least a bachelor's degree.

It's difficult to find research that breaks this kind of analysis down by state, but we can make some assumptions. Since New Mexico seems to run about 12% lower in most internet penetration stats than the national average, by a broad hand-wave we can approximate that low-income, low-education families in New Mexico (whether those are in the city, the suburbs, or the country, and whether they are geographically contiguous or scattered across the state) have an internet access rate of around 30%.

And that would put those communities still near the top but now no longer at the top of the rankings of African countries. Morocco, Reunion, Seychelles, and Tunisia would all be higher. Mauritius would be close. Cape Verde, Egypt, and Nigeria would be a little ways behind.

In other words, poor communities across New Mexico do appear to have roughly the same level of internet access as the more advanced developing countries. And not just in New Mexico. These kinds of communities exist in every single state in America. One could argue that, at least in regards to information resources, we do have pockets right here at home that share characteristics with the developing world.

What lesson should we draw from this? Well, that depends on who you are. If you're the federal government, then you invest productive money into building broadband infrastructure in places like the rural southwest. If you're part of New Mexico's state or municipal governments, then you launch one program to train people in how to use the internet at public libraries and another to map areas of the state that are in need of much greater investment in infrastructure. These, and hundreds more initiatives like them going on around us every day, are encouraging steps.

I'm a publisher, working on ways to use the internet to broaden access to scientific information. The lesson I draw is that the categories we traditionally use in the publishing world when planning our projects can be misleading simplifications that blunt the positive impact of our mission. We tend to think in terms of "developed regions" (U.S. and Europe), and "developing regions" (Nigeria), but that clearly misses the point. There are developing areas everywhere around us, and if we are not making plans to address their needs, then our work is lopsided and incomplete.