“But it’s really an information ocean, not a highway.  If you think of it as an ocean, then you have to consider the kind of tools that are used, who builds the boats, who designs them, and whether you’re surfing or diving.  If you have a message in the bottle, how do you get the bottle to the people who need it?”    Peter Gabriel, (New York Times,  July 13, 1994 )

Many of us have come to expect uninterrupted access to the Internet everywhere. For too many of us, round-the-clock checking of email, Twitter and Facebook have become an unhealthy obsession, and increasingly, an intrusive expectation of employers and co-workers. For the connected, the challenge is now how to unplug, to avoid being overwhelmed by the fire hose. As Nicholas Carr recently observed, reflecting on what seems to be growing revulsion to this “Disconnection is the new counterculture.”

Internet access by now is so ubiquitous that even the poor can connect - the “digital divide” is so 1990s, right?

Unfortunately, no.  As Ford Foundation president Luis Ubiñas wrote in a recent op-ed in the Chronicle of Philanthropy, 65% of households with income below $25,000 do not have access to high-speed broadband connections, according to the Social Science Research Council. In Ubiñas’s view, making broadband access widely available to the huge number of low income people not yet connected, and keeping the Internet open and neutral, are essential challenges to our democracy.  He went on to invite all foundations to join the Ford Foundation, which has committed $50 million over five years to the cause, to address these challenges.

The California Emerging Technology Fund is leading one likeminded initiative that will bear watching.  CETF’s mission is close the “Digital Divide” by accelerating the deployment and adoption of broadband to unserved and underserved communities.  A coalition led by CETF won a $7.25 million award of federal stimulus funds, to be matched by over $2 million in local funds, for expanding access to broadband among low income households.  The coalition includes:

• Access Now
Center for Accessible Technology
• Center to Promote Healthcare Access
Chicana Latina Foundation
Latino Community Foundation
Radio Bilingue
WE Connect
2-1-1 California, a statewide network of 2-1-1 information and referral services providers 1

Under this initiative, the CETF coalition will conduct a statewide campaign to help 130,000 low income households subscribe to broadband and increase digital literacy skills for up to 800,000 low income individuals.

People seeking to connect to the Internet will present a number of needs that require linkage to a number of different programs to address, such as connections to affordable broadband services, free or low cost computer equipment, classes and hands-on help to build Web skills, and more.

2-1-1 information and referral programs will play a key role in the initiative. 2-1-1 information and referral services use the three-digit dialing code 2-1-1, an easy-to-remember telephone number, to connect people to essential community information and services, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.  2-1-1 programs serve 90% of California’s residents2 , and have particular experience and expertise working with low income people, in many different languages.  Of clients served in Los Angeles in 2008, for example, three of four were female, 56% were Hispanic, 40% were primarily Spanish speaking, 77% had household income below $24,000, 70% had children in the family, half of whom were 12 years or younger.  These families are among those least likely to have broadband access.

Beyond this focus and reach, though, a key strength of 2-1-1, and of the entire CETF coalition strategy, is a focus on connecting people seeking resources to live people who have good information about appropriate, relevant local resources. California’s 2-1-1 providers, and all the CETF coalition partners, make good use of the Internet and the latest communications technology. (The number of people using 2-1-1 information through providers’ Web sites is growing rapidly, and 2-1-1 resource data is the backbone of community asset information on HealthyCity.org [www.healthycity.org], a statewide GIS asset mapping tool.) But the ability to talk with a trained and caring human being is invaluable.  This is not just a matter of engendering trust and meeting people where they are.  Trained information and referral specialists can provide much more comprehensive, accurate and relevant information than any Web search.  We all know how very rare it is that the first resource one calls, whether from a Web search or the Yellow Pages, is the one you need; studies show that people seeking health and human services resources make an average of 8 calls in order to find an appropriate resource.

Just as important, most people seeking services have needs in more than one area.  Helping to identify a caller’s unstated needs is a core part of sound information and referral services practice.  For example, a caller’s presenting need may be for food because of loss of a job, and a specialist will not only make a referral to a food pantry, but also typically will ask whether the caller is interested in and eligible for food stamps, whether the caller has health coverage, whether the caller has children who may be eligible for health coverage and other programs, and more. Such service is becoming increasingly important in the area of benefits enrollment, and it’s likely that 2-1-1 services will be important to the growing field of online benefits enrollment.  For example, 2-1-1 San Diego currently enrolls people in the Food Stamps, in partnership with One-E-App, one of the CETF coalition partners; 2-1-1 Los Angeles enrolls low income children in the state’s Healthy Families program. 

The CETF initiative should produce a good deal of useful information about the barriers people in underserved communities face in getting a high-speed connection, and what approaches are effective in helping them.  The state’s leading 2-1-1 providers have the ability not only to ensure quality service (short time to answer, for example), but also to go back and sample clients to see whether they used the information they received, and how they fared.

In our “Information Age,” it is tempting to think that we can just “Google” whatever we need. Obviously, that wouldn’t work for helping people who don’t have access to the Internet to begin with.  Moreover, even after they do get a broadband connection to the Internet, low income families will need access to trusted “knowledge navigators” to help them access the health, food security and other resources they need, and as Mr. Ubiñas hopes, to become more involved in their communities and our democracy. Though it may seem old school, there is no substitute, and likely never will be, for access to a well trained, live person supported with robust, consistently vetted and updated local information.

To give one dramatic illustration, what kind of Web service could do the following? When asked how she came to connect with 2-1-1, this is what Joni A. told a Los Angeles specialist last year:

“Two years ago my father, a veteran, and down on his luck, was in the hospital in an induced coma which COPD and the doctors said that they needed to end his life support.  I was upset because in the four years that my dad was in the hospital, I was not able to communicate very well with his doctor – he was so busy and I always seemed to miss his rounds.

On my way home I needed to pick up some items and dashed in a liquor store and about half way through I found myself crying!  A homeless man asked me what the problem was and I said, “They are going to pull the plug on my dad tomorrow and I can’t even contact the doctor to talk to him about it!”  The homeless man, said “Oh, you need to call 211, they will help you.”

And I said “They can’t possibly help me with this.”  The homeless man said “Oh yes, they help with just about everything!”  So the next morning I called 211 and someone on the line said they would help me.  He called somewhere on my behalf with me and right after that the doctor called and we made a plan for my dad to recover…he is 81 years old now, in a wheelchair, but I have my dad… and I have 211 to thank…”

1. Full disclosure: 2-1-1 California is a partnership of the California Alliance for Information and Referral Services (CAIRS) and United Ways of California.  United Ways of California does not operate any 2-1-1 programs, but will serve as fiscal agent on the CETF grant for the state network. California’s 2-1-1 network is part of a growing national system that currently serves 90% of Americans.  There is reason to hope we can expand to reach that last 10%, the last mile (mostly rural, low income, sparsely populated areas).  Two companion federal bills, HR 211 and S. 211, would authorize up to $750 million over 5 years for investment in the 2-1-1 system.  HR 211 currently has 231 co-sponsors in the House, and S. 211 has 57 co-sponsors in the Senate. 

2. California’s 2-1-1 network is part of a growing national system that currently serves 90% of Americans.  There is reason to hope we can expand to reach that last 10%, the last mile (mostly rural, low income, sparsely populated areas).  Two companion federal bills, HR 211 and S. 211, would authorize up to $750 million over 5 years for investment in the 2-1-1 system.  HR 211 currently has 231 co-sponsors in the House, and S. 211 has 57 co-sponsors in the Senate.