There’s another way to look at the fact that 85 percent of Seattle residents have Internet access at home.
Fifteen percent — roughly 93,000 people — still do not.
This deep into the digital age, it’s worth asking: Who are our city’s disconnected, and what’s keeping them from plugging in?
The report goes out of its way to find out, which is refreshing. At a time when courting digital audiences breeds the most attention, influence and profit, few institutions even bother.
That neglect comes at a cost. As you’d expect, those with less education and less income make less use of the Internet here in Seattle, as is likely the case anywhere.
But if we want to build a stronger city, it’s the neighbors with the quietest digital voices we most need to hear.
Who’s left out?
Steeped in Seattle’s mostly white, mostly well to do tech scene, it’s easy to forget how diverse this city really is.
Apart from a phone and online survey, the city convened nine focus groups, each with about 20 people, representing various underserved communities.
Six of the focus groups gathered native speakers of five groups of languages — Spanish, Amharic, Somali, Chinese and Vietnamese. Others polled English speakers with disabilities and African-American residents.
Fewer than half of the members of these focus groups have Internet access at home (though if you count mobile Internet access, it’s about 6 in 10). Among immigrant participants, who tend to face language and literacy barriers, that figure drops to about a third.
Comparing ethnic groups, Seattle’s Latino community is the least connected, according to the larger survey, with a quarter reporting no home access:
Disabled residents face a bigger gap: 29 percent have no home Internet access.
The other dividing line is age. Thirteen percent of Seattle 36 to 50 year olds report no home Internet access. Among those 65 and older, that figure climbs to 41 percent.
Not just cost
Something odd is happening to the spread of Internet access in Seattle.
It appears to be leveling off.
The city has conducted its technology report every four years since 2000. The last four year gap — 2009 to 2013 — saw a much smaller bump in Internet adoption than previous intervals:
What’s going on?
I talked to David Keyes, the city’s community technology program director, for some perspective on the report. He pointed out something interesting.
Concerns over cost, relevance and skills remain the barriers to Internet adoption among Seattle’s disconnected.
But cost is no longer the biggest:
Questions of relevance — whether the Internet is even something people want — is now the biggest reason people give for not using or having access to the Internet.
And look at the jump in the skills barrier. In 2009, just five percent of respondents said that not knowing how to use the Internet kept them off. Now that figure’s shot up to 17 percent.
Cost is still a huge issue. Of the 66 people who answered the city’s online survey who do not have Internet access at home, 75 percent cited the cost of Internet service as a barrier. Yet it’s doubtful that better access to devices and services themselves could themselves close the gap.
What else is getting in the way?
A matter of trust?
One question in the report gives a fascinating clue.
Look at how Seattle residents responded when asked about their confidence in the security of financial transactions online, and how their responses vary according to income, age and education. Look just at the clusters on the left:
People don’t just adopt new channels based on access, utility and skill.
We do it on trust, too.
Why do fewer of our underserved neighbors trust the Internet? It’s a valuable new question to ask.
When groups of them peek online and feel like strangers, it’s not so difficult to guess at an answer.