The results of a new survey from the Pew Internet and Life Project will come as no surprise to most: Internet users: search and email top the list of the things people do online. These two activities have been the most popular since Pew first started tracking online behavior over the last decade. The advent of broadband, mobile devices and social media has not changed that dynamic, though it’s a safe bet that adults under 30 are sending quite a lot of Facemail, IMs and tweets these days too.
That said, Pew did identify a difference. “The most significant change over that time is that both activities have become more habitual,” writes Kristen Purcell. “Today, roughly six in ten online adults engage in each of these activities on a typical day; in 2002, 49% of online adults used email each day, while just 29% used a search engine daily.”
Search and email demographics
According to Pew’s numbers, search is most popular among adult internet users aged age 18-29, 96% of whom use search engines to find information online.
There’s also some evidence of a continuing digital divide based upon education and race. According to Pew, online adults, college-educated, and those in the highest income categories are more likely than others to use email.
“These demographic differences are considerably more pronounced when one looks at email use on a typical day,” writes Purcell. “Moreover, while overall email use is comparable across white, African-American and Hispanic online adults, internet use on any given day is not. White online adults are significantly more likely than both African-American and Hispanic online adults to be email users on a typical day (63% v. 48% v. 53%, respectively).”
These results also suggest that as exciting as the integration of social media into government may be, officials tasked with public engagement and consultation shouldn’t neglect using email to communicate with citizens, along with Facebook, Flickr, Twitter, YouTube and the other apps available to them. The difference in demographics usage of social media and email, however, does highlight that social media offers an important complementary channel to reach mobile citizens that access the Internet primarily through their mobile phones.
As dozens of freshmen Representatives move into their second week of work as legislators here in the District of Columbia, they’re going to come up against a key truth that White House officials have long since discovered since the heady days of 2008: governing requires different strategies, skills and approaches than campaigning. “House 2.0” may include an e-transition but the political realities that existed before new media are still very much in session.
This correspondent caught up with Johnson yesterday to talk about what he sees as the big trends for the intersection of technology, government, politics and citizens in 2011, along with his own plans for the future. On the latter, Johnson would only say on the record that he’s enjoying seeing how the work of the people within Big Window Labs is evolving, he waiting to hear back from the Knight Foundation on his proposal for a “community news kit,” and that he might have more to share about “what’s next” later this month. He was much more forthcoming about his perspective on key trends for 2011.
Transparency as Infrastructure
Given the sharp focus that Sunlight Labs puts on government transparency, it’s no surprise that Johnson sees the need and the movement towards smarter systems that “bake it in” to legislatures, the executive branch and the judiciary. He anticipates more built-in alarms for certain changes in drafted bills, regulations or meetings, with more intelligence that correlates how or who was responsible for that alteration.
Competition between the White House and the House on new media and open government
Yesterday, Jim Harper, director of information policy studies at the Cato Foundation and webmaster of WashingtonWatch.com, wrote that the GOP can eclipse Obama on transparency. “House Republicans can quickly outshine Obama and the Democratic Senate,” wrote Harper. “It all depends on how they implement the watch phrase of their amendment package: “publicly available in electronic form.”
The GOP House leadership must make sure that this translates into real-time posting of bills, amendments and steps in the legislative process, in formats the Internet can work with. It’s not about documents anymore. It’s about data. Today’s Internet needs the data in these documents.
There are no technical impediments to a fully transparent Congress. Computers can handle this. The challenges, however, are institutional and practical.”
Johnson identified this moment in history as an important inflection point, and one that, if the White House rises to the challenge, could legitimately be seen as an open government win for the American people and a smarter, more accountable government. The White House may hold the considerable advantages of the bully pulpit and the largest followings of any federal entity or politician on Twitter, for now, but that has to be balanced against the considerable new media prowess that the GOP has built up over their Democratic counterparts in Congress. There are many early signs to watch and weigh as the year begins. Along with new rules, the House leadership support for the creation of open, online video archives House.Resource.org, with Representative Issa solicit advice from the public on video platforms. Others projects cast some question on commitment in the rank and file to open government principles, as set out, with the GOP bending new House rules.
Investigations for accountability
Investigations will be significant in 2011 and 2012, says Johnson, and will go beyond simple political attacks or embarrassment for the administration. The new House Oversight Committee appears determined to play the role of inspector general for the federal government, not just White House programs. Considering the vast scale of potential waste, fraud and projects that are overdue, over budget or ineffective, that’s a legitimate big deal. It’s also in-line with the White House’s IT reform proposals, which have included cutting major IT projects. Keep an eye on how the tech that can make government better is applied to fraud detection, as efforts to apply open government data to dashboards and new technologies are coupled with oversight.
Federal CIO Vivek Kundra has said that the White House IT team is working with Congress on S.920, the Information Technology (IT) Investment Oversight Enhancement and Waste Prevention Act of 2009 introduced by Senator Carper (D-DE) that passed the Senate. The Obama administration will have to work with the incoming Republican majority to achieve similar legislation in the House. Given the emphasis on enhanced oversight and waste prevention, such legislation has at least a decent chance of being considered.
Given the scale of the federal government and the yawning budget deficit, investigations that actually identify waste and fraud would be timely. As a senator, President Truman saved the nation billions of dollars with hearings during war time. As 2011 begins, it’s still unclear whether the current Congress will able to follow his example.
There’s an ever increasing amount of data available to citizens, and applications to help them understand it, said Johnson. There are an emerging class of social entrepreneurs and civic hackers working to help citizens with the digital literacy they need for both. The information needs of citizens in a democracy are considerable. For open government and Gov 2.0 to go forward, this is a critical area, founded upon the a conception of smart citizenship that involves interaction with government on a weekly or even daily basis, not just on election day.
Rural broadband access
Internet access is fast becoming as important to citizens as other basic utilities, like water or electricity. According to the Pew Internet project, 79% of Americans are now online. Simply put, not being online in 2011 is a substantial impediment to the smart citizenship that Johnson describes. “It’s about data and information literacy, rather than just access,” said Johnson. “What you want is for people to be able to use the Internet at will, to tell fact from fiction, and find source data.”
The success of the FCC’s broadband plan will be critical to watch here. The digital divide that Johnson describes goes beyond broadband or dial up access. It’s between the digitally literate and those who are unable to benefit from full access to an Internet increasingly populated with bandwidth-intensive applications, is a crucial issue for governments everywhere, not just in the United States. The FCC’s new open Internet rules and their bearing on mobile broadband access will be important to watch in this area is well.
The digital divide in D.C. is an issue that has been receiving increased sunlight under the District’s chief technology officer, Bryan Sivak. As the Kojo Nnamdi Show episode on the D.C. digital divide reported, “a 2009 study by the OCTO found that the digital divide runs very deep in the city – 90% of residents in Northwest D.C. have high-speed internet access in their homes, but in Southeast, that figure falls to just 36% – 40%.”
Earlier this year, Washington became the recipient of stimulus funding for a digital divide initiative. This summer, the city turned on free wifi in many neighborhoods, which can be viewed at DC.wifi.gov. Today, Sivak announced D.C.’s first digital divide strategy:
It’s embedded below in the post. Interestingly, the digital divide strategy announcement at the Office of the Chief Technology Officer of D.C. indicated that it would be a “living document,” much like the Web itself:
OCTO is pleased to release a public draft of the District of Columbia’s first ever strategic plan to address the digital divide. This is intended to be a living document, updated quarterly or bi-annually as conditions warrant, and will reflect the current high-level vision of the District Government as it relates to tackling this important issue. Feedback is welcome so please feel free to share your thoughts and help us bridge this gap.
For a feel for the thinking of the DC CTO on this count, watch Sivak’s closing statement from the District of Columbia’s first-ever “Community Broadband Summit” (DC-CBS) is embedded below. The summit was a public forum designed to address the city’s digital divide.
It’s not clear whether Sivak will stay on under incoming Mayor-Elect Vincent Gray’s administration. If not, here’s hoping his replacement works with the D.C. tech community to connect more citizens to the Internet. Online access has become a vital link for information, services, access to jobs, education and communication with family, friends, teachers and coworkers in the 21st century. The District should be commended for continuing to working to bridge it.
What do you think of the strategy? Leave your thoughts in the comments.
Disparities in access to the Internet have been persistent since the scratchy sounds of a modem were first heard in offices, basements and schools. In recent years, the digital divide has grown to encompass smartphones usage, differentiation of broadband Internet and open data’s role in empowering the empowered.
Dr. Nicholas Gruen, CEO of Lateral Economics and the former chair of the Government 2.0 Taskforce in Australia, warned the audience at the Smart Government 2010 conference in Melbourne of a new dimension to the digital divide: a “participation partition” that favors citizens who are more active engaging in online discourse.
“The world is leaning towards favouring those who participate,” said Gruen. “They have more fun and more influence. If you participate more in your local school and local democracy, you’re going to have more say and more power. I see these things as very healthy, but there isn’t an equality of outcomes for everyone.”
As Rob O’Brien reported in Government News, Australia’s Gov 2.0 Taskforce pushed government entities to participate more online themselves, including encouraging public sector officials and workers to use with social media tools.
“We’ve now got 20 government blogs, that’s a great start. What we don’t have is people participating on blogs,” Mr Gruen said. “I’m not suggesting they should be making controversial comments, but just be a member of a group of people talking about policy issues.”
Redefining Public/Private Partnerships
Dr. Gruen was a featured speaker at the Gov 2.0 Summit in Washington, where he explored public goods in the context of open government and digital citizenship. His talk is embedded below: