By Robert Bole of Portland, Oregon. Robert runs the Northwest operations of One Economy, a national nonprofit using technology to help low-income communities.
I have been listening to an odd undercurrent in the dissection of the Hurricane Katrina disaster: the importance of having 'digital age' skills in surviving disasters.
Thursday on NPR there was a story that struck me as central to the notion that the difference between successfully negotiating the aftermath of a disaster can rest on your ability to use the Internet to find help, answer questions and get services.
The story centered on the frustration of evacuees in Houston in trying to apply for services over the past several days. After waiting in line for many hours, starting at 5:00 am, a Red Cross worker would invariably come out and tell everyone that they could not process any more applications today, come back tomorrow, but that anybody could submit an application by going to www, etc. The reporter described the general confusion of many of the evacuees who had no idea what 'www' meant in the first place. Since they did not know how to use a computer, let alone the Internet, they were back in line the next day, and the next.
(This story contrasted ironically with the sudden upsurge of recovered computers, presumably from the more affluent evacuees, which are starting to stream into data recovery companies in the South; demonstrating that for many their computer has become a critical tool for economic and even emotional well being.)
Clearly, for nearly all the evacuees the Internet was not the place where they turned for answers to their questions, to seek help, or connect with friends and family members. While in a crisis we can easily understand that people would prefer human contact or even the tried-and-true telephone conversation, over the impersonal email or government website. But what is troubling is that the evacuees in the story, we assumed as widely reported poor and disfranchised, had no basic technology skills to turn too once their immediate needs were met.
This is not for lack of access to technology at this particular time. The major technology and telecommunication companies have responded immediately and admirably already beginning to install hundreds of computers and high-speed Internet data lines. (Locally, Intel has installed twenty-plus computers in the Portland shelter and we don't even HAVE evacuees as of this writing.)
It seems to me that the NPR stories are some of the starkest examples of how the lack of technology skills is stretching the divide between those with the means to have opportunities in our information economy and those that are shut out from beneficial economic and social networks.
I am not sure that I would automatically turn to a computer after a crisis, but beyond the initial shock of losing belongings and perhaps of loved ones, there is a world of privilege: critical life services, access to capital, support networks and even the hard and fast economic value awaiting those that know how to navigate the Internet. Everything from moving to the front of the line for emergency help, to saving money in acquiring products and services, to finding a job to feed the family and pay the rent faster than the next person.
In this time of shock and emergency, those without critical technology skills are at an immediate disadvantage in surviving the disaster; let alone having the hope of attaining their previous quality of life for their family. We ought to reevaluate the way we sell computer skills in this country. Today, in the school classroom and job interview we tell the poor that having 'digital age' skills is a means to a better paycheck. In this bleak moment, we are finding out that they are an essential survival skill in times of uncertainty.