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As the COVID-19 pandemic has brought on rapid shifts in work, the practice of social distancing, and the need to gather vast amounts of data, it has also revealed a stark gap between the technology “haves” and “have-nots.”
Digital technology has undoubtedly made social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic more palatable for many groups of people. It has allowed households to stay at home and order groceries online, watch Netflix, and conduct Zoom calls for work. But remaining at home throughout the pandemic is not possible for everyone, and much of the news reporting in recent weeks and months has focused on the issue of equity. In a recent paper, we argued that while many news outlets have focused on how this issue of equity reflects income disparity, that discussion has ignored the role of the diffusion of high-speed internet service. We showed that high-income earners are able to better maintain social distancing practices when they have access to high-speed internet.
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However, this reflects the fact that so much of the conversation about how to use technology to improve our ability to fight the pandemic overlooks the sizable technology gaps that persist throughout populations. When we think about broadband internet or other technologies important during this crisis, let’s not just think about whether there is sufficient infrastructure and diffusion, but whether people across different groups have access and can afford to pay for it.
Nowhere is this clearer than in the recent discussion about the use of smartphones for contact tracing. The idea behind this technology is that a person’s smartphone could record their proximity to other peoples’ smartphones using Bluetooth. Consequently, when someone finds out they are infected with COVID-19, their phone can then send an alert to any phones it has been in recent contact with, to warn the owner about potential exposure and prompt them to go into quarantine.
Much of the policy focus of the contact-tracing conversation has been on privacy, surveillance, and access to the data. But few have raised the issue about what happens to people who do not have access to a smartphone.
Luckily, the American Community Survey, conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau, gives us data to understand more about smartphone use and what groups of people these types of policies would be overlooking.
An overwhelming driver is age.