What is the digital divide and why does it matter to Minnesota? Get to know #13: Ken Nelson


Ken Nelson, Supervisor of the University of Minnesota Digital Divide InitiativeKen Nelson is Supervisor of the Digital Divide Initiative (DDI) with the University of Minnesota.  The digital divide is the gap between people with effective access to digital  and information technology and those with very limited or no access at all.  The definition encompasses imbalances in resources and skills needed to effectively participate as a digital citizen.  The phrase “digital inclusion” is often used when describing programs and policies aimed at solving for Minnesota’s digital divide problem.

In essence, Mr. Nelson describes his mission as “…to get the best technology I can to under served populations.  That takes the form of hardware, software, and other support mechanisms to help bridge that divide.”

Prior to his engagement with the University’s DDI, Mr. Nelson’s experience dates back to his time as an AmeriCorps*Vista member working within IBM’s Teaming for Technology partnership with the United Way.  Here, he focused on providing technology services to the non-profit sector. As his goals evolved over time, Mr. Nelson relocated from Rochester to Minneapolis where he coordinated a community project aimed at delivering basic hardware, software and fundamental training to some of Minneapolis’ most undeserved citizenry.  Once this program was up and running (out of a church basement), the University of Minnesota approached him as part of their community outreach agenda. This event ultimately this formed the relationship, role and mission he represents today.

Across Minnesota, comprehensive and up-to-date digital divide statistics are still largely unknown.  While there’s an ongoing broadband focus on the urban vs. rural side the the equation, the U of M DDI is primarily concerned with the inner-city challenges.   In this aspect, one study from 2007 concluded that in the Twin Cities metro, only 26% of households making income under $25,000 reported having a computer in the home with only 17.8% having broadband access.   While economic factors are a primary contributor to the situation, there’s many demographical pieces to this puzzle, including: culture/language barriers, educational wherewithal and the age factor which tends to further marginalize the young and old alike.  Mr. Nelson specifically points out that “North Minneapolis and St. Paul’s Frogtown face some of the greatest challenges.”

Back in December, it was announced that the University had been the recipient of a 2.9 million dollar grant specifically for the purposes of piloting a new digital inclusion model, one designed to better organize collective efforts/resources and ultimately to (potentially) serve as a replicatable nationwide model.

To bridge Minnesota’s gap between the technology haves and have-nots, the University is taking a multi-faceted approach that begins with the basics.   For hardware, Ken’s office works with various local agencies, non-profits and large corporations in a systematic recycle and refurbishing program designed to get modern equipment within proximity to those in need. This could take shape as a donation to a specific family or, as you’ll hear, a number of Community Technology Centers that are strategically placed amongst Minnesota’s most deficient geographies. In most instances, these computers have a proprietary operating system/software licensed specifically for the program at reduced rates.  High speed connectivity is an ongoing concern, one for which there isn’t a solid solution (yet) at the in home level. From here, content is key.  In an age of information explosion and endless rabbit holes, the goal is to direct people towards relevant information and services that will be most useful for their needs.  The Community Technology Centers also focus on  programming for ongoing support and basic computer literacy skills.

“I’m convinced that we have to begin using all of our human resources.  The digital divide matters because America is behind in a lot of categories, a lot of it is because of bad policies we’ve had in the past. If I can put some energy towards uplifting people’s lives, their ability to get a job, their ability to read better, their ability to achieve higher, then I feel like I’m doing something for my country.” – Ken Nelson, Supervisor of the University of Minnesota’s Digital Divide Initiative.

Mr. Nelsons primary office/refurbishing lab and home to a brand new, state of the art CTC is the Urban Research and Outreach/Engagement Center (UROC)  located at 2001 Plymouth Avenue North in Minneapolis.  This renovated strip mall includes a host of community resources including a Center for Early Childhood Development, a 4H program, nutritional services, and a Business-Technology Center.   Those interested in learning more about Minnesota’s digital divide/inclusion and seeing firsthand how this partnership between the City and the University aim to benefit the community are welcome to attend the UROC open house and ribbon cutting ceremony on Wednesday May 12th.

UROC Open House and Ribbon Cutting Ceremony