welcome to the
villaNet is a project recently established to examine the impact of information technologies on low income communities.
This site is currently under construction and we plan on posting here as the project ramps up - so please visit again.
Recent theoretical and empirical work in the areas of social network analysis and social capital theory contend that social isolation perpetuates poverty (Wilson 1987, 1991; Granovetter 1982; Putnam 2001). Some argue that those in poverty find it difficult to access resources, job referrals, information, health care, disaster relief, housing, economic development and education in part because their social networks are limited (Fernandez et al 2000; Fernandez & Castilla 2001; Hurlbert, Haines & Beggs 1998; Woolcock 1998) and lack the diversity (Erickson 1995; Lin, Fu and Hsung 2001) necessary for access to information, and material and social resources. These works describe a divide between social spheres with abundant resources and those in which resources and opportunity are scarce. In complimentary research, IT theorists posit that the ‘digital’ dimension of this divide, the lack of access to technology and the Internet in particular, isolates the poor from social spheres in which valuable information, resources and skills can be found. The intersection of these research areas provides fertile ground for some important research questions: Can reliable broadband access to the Internet influence the degree, diversity, reach or productiveness of individual and community social networks for those who live below the poverty line? Does the Web provide access to social and economic support for the poor? Does structured training measurably improve the benefits of Web access for social and economic opportunity? Can different types of Web use (passive vs. communicative) improve the cohesion of social networks within a community while simultaneously maximizing the weak ties of members of that community to other social spheres?
Interesting work has previously addressed the impact of Internet access in the home on family relationships (Kraut et al. 1996; Kraut et al. 1998, 2001, 2002; Cummings & Kraut 2001), social isolation (Sproull & Keisler 1991; Kraut et al. 1998), community relations (Hampton & Wellman 1999; Wellman 1999, Hampton and Wellman 2002), the diversity of social networks (Hampton forthcoming), and access to various resources. However, rarely has such research addressed those below the poverty line, in part because instances of access to the Internet in these conditions are few and far between. Testing the effects of Internet access on the social network diversity, reach and cohesion of low-income communities could potentially provide insights for economic development programs in general and illuminate the complexity of the digital divide in particular.
In pursuit of these insights, the VillaNet project aims to explore these questions in Villa Victoria, a primarily Latino, low-income community in Boston’s South End which houses more than 3000 residents in some 880 units. In 2002, Villa Tech, a Boston non-profit, began rolling out broadband Internet access, training and support to residents of Villa Victoria. In an attempt to answer some of the research questions described here, I initiated a research project to measure the effects of Internet access and training on the social networks of members of the community. The project has two modules: a survey instrument which measures passive and communicative Internet use and training, changes in social networks and access to resources over time; and a set of interviews which attempts to collect data on how people use the Internet in low income communities. The research will test hypotheses concerning the impact of Internet access on social networks and access to resources over three years beginning in the spring of 2003. We hope to make two novel contributions to the existing literature with this research. First, to test some of the sociological and social network hypothesis relating IT and social structure in a community where a majority of residents live below the poverty line. Although studies have previously tested these hypotheses and studied low-income communities and the Internet, the examination of these questions in low-income communities may be novel. Second, one difficulty of Web use studies, cited repeatedly in this literature, is that unobservable characteristics may influence both Web use and measured outcomes. By comparing control and treatment groups that are randomly selected to receive access to the Internet, we hope to address the endogeneity of Web use.
Sinan Aral, MSc, Mpp
IT Group - MIT Sloan School of Management