Internet Toolkit

Social capital online

Some don't think the digital divide is closing fast enough. Among them is the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit, created in July 2000 to help low-income Americans get online. But far more interesting is the Web site's attention to a less discussed issue: Once the poor get on the Web, what tools are available to them?

Not enough, according to David Saunier, a founding member of the organization. "Content needs to be provided at a low-literacy level, and in at least English and Spanish," he says. "It's got to touch on things that are important to their lives."

The company's new project, the Beehive (www.thebeehive. org), seeks to meet those needs. With sections in both English and Spanish on money, health, school, jobs, and family, the site provides access to some of the social capital that middle-class Americans take for granted: how to balance a checkbook, find a doctor, get a high school equivalency degree, even start a business.

The offerings in Spanish seem to be the site's most useful addition, since there are few sites specifically geared to helping non-English speakers navigate life in the U.S. More than half of the 20 top Google searches that bring people to the Beehive are in Spanish. Saunier says the content appears to have filled a vacant niche. "We've done no marketing," he says. "Yet we've received a good amount of Web traffic -- about 25,000 visits each month the last couple of months. It's saying that what we have to offer is missing elsewhere."

Saunier says the nonprofit, which is primarily funded through private donations but also does contract work for city governments, owes a large part of its fund-raising success to its wide appeal. "The heart of what we're doing is about self-sufficiency," he says. "We're making an assumption that if a large portion of this population gets armed with some information, access, resources, and opportunity, it will take advantage of it."

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