Lesson learned: Research on the internet begins with access

Using the internet as a research venue offers a good opportunity to explore a topic that covers a wide geographic area such as the Caribbean Sea. However, as I’ve learned over the past couple of months as an intern with the Georeferenced Cultural Repository Inventory (GCRI), in some cases the research may only be as thorough as access to the internet allows.

GCRI is a joint project of the University of Pennsylvania Museum and the Smithsonian Institution. Several interns from the digital public humanities graduate certificate program at George Mason University have been working with GCRI to catalog cultural repositories in the Caribbean.

Internet penetration in the United States is at nearly 90 percent, according to the latest information from Internet World Stats. It’s easy to forget that not all places in the world have such access. Time and again when trying to locate details about a specific museum in some island nation, I have run into a lack of first-hand information. Internet penetration might be one explanation.

Overall internet usage in the Caribbean stood at 43.7 percent as of June 2016, the most recent data provided for the region by Internet World Stats.

Among the specific islands we interns have been examining, internet penetration in most cases is better than the regional average, but still way behind the United States: Anguilla, 69 percent; Antigua and Barbuda, 87.1 percent; Aruba, 80.5 percent; Bonaire and Sint Eustatius, 94 percent; British Virgin Islands, 42.7 percent; Montserrat, 55.1 percent; St. Barthélemy, 21.4 percent; St. Kitts and Nevis, 71.1 percent; Saint Lucia, 66.5 percent; Saint Martin, 3.4 percent; Sint Maarten, an unbelievable zero percent; Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, 64.5 percent; Trinidad & Tobago, 77.2 percent; and Turks and Caicos, 48.6 percent.

It must be kept in mind that these numbers are a year out of date, and that developing internet infrastructure for some of these island nations might be difficult given their location. Still, the statistics suggest the challenges they face given the global “digital divide.” And that’s without factoring in the effects of hurricanes that hit some of the islands extremely hard.

Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory, has 85.2 percent internet penetration. But to use the internet, electricity is needed. As of the end of October, 70 percent of the island was still without power as a result of Hurricane Maria, according to a story in USA Today.

All of this means that we have run into situations where especially small museums might not have a website to which we can refer. Without a direct source, we have to look for other references, such as a posting on TripAdvisor or a mention in an online newsletter or newspaper. It makes one appreciate the work we are doing even more, because once the GCRI data are available, it will be a bit easier to find these museums.