The Digital Revolution: Who Gets Left Behind?

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When this article was written, Ann Mei Chang served as the chief innovation officer at Mercy Corps. In December 2014, she was named the first executive director of the U.S. Global Development Lab at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). Ann Mei tweets at @annmei. 5

The rapid proliferation of mobile and Internet technologies has given rise to an unprecedented flow of communication between and among citizens and their governments and the ability to obtain and share data more widely than ever. These modern capabilities create the potential to transform crisis monitoring and response as well as conflict analysis and prevention. Emergency information can be quickly conveyed via voice, SMS, and the Internet to direct people to food, shelter, and medical care and away from violence.

Powerful new technology platforms have made it much easier to rapidly deploy crowdsourcing systems that collect data from local populations. One of the better-known platforms is Ushahidi, which provides open-source software for collecting reports from local observers through email or SMS and expressing them visually on interactive maps. Originally created to collect eyewitness reports of violence following Kenya’s disputed 2007 election, Ushahidi has since been expanded for diverse purposes, from monitoring elections in India and Mexico to collecting eyewitness reports of violence in Gaza and eastern Congo; to assisting in post-disaster rescue operations following the Haitian earthquake and Thai floods. In each of these cases, ordinary citizens were empowered to raise their voices and contribute to our understanding of dynamic situations. These applications have saved countless lives, but what about those on the other side of the digital divide—those without access to a mobile phone or the Internet?

Missing Voices

We have all heard about how social media fueled the 2011 revolution in Egypt.  Both the “We Are All Khaled Said” Facebook page and the #Jan25th Twitter hashtag were key organizing vehicles for launching a series of protests in Tahrir Square and changed the course of Egyptian history. In contrast to more traditional top-down movements, the use of social media engaged a broad populace–particularly youth–who shared thoughts, direct agendas, and became emboldened through their virtual connection. Yet, of the approximately 80 million people in Egypt at the time, less than a third had access to the Internet and over 60 percent of those were male. Despite the sense of a sweeping change, 55 million voices were not being heard.

Today, only 40 percent of the world’s population is online. The number is growing rapidly, but those who do not have Internet access are disproportionately poor, rural, older, and female. Almost 78 percent of households in developed countries are online versus 32 percent in developing countries and less than 10 percent in the world’s least developed countries. While less than half the world’s population now live in rural areas, 64 percent of those unconnected from the Internet are based in rural areas. Youth are almost twice as likely to be online, and women are 23 percent less likely to be online in developing countries, with the gap soaring to 34 percent in the Middle East and 43 percent in sub-Saharan Africa.

Ann Mei Chang Building Peace Forum #PeaceTech Digital Revolution

(Photo Credit: DFID-UK via Flickr)

Accordingly, as we marvel at the ways digital technology has expanded inclusion, unified people, and become a powerful tool for peacebuilding, we must also recognize the current limitations of its reach. When critical information is disseminated through new technology channels, those individuals already most disadvantaged may be left uninformed. Crowdsourced data on priorities and needs may reflect the views of urban youth, men, and the educated elite more than those of rural adults, women, and the common man. As digital technology becomes essential for full participation and engagement, we risk further widening the chasm between the two sides of the digital divide.

Barriers to Accessing Technology

Some of the drivers of the digital divide are deeply entrenched and further echo existing inequities: for example, those who are illiterate will certainly be challenged to make productive use of web pages, apps, and text messages. Additionally, connectivity to sparsely-populated and remote rural areas will remain expensive and a lower priority for telecom providers. Yet according to the GSM Association of mobile operators, 85 percent of the global population has 2G coverage and 55 percent has 3G. Thus, while only around 20 percent of Africans are online today, innumerable others are literate, have coverage, and could be online tomorrow but are not.

One of the most significant barriers to Internet access is affordability. The International Telecommunications Union reports that, in 2012, while a fixed broadband connection costs, on average, 1.7 percent of the average income in developed countries, it costs 31 percent of the average income in developing countries and is least affordable in Africa at an astronomical average of 64 percent of the average income. In developing countries today, many people are coming online for the first time on mobile phones, but mobile broadband prices still range from 11 to 25 percent of the average income in developing countries versus one to two percent in developed countries. While lower incomes in developing countries certainly contribute to this differential, the absolute cost of broadband is also appreciably higher there—often a result of poor policies and regulations that have led to weak market competition in service delivery and inefficiencies in the telecom industry.

Today, only 40 percent of the world’s population is online. The number is growing rapidly, but those who do not have Internet access are disproportionately poor, rural, older, and female.

With more limited financial resources, women are disproportionately affected by high prices and face further barriers to access. In many countries, cultural norms associate the use of mobile phones and the Internet with promiscuity and thus discourage or even ban women from using them. Online harassment can also be a deterrent. Even where such disincentives do not exist, women tend to have fewer opportunities to try out new technologies as they juggle the responsibilities of earning a living and caring for home and children. Additionally, as men develop most online content and services, and designs inevitably reflect their own experience rather than that of women, resulting in less compelling offerings that might otherwise entice women to take the leap.

Opportunities to Build Bridges

Given the limitations of digital access, it is important that mobile phones and the Internet are regarded as complementary tools, and not a panacea for the peacebuilding field. A quick SMS poll may be the fastest and cheapest way to gather data, but it should be undertaken with the awareness of which voices may be left out. Peacebuilders and their counterparts in the tech world can then design systems with multiple modalities to ensure no one is unheard.

If global citizens are conscious of the inequalities surrounding access and work to overcome them, digital technologies can equalize rather than discriminate, building bridges rather than creating divides. For women who live in communities that constrain their movement, the Internet can help their voices reach infinite distances, as it is already doing. People on opposite sides of religious, ethnic, or political divides can meet in neutral territory to buy and sell goods and even begin a dialogue. The Internet is a global, shared space where all are welcome, where the quality of your ideas can leave a greater impression than the color of your skin, and where clashing views can be shared peaceably. Is it a model for the peaceful world we strive to build?  Perhaps, but to realize such a possibility we must ensure all voices are included.

(Feature Photo Credit: Nick Jewell via Flickr)
  1. Opige Dennis Awilocoy says:

    The percent in the rural areas of developing countries like Uganda is very low.My estimate only 2% may be online. Where i come from majority of the population do not even know internet!

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