Bridging the Digital Divide: Ensuring that We're Doing it Right


By John Tulinsky

In Seattle it's possible to access the internet while riding on a bus or sitting in a park. Of course most of the world isn't so fortunate. For example, World Bank statistics show that in 2006, there were fewer than 2 secure internet servers per million people in developing nations, compared to 300 servers per million people in the developed world. This is a great disadvantage, since Internet connectivity is crucial for economic development, and also provides rich opportunities to promote education, health, human rights, community and improved government.

Many public and private projects are working to bridge this digital divide by building and improving information and communication technology (ICT) infrastructure (links describing a few of them are at the bottom of the page). However, it is now recognized that providing hardware alone is insufficient. Initiatives that ignore the local social, cultural and religious context often yield disappointing results. A group of researchers at the University of Washington is now examining how to create more culturally customized ICT solutions. They aim to help the institutions that provide public access to ICT in the developing world understand how to ensure their projects' success.

The Center for Information & Society (CIS) at the University of Washington is an interdisciplinary center where researchers study how ICTs are used around the world, with a focus on disadvantaged and underserved groups. Over the past year a team from the CIS has worked with local partners from 25 countries in Eastern Europe, Central and South Asia, Africa and Latin America to study the reasons behind the adoption and non-adoption of ICTs in the developing world.

The Landscape Study evaluates each country based on 14 factors which are divided into three categories: access, capacity and environment. This allows each country to be rated in terms of barriers to public use of ICTs and also for specific recommendations to be made based on the individual country's needs. For example, in many of the countries, cybercafés are the primary point of public access to the internet. But this isn't a blanket solution. In Costa Rica, for example, where there is relative gender equality, cybercafés present an opportunity to reach the community that doesn't exist in Algeria and Egypt, where a woman's ability to move freely in public is limited.

The consistent methodology used during the study is intended to facilitate country-to-country and regional comparisons. Utilizing the open-source concept, the Landscape Study's data, findings and recommendations are in the public domain and available online for use and extension by other researchers. The study's results are presented as a one-page summary of findings and recommendations for each country and as a full report. The CIS intends to disseminate this information as widely as possible to relevant stakeholders.

Check out the Worldchanging archives to read more about creative efforts to bridge the digital divide:

Worldchanging Interview: Inveneo

Solar-Powered ICT Centers in India

It's cute. It's orange. It's got bunny ears – An update on the One Laptop per Child project

Broadband for Barefoot Bankers

Rural Computing in Peru

John Tulinsky has a collection of post-graduate degrees, most recently a Master's in Information Management from the University of Washington. He is amazed by the possibilities for collaboration and community made possible by the internet and enjoys long, long bike rides.

Top Photo: An ICT trainer in Mongolia provides instruction to herders using G-Mobile technology. Photo credit: KC Dedinas

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