Reports on Digital Inclusion and divide

The Mail & Guardian (SA weekly) reported on a survey about “digital inclusion”/digital divide the other day, with the title “India’s digital divide worst among Brics”. It appeared to be based on a survey from risk analysis firm MapleCroft and their “Digital Inclusion Index” (DII).

Searching for the original survey and related news articles, the first three pages of Google’s result were news articles with pretty much the same title and content (except for one, where the Swedes say they are doing well). As it turns out, the low ranking of India is the first sentence of MapleCroft’s own news item about the DII. Lots of more data is described there, and everything together not only can be interpreted in various ways, but also raises more questions than it answers.

186 countries were surveyed, the Netherlands being number 186 (highest DII) and Niger number 1 (lowest DII). India turned out to have a DII of 39 and is therewith in the “extreme risk” category, China 103, Brazil 110, and Russia 134, which are relatively a lot better and in the “medium risk” category, but China and “to a lesser extent Russia” in the ‘wrong’ way (limited internet freedom). To tease a little: instead of ‘India is the worst’ regarding digital divide, one also can reformulate it in a way that India is important enough to be a full BRICS member [even though it has/irrespective of] a low DII. The place of the new “S” in BRICS—South Africa—is not even mentioned in the Mail & Guardian article, but MapleCroft has put it in the “High Risk” category (see figure here, about halfway on the page).

According to MapleCroft, “Sub-Saharan Africa is by far the worst performing region for digital inclusion with 29 of the 39 countries rated ‘extreme risk’ in the index.”. Summarizing the figure, Africa and South-East Asia are mostly in the high or extreme risk categories, Latin America, East-Europe and North Asia are in the medium or high risk categories, and the US, Canada, West-Europe, Japan, and Australia are in the low risk category. One of my fellow members at Informatici Senza Frontiere (Alessandra Cattani, who did here thesis on the digital divide) provided me the information that internet access in Italy is less than 40%, yet they are also in the low risk category according to the DII.

At the bottom of MapleCroft’s page, there is a paragraph rambling about the position of Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya in the ranking (81, 66, 77, respectively) and that “Internet and mobile phone technologies played a central role in motivating and coordinating the uprisings”. A third in Tunisia uses the internet, 16% is on facebook, whereas only about 5% of the Egyptians and 3% of the Libyans use facebook; all three countries are in the “high risk” category. This data can be ‘explained’ in any direction, even that facebook access is so low that it hardly may have contributed to motivate the uprisings (such as USAid and neoliberal policies in Egypt).

So, what exactly did MapleCroft measure? They used 10 indicators, being: “numbers of mobile cellular and broadband subscriptions; fixed telephone lines; households with a PC and television; internet users and secure internet servers; internet bandwidth; secondary education enrolment; and adult literacy”.

Considering fixed telephone lines is a bit of a joke in sparsely populated areas though, because it is utterly unprofitable for telcoms to lay the cables, so countries with low population density and a geographically more evenly distributed population are at a disadvantage in the DII. (and are all telephone lines and TVs digital nowadays?). Mobile phone use is relatively high in Africa, not just having one and using it to call family and friends, but also, among others, to handle electronic health records, disaster management, banking, and school-student communications, and the number of internet users has increased by some 2350% over the past 10 years (OneWorld news item, in Dutch). Even I can use mobile phone banking from the moment I opened my account here in SA and they were surprised I did not know how to do that (even after about 6.5 year in Italy, I still had to ‘wait a little longer’ for Italian internet banking—they do not offer mobile phone banking). Then there are the ATMs here that offer services that would fall under ‘online baking’ in many a European country. But MapleCroft has not considered the type and intensity of usage, or the inventiveness of people to enhance one technology as a way to ‘counterbalance’ the ‘lack’ of another technology.

Regarding bandwidth, fibre optic cables for fast internet access are not evenly distributed around the globe (picture), and even when they pass close by, some countries are prevented from plugging into the fast lines (most notably Cuba—the lines are owned by US companies who are prevented from doing business with Cuba due to the blockade).

The last two indicators to compute the DII may, to some, come as a surprise, but is not: one thing is to have the equipment, a whole different story is to be literate to read and comprehend the information, and then there’s a whole different story of having developed sufficient critical thinking to be able to separate the wheat from the chaff in the data deluge on the internet. India has and adult literacy of some 63%; this compared to adult literacy of 90% in Brazil, 100% in Russia, 94 in China, and 89% in South Africa (data from UNICEF). Secondary education enrollment is trickier, where UNICEF at least is more detailed, because it makes a difference between enrollment and attendance (and graduation and tertiary education, not covered by either one).

Then there’s digital inclusion, versus a digital divide. Both the bottom and the top echelon are “included”, according to MapleCroft, the former just with an extreme risk and latter with a low risk of falling behind. It certainly has a friendlier tone to it than considering the divide it has created between people and the consequences that follow from it, both economic and social.

Take the underlying social divide: who has access? For instance, if there is one PC in the household, who uses it? Recollecting my even younger years, the PC access pecking order was Father > Mother (practically skipped) > Brother > Sister (me, youngest, female), which obviously has changed over the years for both my brother and me. There are other parameters to consider here, such as occupation, level of higher education, and several countries have whole groups of people that are at a relative (dis)advantage due to socio-economic, political, ethnic, disability etc. factors. However, it is a separate line of inquiry to determine to what extent it affects the inclusion or exacerbates the divide. MapleSoft did not include it in the DII.

And then there is the time dimension. The DII diagram is a snapshot (I do not know which measurement date), but comparison along a time axis may reveal trends. So will percentages. Take, for instance internet users. Worldmapper has two beautiful figures as topically scaled maps (density equalized maps) for 1990 and 2002 data, which I showed earlier: the US shrunk relatively while Asia, Eastern Europe, Latin America, and Africa grew. No doubt they also grew a lot over the past 8 years.

Hence, overall, the coarse-grained ranking of the DII as such does not say much, and raises more questions than that it answers. Aside from serving an underlying political agenda, the real news value of the DII as such is rather limited.

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