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Wireless and ICT for Development (ICT4D)

 

November 18, 2009

The Web 2.0 Digital Divide

The promises of Web 2.0 tools, when conceived of in advanced industrial countries, are almost unequivocally welcomed with open arms. Consider Web 2.0 in emerging countries, however, and the issue becomes a great deal murkier. What good is this web-based phenomenon when fewer than 10% of people in many emerging countries can even access the internet?

Concerns about this problem – commonly known as the ‘digital divide’ – tend to dampen enthusiasm regarding the rise of Web 2.0 as a tool for governance and sustainable development. It’s bad enough that the digital divide between rich countries and poor countries is as wide as it is. But if one takes a closer look at the statistics, it emerges that even within poor countries, the statistics reflect the usage of an elite few. The numbers, in other words, are worse than they seem. The demographic most in need of basic services is also least likely to find the tools to access them.

And even as Web 2.0 – and Government 2.0 – advances in emerging countries, can a ‘networked culture’ be more exclusionary than inclusionary? As more and more social and governmental services move online and begin to use the internet as their primary means of communication, will those beyond the digital divide be even further disadvantaged?

Mobile Telephony

The odds seemed pitted against Web 2.0 until a simple observation about the popular conception of the ‘digital divide’ turned things around. The notion of the digital divide mostly focuses on the differential access to computers and the Internet among people in a society. But as Mark Warschauer, author of Technology and Social Inclusion: Rethinking the Digital Divide points out, “this binary definition fails to do justice to the complex reality of various people’s differing access to technology.”

 Differing access to technology… A-ha! What about the cellular phone?

Bingo. A cursory internet search revealed that the prospects, suddenly, were not so bad after all. Examples of how mobile telephony is breaching the digital divide – and more importantly, providing access to once inaccessible services – abound. As observed in a recent article in the Economist, the many “anecdotal examples … illustrate the myriad unseen ways in which mobile phones are improving people’s lives across the world, and in the developing world in particular.”

We won’t burden you with these examples since they’re all public information, but here’s an especially illustrative and interesting one. An enterprising civil servant in Pakistan’s Jhang District developed a novel way (the ‘Jhang Model of Governance’, as it came to be known in the Pakistani press) to counter corruption. Zubair Bhatti directed clerks who handled land transfers to submit a daily list of transactions along with the mobile phone numbers of buyers and sellers. He explained that he would call these citizens at random to inquire whether they’d been asked to pay bribes. Once charges were brought against a clerk who made light of Mr. Bhatti’s resolve, it became clear that Mr. Bhatti meant business. A sudden improvement in service was reported. Mr. Bhatti introduced this method to other sectors within his control, and efforts are now underway in the provincial government to extend the concept elsewhere.

Yet another article argues that traditional forms of society are more conducive to collaboration and information-sharing, and that this culture can be leveraged more efficiently with the use of mobile technologies.

Emerging country development

It’s clear that utilizing mobile technologies to provide more widespread access to information and services still requires a deep and long-term commitment on the part of emerging country governments. There are still millions of people out there who don’t have access to mobile technology. But suddenly, the cost barrier isn’t quite as high. Unlike efforts at minimizing the digital divide by distributing more and more computers to the underprivileged, the incentives for stakeholders advancing mobile telephony are much better aligned. Governments can leverage an already-existent relationship between wireless service providers and the increasing number of citizens who can now afford it. And major mobile phone manufacturers have already begun catering to the large customer base in developing countries. It’s something of a win-win situation.

Granted, just as there are in advanced industrial countries, there are “cultural barriers” within government that might make the widespread advancement of mobile technologies all the more difficult. The argument, not unlike theories of globalization and the state, is premised on the notion that citizens ‘taking things into their own hands’ (literally, in the case of mobile phones) undermines the writ of government. But the fact remains that the genie is out of the bottle, and the faster it can be favourably co-opted (see ‘Jhang Model of Governance’ above), the better. According to a recent whitepaper, 80% of the world’s population is covered by GSM technology, and more than 2 billion people currently have access to mobile phones. With 1 million new subscribers every day, this number is set to reach 4 billion by the end of 2010. The math is compelling. Rather than fearing that government authority will be undermined, governments must realize that mobile technology provides new avenues to increase citizen participation and satisfaction. And as more and more citizens realize that government is not just a service for an elite few (as it once may have been), their stake in it increases.

 At FreeBalance, we take pride in developing government resource planning solutions that advance the fundamental principles of good governance and sustainable development. The quest for more efficient and cost-effective ways to increase citizen participation in government is well within our mandate. While we try to discover new ways to advance economic growth and development through mobile technology, we welcome comments and suggestions that might help us along the way.

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Doug Hadden

Doug Hadden

Executive Vice President, Innovation at FreeBalance
Doug is responsible for identifying new global markets, new technologies and trends, and new and enhanced internal processes. Doug leads a cross-functional international team that is responsible for developing product prototypes and innovative go-to-market strategies.

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