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The need to connect people meaningfully, to build capacity, and to build innovative and sustainable networks was the main theme of this session.
The slowing down of the growth rate of Internet users worldwide was highlighted by Mr Michael Kende (Co-Convener, Graduate Institute, Geneva) and Mr Christopher Yoo (Co-Convener, University of Pennsylvania).
The increasing gender divide online, especially in developing countries was discussed. Ms Muge Haseki (University of Pennsylvania) added that existing literature and reports have identified five main barriers to technology, and its access and use: infrastructure, financial constraints, digital literacy, privacy, and social context. Existing interventions and policies have not been able to address these issues in a meaningful way. Haseki shared that women face greater challenges than men in accessing technology in low-income countries. Ms Claire Sibthorpe (Head Connected Women and Connected Society, GSMA) shared that the magnitude of the gender divide is based on location. For example, significant gender gaps are observed in South Asia and rural locations. The gender gap exists in the ownership of devices, awareness of the Internet, a lack of literacy, and the requisite digital skills to connect. The gap is further aggravated due to a lack of relevant content and to concerns of safety online. Haseki shared that women face additional social barriers that prevent them from accessing the Internet, such as responsibilities for looking after children and the elderly. Citing an example from rural Bangladesh, she shared that women face resistance from the local community to even travel by bicycle. In Ghana, families do not think learning computer skills are relevant.
Kende emphasised the need to adopt innovative approaches to connect the unconnected and to take a more systematic approach about what works and what does not on both the supply and demand sides. Yoo opined that there is no one magic technology that can be deployed to ensure access for all since most deployments must adopt to their contexts and will thus involve different technologies in different situations.
In discussing community networks as an innovative and local approach to connect unconnected areas, Ms Jane Coffin (Senior Advisor to the CEO, Connectivity & Infrastructure, Internet Society) highlighted the longevity and sustainability of such initiatives, citing specific examples of community networks deployed in Georgia. She also pointed to the economic development model in remote and urban underserved areas of New York City.
Concerns were raised about the sustainability of existing programmes to connect people. Yoo discussed a study that found a gap in both supply and demand. Of the analysed projects, 62% brought in no revenue on the supply side and depended on grants, while on the demand side, nearly 75% of programmes had serious sustainability issues. He was concerned that too much attention on the building of networks and not enough attention on managing them. Yoo suggested the need to measure the impact of connectivity both in terms of economic development and social development in areas such as healthcare and education. Coffin shared that existing rules and regulations were the primary causes for the shutdown of any community networks. She suggested that rather than looking at immediate revenue, it is important to look at impacts from different perspectives, such as considering issues like sustainability and social impacts of the community network. Coffin cited a 50% increase in Airbnb reservations in a high-mountain village in Tushedi, Georgia, which is helping to increase rural development and to empower the local community.
On the supply side, Kende cited digital literacy as one of the main reasons that people do not go online. Ms Sharada Srinivasan (University of Pennsylvania) raised concerns about existing digital literacy programmes based on her study of 37 projects across 23 countries. These concerns include: a wide variance in curriculum and pedagogy, no needs assessment in the community, no process to measure specific outcomes in terms of learning digital skills, and a huge variance in terms of cost.
Coffin and Kende mentioned capacity-building as essential, and Kende spoke about making access meaningful. Srinivasan suggested that there is a need for greater monitoring and stronger evaluations when it comes to learning outcomes.
To address the issue of the digital divide, Haseki suggested the need to devise more effective strategies in order to better identify problems and develop impactful interventions. This included analysing the barriers to a woman’s access to technology from the intersections of multiple demographic factors such as geography and age, in order to design stronger policy and ensure more sustainable interventions. Haseki suggested that the creation of local content utilising local languages is essential to reach the majority of potential users in a country and that addressing multiple barriers simultaneously can help to design more effective and sustainable interventions.
By Amrita Choudhury