I’m all in favour of attempts like that of the World Wide Web Foundation to make in their words “multi-dimensional measures of the Web’s growth, utility and impact on people and nations” but to call it the “first” such attempt would seem to be overlooking the strikingly similar ITU “Measuring the Information Society” programme or The World Economic Forum’s “Network Readiness Index” (there are and have been probably others too). There’s plenty of room for all though and each group of scholars has something to contribute (indeed the Web Index draws from ITU figures among others). If you are interested in the digital divide, check them all out!
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Interesting – I just stumbled across a blog post about the demographics of contributors to Global Voices – the source I know best of news and information in blog form from a non-Western perspective. The post reveals among other things that “the Global Voices community is highly educated. Over 85% of respondents indicated they have completed a university degree, and more than 40% have a post-graduate or doctoral degree.” This does suggest alas that while groups like Global Voices have a valuable role to play in making voices heard that might not otherwise have a platform, blogging to and for a wider public still remains an elite activity.
I just finished writing this post on the LSE group weblog which looks at the low number of Wikipedians editing non-English language articles and the dangers this presents to the credibility of Wikipedia (such as it is). I also tied it in with the recent announcement that the OLPC consortium would be bundling selected Wikipedia articles with its $100 laptops. Take a look at it and see what you think. Have a look at some of the other recent articles there too for that matter – most of them are also written by me (I will start adding bylines from now on).
Ubuntu Linux, sponsored by South African entrepreneur “Mark Shuttleworth”:http://www.markshuttleworth.com/bio.html is not just available free – the organization behind it will “send free CDs”:http://shipit.ubuntulinux.org/ to wherever in the world people want to get their hands on it. (Note: if you have broadband and can download it rather than getting the CDs please do so and save money that could be used to send discs to developing world organizations that do need it). If you want a review of the current version with all the geeky details read “Kuroshin”:http://www.kuro5hin.org/story/2004/9/28/211242/712. To summarise, it includes the main applications you would need (the Firefox web browser and OpenOffice) but at present if you don’t want it to take over your whole hard disk you have to partition it manually, which doesn’t say much for its user-friendliness. It’s early days though.
My supervisors have been active in the “CRIS”:http://www.crisinfo.org/ ( Communication Rights in the Information Society) programme and have called my attention to its work. On this year’s CRIS agenda is:
The CRIS Global Governance Project, sponsored by the Ford Foundation. The project’s aim is to support the emergence at national level of the concept of communication rights … advocacy on governance issues including civil society participation in governance structures… and in various global governance fora.
If you’re an academic interested in the connection between media participation and civil society take a look and join in!
Ethan Zuckerman “posts”:http://blogs.law.harvard.edu/ethan/2004/06/13#a222 about a thought-provoking lecture by “Guido Sohne”:http://sohne.net/ on the limitations of open source development in Africa. It’s worth reading his whole post but I will just note that Guido suggests open source development is limited in Africa because African programmers are too busy trying to earn a basic living to donate their time to creating open source code. Similarly, providing free wireless Internet access as many are doing as a volunteer effort around the developed world is much more difficult when the cost of providing that access relative to income is much higher in Africa.
In other words a lot of the benevolence we often take for granted online and consider part of the Internet culture actually relies on a certain economic base where programmers have free time and energy to work on projects they consider worthwhile and bandwidth and computing resources are ‘too cheap to meter’.
For a more optimistic view check out Dan Gillmor’s eJournal – Open Source a No-Brainer for Developing World.
Thanks to “Boingboing”:http://boingboing.net/2003_09_01_archive.html#106356200472733745 for the latter link
“Ethan Zuckerman”:http://blogs.law.harvard.edu/ethan/2004/02/27#a138 has produced an interesting paper on blogging as a political force in the Third World – commenting on the enthusiasm for Internet-mediated political debate expressed by Jim Moore in an essay “The Second Superpower Rears its Beautiful Head”:http://cyber.law.harvard.edu/people/jmoore/secondsuperpower.html and by Joi Ito in “Emergent Democracy”:http://joi.ito.com/static/emergentdemocracy.html. I blogged about the latter essay “some months ago”:http://blog.org/archives/cat_best_of_blogorg.html#000687.
He warns astutely:
“If that group [enthusiasts for ‘weblog democracy’] forgets that they’re outliers in terms of larger society and fails to include others in the shaping of these technologies, it’s unlikely that these tools will be useful to the wider world”.
He also suggests that bloggers can’t provide a critical alternative to the mainstream media when a region is not adequately covered:
“When journalists don’t cover parts of the globe, webloggers are like an amplifier without a guitar they have no signal to reinforce. There aren’t enough bloggers in eastern Congo to give us a sense for what’s really going on.”
He suggests that Third World expats writing about their own nations from abroad and (though he doesn’t explicitly say this) First World expats writing about the countries they are visiting or trying to help could help fill the gap in coverage of third world issues and give the rest of the world a personal view.
He notes the weakness of this proposal:
these discussions are open only to people with the access to the Internet (which cuts out people in countries who censor, people in unsderserved rural areas, as well as people who don’t have money to spend time online); primarily open to people who speak and write English well; primarily open to people who can afford to spend time online engaging in these dialogues (cutting out many people whose jobs don’t afford them the luxury of working in front of a CRT).
He highlights some interesting solutions to the problem of language and cultural barriers to mutual comprehension – “Blogalization”:http://www.blogalization.info/reorganization/, for example, encourages bloggers who can speak foreign languages to translate interesting posts and news items into other relevant languages (chiefly English) – acting as a volunteer news agency. “Living on the Planet”:http://www.livingontheplanet.com/about.html is similar (but only translates to English.
In the end, he acknowledges:
Generally speaking, though, in most developing nations, the Net is not the obvious place to look for political change. So few citizens are online, and those who are generally are atypically wealthy and powerful that the Internet is a poor way to reach the grassroots. Instead, it’s useful to think about what media are analogous to the Internet in developing nations. One likely parallel is talk radio.
He seems to suggest in his conclusion that the “solution” to ensuring that the third world can part lies with the toolmakers – a technical fix.
But a real solution, I suggest, would have to involve a lot of grassroots capacity building work to ensure that a broad range of people in these countries (not just the elites):
1) have access to the technology
2) have the time and literacy to engage with them and
3) are listened to by those with power in their countries.
Big (some might say impossible) preconditions but without them a Third World Blogosphere would be an elite echo chamber. I fear that if tech boosters succeed in persuading developing country governments to foster a burgeoning blogosphere in their countries it would just serve to further benefit the articulate middle classes and elites in those countries who already have influence.
I’m getting to this one rather late but I found an excellent article by Barry Flynn expressing disappointment with the UK Government for its failure to require digital terrestrial TV to have a return path. Now the horse has bolted – many digital terrestrial customers have already bought set-tops without modems and it will be hard to get them to switch if the Government wants to encourage egovernment or edemocracy applications through digital TV.
David Wilcox brings to my attention on Designing for Civil Society an article summarising the benefits of several different open source applications for activists.
Interesting and useful though the list is for some, I do think it shows a narrowness of perspective common to technically-proficient activists. It doesn’t talk about how difficult the software is for the group to install or maintain and doesn’t put much stress on whether there is a free hosted version of the software available (so an organization can just use it without having to install it or run their own web server).
The unspoken assumption of those writing seems to be that at least one person among the activist groups will know how to set up and maintain software and have access to a computer with an always-on broadband connection. Tut tut!
David Wilcox “blogs here in detail”:http://partnerships.typepad.com/civic/2004/01/nonprofit_tech_.html about a research report from Jeremy Wyatt at a regeneration consultancy, “Hall Aitken”:http://www.hallaitken.co.uk/. It suggests UK Online centres should be less in libraries and more in community centres and integrated with the voluntary and community sector, but says nonetheless that they are largely successful in reaching those they target (disadvantaged people who wouldn’t have Internet access elsewhere).
By sheer coincidence on the same day I came across a paper by “Dr Neil Selwyn”:http://www.cf.ac.uk/socsi/selwyn/ in the September 2003 edition of the journal “Information, Communication & Society”:http://www.tandf.co.uk/journals/titles/1369118x.html – unfortunately not publicly accessible (unless you are an academic with a subscription – if so look “here”:http://www.ingenta.com/isis/searching/ExpandTOC/ingenta;jsessionid=3ok9ubgqnr53e.circus?issue=infobike://routledg/rics/2003/00000006/00000003&index=5)
The paper seems to be largely based on “a report Dr Selwyn did for BECTA”:http://www.becta.org.uk/page_documents/research/digidiv_selwyn.pdf in any case (which is publicly accessible).
Anyway here are some key findings:
…The survey data suggest that, in terms of people’s effective access to ICT, public access sites have a relatively slight profile when compared with household and wider family access – perceived to offer ready access to ICT by only a minority of respondents. Moreover, when the use of these public ICT sites is examined, there is little evidence of public ICT sites attracting those social groups who may otherwise be excluded or marginalized from the information age.”
Update:Jeremy Wyatt himself was good enough to comment on this post. He said:
“I can see where you have seen a contradiction in the two reports but actually they don’t conflict in any way. As as researcher you’ll forgive me for suggesting you read the whole of both reports…we actually quote the work Neil and his colleagues did in our report.
One of the thrusts of Neil’s report is that people don’t use public internet access points much. The thrust of ours is that UK online centres have helped to introduce the internet to many new users and helped many gain skills and confidence. Our report stresses the introduction and skills services. It does not confirm or deny that public internet access once you have these skills is a viable approach. It refers to Neil’s work to suggest that there is data to suggest the opposite.
But, and its a big but, things change fast in this field and maybe public internet access has a big future once its ubiquitous.”
Mea culpa! I don’t have time to go more into this at the moment but I do encourage people to read both reports. The Hall Aitken report is “here”:http://www.dfes.gov.uk/research/programmeofresearch/index.cfm?type=5&keywordlist1=0&keywordlist2=0&keywordlist3=0&andor=or&keyword=CMF+funded+uk+online+centres&x=94&y=15.
Like Wyatt, Selwyn suggests that siting UK Online centres out of libraries, schools, colleges and museums would help and suggests
“another alternative strategy would be to develop a shift in emphasis away from community sites towards developing systems of community resources, which can then be loaned into peoples houses, thus building upon and augmenting peoples existing access to and use of ICT in friends and relatives houses.”
However he concludes pessimistically, “Although proving useful for those that use them, it appears likely that such sites will only ever fulfil a limited social role and are certainly not a panacea to the perceived inequalities of the information age.”
I share his pessimism because I feel not enough is being done to explain to disadvantaged people how what is on the Internet is relevant to their needs (and particularly not enough is done to encourage them to contribute themselves – which would help in turn to narrow the relevance gap).
I hope at least that the common recommendation of both reports – moving public access closer to where the public actually likes to hang out – will be listened to. To its credit the Office of the e-Envoy in its “annual report”:http://www.e-envoy.gov.uk/assetRoot/04/00/60/69/04006069.pdf seems to be taking this on board to some extent. The Government is funding ‘get online’ initiatives with the voluntary and community sector and spending around £3m (not a lot admittedly!) through Culture Online to, “engage hard-to-reach audiences, encouraging them to discover the potential of new digital technologies (p. 11)