The invisible barriers to bridging the digital divide
Connecting everyone in the world to the internet will not single-handedly bridge the digital divide, tech experts said at the Web Summit this week, citing other invisible barriers such as high costs, low digital literacy and complicated user interfaces.
The so-called “digital divide” refers to the gap between those who have access to computers and the Internet and those who do not, with the latter group accounting for almost half of the world’s population, according to the United Nations.
With many vital services such as schooling and banking going online, the coronavirus pandemic has given new urgency to global efforts to get the disconnected online by bringing internet coverage to remote or disadvantaged areas.
“(COVID-19) made us realize that what was once considered ‘nice-to-have’ technology is now a ‘must-have’,” said Gbenga Sesan, Executive Director of the Paradigm Initiative, to a pan – African social enterprise working on digital inclusion.
Reaching out to all of them can be a daunting task.
Identifying where exactly internet access is needed is not an easy task in parts of the world, said Sophia Farrar, who runs a program that uses satellite imagery and other data to locate and connect offline schools.
“Nobody really knows how many schools there are in the world,” said Farrar from the UN Children’s Fund UNICEF before a panel discussion at Europe’s largest tech conference in Lisbon.
“What we want to achieve by mapping is just setting that basic goal.”
Increasing mobile penetration has accelerated the process.
The number of active mobile broadband subscriptions worldwide rose more than 75% to nearly 6 billion between 2015 and 2020, including those with multiple accounts, according to the International Telecommunication Union.
According to the telecom lobby group GSMA, only about 450 million people live in areas that do not have mobile broadband.
But even where there is coverage, more than 3 billion are not online mainly because they lack the tools, skills and money to use it, said Robert Opp, chief digital officer at the UN Development Program (UNDP).
“If you just connect someone to the infrastructure, it doesn’t mean that you can use your Internet connection productively,” said the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an interview.
The cost is a major obstacle, he noted.
There are few developing countries where internet prices meet the UN target of less than 2% of national median income, Opp said.
Even in rich countries like the UK or the United States, poor people often cannot afford to buy data, a problem that has sparked calls for price caps and motivated some countries to make the internet a vital public service during the pandemic.
Others may not have the skills to navigate often complex, jargon-filled websites and applications, Opp added.
The problem has come to the fore with the introduction of COVID-19 vaccines as the elderly and the infirm in countries from Sweden to South Africa struggle to book their vaccinations online.
The lack of digital literacy also exposes people to risks such as misinformation and loss of privacy, Opp said.
While education is key to protecting people online, it is also creating digital tools that are easier to understand and tailored to the communities they are intended to serve, said Howard Pyle, a digital designer turned social entrepreneur.
“Most websites and mobile apps are designed for the digitally privileged users who already know how to use these tools – usually the most profitable users that businesses will most attract,” Pyle said in an interview at the Web Summit.
“But this excludes people with different needs or skills, such as the elderly or inexperienced in technology, or low-income users who have limitations on the types of devices they can access.”
Pyle’s social enterprise, ExperienceFutures, aims to help businesses and governments make their web services more accessible by reducing jargon and complexity, and by involving the communities they want to serve in the design phase.
“Right now there is too much emphasis on building uniform tools and expecting users to learn how to use them,” he said.
“We need to evolve into a place where technology is flexible enough that individuals can understand it based on their capabilities.”