Digital inclusion is more than just access

As more and more countries enforce social distancing measures to contain or mitigate the COVID-19 pandemic, digital technologies become increasingly important in providing essential information as well as keeping economies afloat. At the same time, the pandemic also makes the digital divide starker: as interactions become increasingly online, those that remain digitally excluded could become left behind, unable to benefit from online information and digital interactions.

So what is digital inclusion?

Early policies focused on solving the question of hardware, with a prominent example being the “One Laptop Per Child” (OLPC) movement, which provided durable, low-cost laptops for “the world’s poorest children”. “When children have access to this type of tool”, reads their mission statement, “[…] they get engaged in their own education. They learn, share, create, and collaborate. They become connected to each other, to the world and to a brighter future.”

Since as early as 2005, however, scholars have argued for a more nuanced perspective of “access”; advocating for it to be understood as a process, rather than a simple distinction between those with devices and those without. To illustrate by example, imagine that you’ve gifted your tech illiterate grandma a tablet for her 80th birthday so she can keep in touch with her family through social media. But before she could actually do that, there are several barriers to overcome: is she subscribed to an internet plan, and if not, does she know how to do this? Does she know how to turn on the device, and to install the programs she needs? When she gets on the internet, how can she distinguish between messages from her family and fake emails from scammers? In short, she would need to invest considerable resources – money, time – to navigate the digital space, even at a relatively basic level. Possessing the device is not enough for her to become “digitally included”. This is why the World Benchmarking Alliance has distinguished four measurement areas in the  Digital Inclusion Benchmark: access, skills, use, and innovation.

Explaining the four distinguished measurement areas

The four areas are closely intertwined, just as digital inclusion intersects with other identities, such as income, education, or geography. In many cases, the problem is systematic. Gender is a good  example: in many parts of the world, women are discouraged from technology and therefore lack digital skills. This has led to a global underrepresentation of women in the tech industry, resulting in many biases. For example, one writer has identified that smartphones are designed to be “one-size-fits-man” and generally too large for female hands, and that speech recognition software tends to be trained on male voices. These cases then reinforce the notion that technology is unwelcome to women, becoming a self-fulling prophecy.

While the examples above illustrate the close connection between the measurement areas of access and skills, the Digital Inclusion Benchmark also considers the question of use: how can companies ensure that users are sufficiently protected on their platforms? This problem, like many others, cuts across the developing and developed world. Fake news, for example, has been discussed extensively when it comes to influencing elections, but in the developing world, fake news has often led to ethnic or religiously based violence. More recently, fake news have been proliferating false stories and advice on COVID-19 pandemic. According to the Pew Journalism Center, approximately 48% of US adults surveyed reported seeing fake news on the virus, and companies are scrambling to face the challenge of screening rapidly multiplying information.

The last measurement area covers innovation, and here the challenge involves fostering more openness and diversity while upholding ethics and sustainability. Even though technology claims to benefit people worldwide, in reality the companies that create new technology tend to be clustered in concentrated hubs in the developed world, where the industry remains dominated by men. Similarly, developing countries are largely excluded from developing innovative technologies, and almost 80% of private R&D investment comes from companies in developed economies. Furthermore, as technology pushes towards new realms in Artificial Intelligence, ethical considerations become increasingly important yet are rarely incorporated by digital companies.

The goal

There is no doubt that digital inclusion benefits individuals by granting new opportunities to experience and learn. However, used improperly, connectivity can magnify, rather than bridge, existing inequalities. As companies work to bring the world closer together, it is the goal of the Digital Inclusion Benchmark to ensure that their actions will be sustainable and beneficial for everyone.

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