Media and the digital divide

The nature of technology and the media as it relates to the concept of a digital divide is a huge topic and a good deal has been written about this subject.  This article will look at this concept from a social policy perspective with some transgression into the role of community information as an approach to enabling people to both access and effectively use technology.

Some identify the divide as the technological gap that exists between the developed and developing world.  For example, Webopedia defines the digital divide as “a term used to describe the discrepancy between people who have access to and the resources to use new information and communication tools, such as the Internet, and people who do not have the resources and access to the technology.  The term also describes the discrepancy between those who have the skills, knowledge and abilities to use the technologies and those who do not. The digital divide can exist between those living in rural areas and those living in urban areas, between the educated and uneducated, between economic classes, and on a global scale between more and less industrially developed nations”.

This article will argue that the divide has very little to do with digital resources and access but there are far more fundamental problems for why some make use of technology and so do not.  Some of the arguments put forward in this essay are a matter of research in the field of community informatics.

Community informatics (CI), also known as community networking, electronic community networking, community-based technologies or community technology refers to a field of investigation and practice concerned with principles and norms related to information and communication technology (ICT) with a focus on the personal, social, cultural or economic development of, within and by communities. It is formally located as an academic discipline within a variety of academic faculties including Information Science, Information Systems, Computer Science, Planning, Development Studies, and Library Science among others and draws on insights on community development from a range of social sciences disciplines. It is a cross or interdisciplinary approach interested in the utilization of ICTs for different forms of community action, as distinct from pure academic study or research about ICT effects.

These crossovers and some problematic social aspects of the concept of the digital divide can be illustrated by a comment in Thabo Mbeki’s speech at the Information Society and Development Conference in 1996.  He told the delegates “Half of humanity has not yet made a phone call.”  Kofi Annan’s 2000 speech to the Australian Press Club, also noted “Half the world’s population has never made or received a phone call.”  The American writer Clay Shirky, writer, consultant and teacher on the social and economic effects of Internet technologies suggests that the phrase “Half the world has never made a phone call” “or some variation thereof has become an urban legend, a widely believed but unsubstantiated story about the nature of the world. It has appeared countless times over the last decade, in essentially the same form and always without attribution”.  This essay is going to suggest that the digital divide is also a myth, in the sense that the divide is not caused by “the digital” but many other factors.  It will discuss examples of how those that experience the divide, make use of technology to create change, campaign, improve their wellbeing and livelihood.

As part of this debate, some have argued that lack of access to digital technologies is one of the major problems that create a divide.  But access itself is a complicated issue.  Much can be spent on infrastructure, equipment and such access centres as telecentres, but it is only recently that the more pressing issue of language has been addressed.  For example n 2009, the BBC noted that

“The internet regulator has approved plans to allow non-Latin-script web addresses, in a move that is set to transform the online world.

The board of Icon voted at its annual meeting in Seoul to allow domain names in Arabic, Chinese and other scripts. More than half of the 1.6 billion people who use the internet speak languages with non-Latin scripts.   It is being described as the biggest change to the way the internet works since it was created 40 years ago”.


This is just one example of where the equipment has come before the needs and ability of the majority of people to make use of it.

An early approach to addressing the human element in technology and the media was and is freenets (USA) or community networks as they were initially called.  One of the early starters in the UK is CWN Coventry & Warwickshire Network. The facts page of the network makes a couple of interesting points.

1)     CWN began life as the Coventry Community Network in May 1995.

2)     CWN has been a ‘technology leader’ since it started. We had one of the first public ‘webcams’ in Britain; we were the first to use ‘streaming’ audio and video to promote Coventry and Warwickshire; we carried out the first local radio and Internet ‘simulcast’ broadcasting Kix96 around the world.

3)     CWN is nationally recognised as one of the only independent local news services on the web not to have to originate from an existing press or media company.

The role of community networks such as this in a global context has been to enable people’s involvement, in the design and production of community content.  Some would argue however that although based in the local community, such networks also should have Core Service/ information including a business model and some of the following:

Area based information e.g. population information, crime statistics

Co-operative purchasing

Informal discussion on council decisions

Online entertainment area – aimed at young people

Distance learning programmes

Events listings

“For sale” notices

Job offered and wanted

Local history database

Local Exchange and Trading Scheme groups

Local newspaper – with community journalists

Web pages and lists of local organisations and clubs

Online shopping precincts

Arrangements for local delivery of purchases from local shops

Volunteer centre opportunities

Much of what early day community networks provided has been superseded by the evolution of Web2 social media and the nature of communication via a different type of community of interest such as facebook, beebo,etc.   But thoe experiencing a divide may not make use of these tools and something very different is created in terms of communities of interest.  Recent research even suggests .

“that online social networks do provide genuine emotional support and well-being, including advice, information and companionship. Using an established system of measuring well-being, Pew found that internet users felt it provided significant emotional support for them, particularly through social networks and particularly through Facebook.  Pew also found that Facebook users reported having more close relationships and friendships and of being more trusting of others than non-Facebook users, with heavy users 43% more likely than other internet users to trust other people. What this doesn’t reflect though is the likelihood that more socially engaged and outgoing people are likely to join Facebook in the first place. If you’re suspicious of the internet and social networking, or introvert and not interested in socialising, you’re not likely to be drawn to Facebook”.


In terms of developing countries, community networks still play a role in addressing the real divide which has very little to do with access to digital media.  This can also be seen in the telecentre movement.

This movement evolved out of the electronic village hall and telecottage idea.  Early centres were often the only place to be able to access free technology, before libraries and ICTcentres in the UK.  This movement is still flourishing in Latin  America and the African continent.

Wikipedia defines such telecentres as a “public place where people can access computers, the Internet, and other digital technologies that enable them to gather information, create, learn, and communicate with others.  While each telecentre is different, their common focus is on the use of digital technologies to support community, economic, educational, and social development—reducing isolation, bridging the digital divide, promoting health issues, creating economic opportunities, and reaching out to young people for example”.

In most cases being able to access services has overtaken the original concept of enabling people to have free access to technology.  The sustainability of such centres has been challenging.  The emphasis (as with many development ideas) has turned to focusing on service delivery and availability of people to access services.  The type of services that telecentres provide is also rapidly evolving in many countries.  As the fields of eGovernment, eHealth, e-Learning, eCommerce are evolving and maturing, telecentres are having to buy into the idea that the population should be able to access government services and information through electronic channels. Many telecentres have been encouraged to identifying leaders among the community who will champion the concept of shared services through the telecentre model, thus they argue they play a crucial role as a bridge between the telecentre and often hesitant community.

The involvement of community development and community involvement professionals has enabled an audience to be available after the initial phase of setting up a telecentre.  Starting with the site selection and creating a sort of empathy and feeling of empowerment meant that many of these centres were and are much more than centres for accessing digital media.  In fact a recent debate on the community informatics research list has asked the questions what will the move from telecentre to fibre to the home bring and to what extent is the community meet up function of telecentres taken into account when deciding to close them down?

A recent story by a South African architect involved in a township housing development project raises a few questions as to the evolving role of the telecentre.

Previously, everybody collected water at a communal water tap. A few months after all houses had got their own water taps, it turned out that nobody was using them anymore. The reason: people exchanged local news and gossip at the communal tap, which to them was more important than the luxury of having their own facilities. (Furthermore, most private taps had been sold to make some extra cash). Could a telecentre have a similar role to and what will be the implications of the move to service delivery or closure?   Or will everybody in a village in East Africa or where ever, log in o the virtual village community site or indeed bypass that and create their own facebook page or avatar identity?  Oh course, many have already done this, but there is stil a need for such Telecentres to play an important development role which is wider than just access to technology.   Here are a couple of examples; the first is from Telecentres Africa June 2011.

“…the Rwandan Telecentre Network coordinates 150 telecentres in the country, 90% of which are located in semi-urban and rural areas. Local entrepreneurs operate the centres, which have between five and twenty computers and other equipment such as scanners, printers, televisions, CD ROMs and video players.

There is, however, a lack of relevant content that would be interesting to people living in rural communities. Most of the current users, therefore, are students researching academic topics and business people seeking to establish contact with other companies or promoting their products and services.

Rwandans are already used to using traditional media, such as newspapers and radio to debate national issues. And, as the network of telecentres expands and people develop their skills using the new technology, rural communities will have a greater opportunity to communicate their concerns and help to shape future government policy”.

The emphasis within this African network is service delivery for government.  But where are the local people and especially women in this type of model?   Some might argue that the so called “digital divide” is being closed by such intiatives as the African Telecentre movement and the Global Search for 100 Outstanding Telecentre Women Manager 2011, which is currently being organised by the International Telecommunications Union.  As part of the Telecentre Women: Digital Literacy Campaign and Telecentre.org Foundation.  The main objective of this initiative is to recognize the achievements of grassroots telecentre women managers/operators all over the world and the tremendous positive impact they have generated in the lives of others.

There are however other approaches that appear to get closer to communities and involve communities in the process of bridging a divide.  Some examples of this can be seen in the following initiatives.

Association for Progressive Communications (APC) www.apc.org

APC argue that for those who have access to it, the internet has become an essential part of daily information and communication.  However millions of people do not have affordable, reliable or sufficient connectivity.  APC believes the internet is a global public good. Founded in 1990, they are an international network and non-profit organisation that wants everyone to have access to a free and open internet to improve lives and create a more just world.  The go as far as to say it is a human right.

A couple of examples of their approach to ICT and development can be seen in the crossover between gender equality and ICT.

An example – ICT & Gender

Women of Uganda Network (WOUGNET) is a non-governmental organisation established in May 2000 by several women’s organisations in Uganda to develop women’s use of ICT tools for information sharing and to collectively address issues. WOUGNET’s emphasis is directed towards email and the web, and how these technologies can be integrated with the traditional means of information exchange and dissemination for maximum outreach.

One tool they have used is GEM the Gender Evaluation Methodology.  WOUGNET used GEM to evaluate its website and mailing lists. Specifically, they assessed the relevance of distributed information and the effectiveness of their information services. The GEM evaluation assisted them in identifying information needs of their constituency, and to draw attention to the challenges women and their organisations in Uganda face in making full use of the Internet.


One of the first women’s networks in the region to use email as a strategic dissemination and networking tool was Modemmujer in Mexico. Its mission is to contribute to the empowerment of women and organizations in the feminist movement, focusing on the use of ICT from a gender and social change view.
They also wanted to see how their electronic lists encouraged the subscribers to use ICT tools in order to promote women’s rights.


Communication for Advocacy Plan was the first project with an ICT component implemented by Bulgaria Research Centre. The idea was to use the website as an effective communication tool with young people, especially boys, in campaigns against violence against women. The project was very successful and got excellent feedback not only form young students themselves, but also from teachers and parents.
The specific gender goal was to understand how differences in how boys and girls view the project, as well as in their use of ICTs, particularly the Internet.

What these three examples have in common is an attempt to use technology to deal with the issues that create a societal divide which is relevant to the local community in which a divide exists.  Another example of this can be seen in the use of digital storytelling.

“Digital Storytelling has been an approach used by APC WNSP and APC member Women’sNet, as a process of healing for those who have experienced or witnessed violence. During the Feminist Tech Exchange (see http://ftx.apcwomen.org/) in conjunction with the AWID Forum (see www.awid.org) in Cape Town in 2008, our approach to Digital Storytelling widened to include other stories—stories of being a feminist, stories of being different (women with disabilities, women who are lesbians, women who are queer), stories of balancing feminism and activism and being a woman, stories of the land and of people. All of the stories that have been produced by the storytellers in these workshops were rich in the telling and in the portrayal of their experiences, feelings and thoughts. The stories went beyond being anecdotal. Once put together, the stories came alive in the telling, in the use of the images, in the use of the story teller’s words, in the choice of music, in the use of silence and in locating the story teller within the story. For the audience who have watched these stories, they are affirming for some and challenging for others”.

There appears to be a constant mismatch in the fundamental understanding of why people cannot make effective use and engage with technology in some regions and the approach taken by those that hold power to address what they understand to be a digital divide.

One example is this model that was recently sent to me to comment upon in terms of public financing for high speed broadband – The brief given is as follows:  (Also see the model below) –

“We have provided some examples in each of the discussions to kick things off but bear in mind the context of this consultation is limited to the role that public authorities of EU funds can have in the funding of broadband and high speed infrastructure.

Although the words bottom up appear in the model it is unclear how that will enable people to want to engage with technology or resolve any kind of divide.

Financing for high speed internet
Financing for high speed internet
As already mentioned one of the major debates within this milieu of approaches is “Internet rights are human rights” and the nature of rights based approaches to participation in development.  Approaches of this kind often remain separate from state-led ‘good governance’ reforms. On one side of this divide are initiatives to bolster ‘voice’, encompassing the variety of formal and informal ways that citizens make themselves seen, heard and understood; on the other side stand state-led reforms and in between are some crossovers.

Some recent research by the Development Research Centre explains the rights based approach using participation models of engagement and the possible outcome.

“Citizen Engagement also contributes to the fulfilment of rights, and in the process can help to deepen democracy. The myriad of social, cultural and political struggles in both the North and South – autonomous movements such as those of women, the landless and indigenous peoples – have repeatedly put people on the path from clientelism to meaningful citizenship. By documenting this process, the research highlights the socially and politically transformative nature of rights claims, especially those that include demands for new rights and for participation in decision-making. Where social movements exist that can weave together international discourses on rights with local symbols and values, and where participatory spaces allow citizen groups to demand their entitlements, the state often emerges more capable of protecting and enforcing human rights”.

Citizenship DRC’s research demonstrates how democratisation is a continuous process of struggle and contestation rather than the adoption of a standard institutional design and presents a series of insights into how social movements, civil society organisations and ordinary citizens contribute to this process, in both the North and the South.

In 2010 another DRC research study on ‘Mapping the Outcomes of Citizen Engagement’, Citizenship reviewed the results of 100 original, qualitative case studies in 20 countries, largely in non developed countries.  Using a meta case study approach – increasingly used in other fields, but relatively unique in research on development – the researchers coded over 800 instances where citizen engagement was linked, by a series of observable outcomes, to the processes of development, state-building and democracy-building.

Overall, 75 per cent of these outcomes may be seen as ‘positive’, though many of these beneficial effects remain invisible to donors and funders who look to measure progress on broad targets such as the Millennium Development Goals or economic outputs or connectivity.  In general, the research further supports a study by the Overseas Development Institute that concluded that donor assumptions and expectations on what participation can offer are too great, or at least that there needs to be more effort to establish a middle ground of attitude and behaviour indicators that are a direct outcome of citizen voice and accountability activities.

DRC argues that Citizen Engagement can build people’s knowledge and

awareness, or what might be described as their sense of citizenship; this in turn strengthens the practice of participation as citizens learn their constitutional rights, how to file complaints, and how to organise meetings, among other things.

Over time, citizen alliances and networks often thicken, and these skills are transferred across issues and arenas. Community developers would argue that more effective citizen action in turn can contribute to more responsive states.

So this really is the divide – the digital is a mechanism that could be used to bridge aspects of this divide.  For example search anywhere for information on the digital divide and the kind of response that attracts attention usually takes a particular approach which involves percentages of those having access.  This is just one example –

“The digital divide, like many other economic or social problems, is a global issue.  http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/technology/8568681.stm

From the most switched on countries such as Sweden to the poorest nations in Africa there is a widening gap between those with access to technology and those without.   The gap between countries on the same continent is also getting wider.

According to figures from the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) Sweden has a mere 12% of its population offline compared to 56.5% in Greece.

The most and least connected communities
The most and least connected communities

The scale of a country’s digital divide reflects the condition of its economy, says ITU analyst Vanessa Gray.  “In Sweden there is a population that is highly educated and a culture of trying new things whereas in Greece income levels and educational levels are lower,” she said.  League tables are important to keep nations on their toes, she thinks.

“Being able to compare gives them the incentive to do better. Governments need to know where they stand and learn from other countries,” she says.

Finland, which currently has around 13% of its population offline, is so confident it can solve its digital inclusion problems it has recently declared internet access to be a basic human right. Its public libraries have moved beyond being places where people can gain their first experiences online to offering laptop doctors who trouble-shoot a wide range of technology issues”.

What is interesting about this article that alongside the documentation of numbers is the recognition that this approach of you build it and they will come is not that useful.

The article concludes:

“It could be time for a major rethink on how to deal with the digital divide

When it comes to broadband connectivity, the era of ‘if you build it, they will come’, is rapidly drawing to a close in industrialised countries.

Now we need to begin far more holistic interventions to reach those remaining offline. And if some folks claim to simply not want to be online, that’s their choice – though I view it as akin to pridefully claiming that you don’t read books”.

The digital divide
The digital divide

Despite the complexity, it is possible to have a deeper understanding of the factors that make a difference within the divide.  Whilst research has pointed time and again to the positive contributions that citizen engagement can make, it also has warned of the risk that a citizen-led approach can go wrong.  So of course there needs to be some crossovers between approaches.

An attempt has been made to outline the real issues of the divide and now some thoughts and some recent research will be considered about what really needs to be addressed at policy level.

Agriculture, food and information

One very real and pressing problem is food and food pricing.  The Guardian just before the next G20 meeting in Paris in June 2011 highlights some issues where addressing the divide is imperative.


“Food prices will soar by as much as 30% over the next 10 years, the United Nations and Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development have predicted.

Angel Gurría, secretary-general of the OECD, said that any further increase in global food prices, which have risen by 40% over the past year, will have a “devastating” impact on the world’s poor and is likely to lead to political unrest, famine and starvation. “People are going to be forced either to eat less or find other sources of income.”

The joint UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) and OECD report predicted that the cost of cereals is likely to increase by 20% and the price of meat, particularly chicken, may soar by up to 30%.

World food prices are already at a near-record high as droughts and floods threaten to seriously damage this year’s harvest. The report said the global harvest is in a “critical” condition and warned that prices will continue to rise until depleted stocks are rebuilt.

Global food prices hit a record high in February, prompting demonstrations across the world. The last extreme food price rise in 2008 led to riots in 20 countries across three continents.

Gurría called on world leaders to ban speculators from pushing up food prices. The G20 will meet in Paris next week to thrash out a deal aimed at imposing strict rules on trading in food commodities and policies that distort global food market”.

Agriculture is an area where many people are information poor.  Almost all information in resource poor small holder agriculture communities is generated by the agricultural communities themselves but there is hardly any investment made to collate, aggregate and amalgamate and disseminate the information through public, open and transparent means.

One Indian researcher based in Rome argues that “there is almost a conspiracy by governments to promote asymmetry in information access and use by resource poor agricultural communities across the world and more so in economically developing countries.  Very few in the public and civil society understand that information is a very critical resource for agriculture and food production even among very small farmers who mainly produce only for themselves to feed their families and bring little (which is highly precious to these producers) to the market”.

“Current information models for agriculture, ranging from those contributing to production and to marketing and consumption, especially for resource poor small holder producers who make almost 80 per cent of all farmers and 60-65 per cent of the global poor are extremely weak. Barring a few highlighted pilot projects in providing these poor communities the information they need for their livelihoods, there is a growing vacuum in enabling information access and its effective use in these communities. The public and civil sectors have and are withdrawing from providing information, even when they know that agricultural is ever increasingly becoming knowledge intensive, while governments liberalize domestic trade regimes removing even the most minimal protection especially in procurement of commodities and with it also availability of information to these farmers. With trade liberalization and procurement being shifted through policies from government and public sector to the private sector alongside promoting complex market chains, the stage is being set for a disaster of extreme hunger and poverty especially in rural areas of economically developing countries. The main cause is that the private sector is selective, because of its interests, in providing information to its clients at both ends, producers and consumers and the public sector cannot be bothered and does not care”.

Community Infromatics Research List  – Ajit Maru Agricultural Research Officer GFAR Secretariat, Italy

He argues the potential of new information and communications technologies, not only mobile computing and cell phones but modelling, simulation, GIS based spatial information, knowledge based decision support systems on data based on clouds and using local small devices when used can do a lot to change these information asymmetries. However, hurdles exist in policies, rules, regulations, investment, and capacities etc to reduce them.

Lets hope that Mr Sarkozy and his colleagues in the G20, in spite of all their wisdom and knowledge, begin to understand the reality of the divide and start to include small holder agricultural communities in information policy which may begin to address the approaching devastation that the world’s poor face .

There are numerous reports and research articles outling what could be done.  One such approach to addressing the issues that create a divide is documented by ICT4development.

The aim of this ICT4development network is to contribute to the identification and codification of evidence-based ICT4D policy options and to strengthen advocacy and capacities for policy change to leverage such options.  More specifically, they try to:

1. review current ICT Policy and Poverty eradication strategies with a focus on those policies and strategies that target grass root communities in under-served areas;

2. facilitate/stimulate forums for discussion and awareness campaign targeting decision makers, donors mainly in rural areas;

3. propose policy and regulatory changes that might positively impact the

development and expansion of community-owned networks through partnerships with various stakeholders and a great emphasis on understanding of local context.

What really needs to happen though is for the reality to be addressed in writing in policy and then for action to take place to address a number of divides.

A recent policy initiative with this aim took place on June 10, 2011. The Association for Progressive Technology were able to add the following to the joint statement to the Human Rights Council, meeting in Geneva, commending the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression’s report following the initiative of the Swedish government.   Countries from all regions were in attendance including India, Brazil, South Africa, Chile and New Zealand.

“As governments, we should encourage cooperative efforts by the private sector to promote respect for human rights online. Such efforts can address human rights impacts of action taken by the private sector and can encourage respect for human rights. Yet, while adherence to human rights principles by businesses has become essential to ensure online freedom of expression, it cannot be a substitute for the responsibility of governments to uphold human rights and the rule of law in all Internet and telecommunication policy and regulation.”

One can only say that there is still much to do to address the divide and getting the policy right is just a start.





Blurring the Boundaries

Citizen Action across States and Societies – A Summary of Findings from

A Decade of Collaborative Research on Citizen Engagement

Closing the Digital Divide – Transforming Regional Economies and Communities with Information Technology Edited Stewart Marshall, Wallace Taylor and Xinghuo Yu



http://www.apcwomen.org/en/home – Women’s programme

Community informatics research network –http://www.cirnsearch.net


Ajit Maru Agricultural Research Officer GFAR Secretariat, Italy – His interests from his blog

I have a passionate interest in information and its role in development, especially agriculture. I have now more than 29 years of learning and some experience in the area of information management in agriculture, especially agricultural research. I have been employed in the Indian NARS, major international agricultural research and development agencies and have contributed to activities of several well known agricultural research systems, Institutes and Organizations.

Talking on video http://blip.tv/iaald/ajit-maru-on-icm-at-gfar-521255

And again http://ictkm.cgiar.org/2008/12/08/ajit-maru-explains-knowledge-management-in-cgiar-video/

Other reading

The weightless world – Thriving in the digital age  – Diane Coyle
Capstone books

Community Informatics Enabling Communities with information and communications technologies – Michael Gurnstein – Idea Group Publishing

Conference of civic networks in Spain – Reports

Constant touch a global histoy of the mobile phone  – Jon Agar – Icon Books

Parliament in the age of the internet – Stephen Coleman, John Taylor and Wim van de Donk – Oxford University Press

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