Tackling the digital divide: what does this mean for humanitarian responders?

Source: Tue, 24 Mar 2015 11:49 PM
Photo: Flickr/futureatlas.com - "Mobile phones are enabling African countries to leapfrog generations of communications technology as they spread rapidly"
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At Mobile World Congress 2015 in Barcelona, many sessions were held relating to mobile for development (m4d) and ICT for development (ICT4D), as well as those focussing on the Humanitarian Connectivity Charter. In this blog post John Warnes, Technology Officer at the CDAC Network Secretariat, explores how some of the topics discussed in a session on addressing the digital divide and connecting the next billion could potentially impact future work on communicating with disaster affected communities.

At Mobile World Congress (MWC) this year there were people queuing out the door to attend a session on bridging the digital divide, the gap between those who have access to modern communications technology, and those who don’t. Information on the different sessions, and the speakers, can be found on the GSMA website. Since Mark Zuckerberg’s keynote last year (Imogen Wall wrote a good blog post on this for the CDAC Network) the digital divide has firmly cemented itself square and centre of topics for debate at the MWC. While in previous years, Mobile4Development has not been a key focus, it is now a crucial part of the show and more and more people working in aid and development are attending the congress.

Numerous sessions were themed with connecting the next billion people to the internet and addressing the digital divide. The panels of these sessions were mainly made up of private sector actors, including Mobile Network Operators, many of whom will be looking to these emerging markets, alongside mobile data, to increase overall revenue in the telecoms sector up to 1.7 trillion by 2017. Some predict that telecoms revenue in developed economies will remain flat or decline for the foreseeable future. While some panellists didn’t want come across as focussed on profitability, others made it clear that this was a core and necessary business interest. The aid/development organisations that were there (there weren’t many) found this a particularly narrow perspective for the panels, with one comment from the floor pointing out that session was focused on primarily western business opportunities in these developing economies and that more focus was needed on local entrepreneurs, let any social or development goals to increasing connectivity.

One session explored a Mobile Network Operator (MNO) perspective to increasing connectivity and panellists supported a range of measures that would ease roll-out infrastructure. A GSMA report on Digital Inclusion released in late 2014 acts as evidence for many of the topics discussed at this session, with the report author acting as one of the panellists. Measures included:

  • Tax breaks to encourage further investment and roll-out of infrastructure. In Kenya, following a removal of a tax on handsets, mobile penetration shot from 50% to 70% within the space of a couple of years, as more people could afford to buy mobile phones.
  • Many mentioned power as a critical issue preventing MNOs from enhancing infrastructure roll-out, with energy costs totalling 60% of all operating costs in some cases, and called on governments and utility companies to help address the issue.
  • MNOs called on regulators to use unspent or unallocated Universal Service Funds (tariffs imposed on MNOs to bring a pool of money together that can then be distributed to those who connect rural communities) to help support infrastructure roll-out in rural areas.

Criticism was directed at governments, who operators believed were not making the job of infrastructure investment easier, but in all these were obstacles that could be overcome. Whichever way you look at it, the determination to connect the next billion is not merely a social goal, but a huge business opportunity – a billion new customers for the mobile operators. Over the coming years, these efforts to connect people will be put into practice and millions more will be brought online.

Learning from previous disasters

Recently in the humanitarian sector we have seen some technology companies promise a lot, and this was no different at MWC. Their narrative suggests that there are silver bullets that can solve all of our problems regarding data collection, information dissemination and feedback mechanisms. Even in pockets of the humanitarian sector, some seem to believe that a technology solution – or even just providing connectivity  – will enable communities to communicate with each other and that will tick all accountability boxes. Those staff working specifically within the realms of communicating with communities have a good understanding that a technological solution alone will not bring about the social goals required to really empower communities to have their say over the nature of the aid they receive in a disaster.

This was highlighted in reflections from the response to Typhoon Haiyan, particularly in the CDAC Network Learning Review and an article from Stewart Davies on the ‘digital last mile’. From the article, one community member explained in an interview on giving feedback to humanitarian agencies, “My problem was so complex - I wanted to discuss it face to face with staff and I didn’t know if it would be heard if I texted it.”

Communication channels such as radio, television, printed media, and face to face communication can also play an incredibly important role in information sharing within communities. In some disaster contexts we see mobile penetration rates frequently under 50%, such as in South Sudan where penetration hovering around the mid-twenties, and the preferred and more trusted channels of communication remain older technologies, on top of the fact that mobile networks frequently shut down following disaster.

While the idea of using a broad range of channels for communication was not part of the session which was obviously concerned with mobile, certain less ‘technological’ elements were acknowledged and panellists and audiences put across the importance of digital literacy and local content as enablers for bringing people online and increasing demand for mobile access.

Mobile Network Operators acknowledged that they could do more to educate communities on technology but that really, this responsibility fell upon other actors. While not mentioned in the session, it raises the question as to whether humanitarian actors need to undertake this sort of activity as part of a preparedness programme. In terms of content, the need to take the type of work for example Internews have been doing for a while – by liaising with local journalists and media professionals  - needs to translate across to internet platforms and services.

Partnering for Success

There is, however, plenty for the humanitarian aid community to learn about technology as well, and how it can be used to increase effectiveness of humanitarian response. On the one hand we have the operational models for private technology companies who provide infrastructure, and services atop that infrastructure, that have a completely different modus operandi from humanitarian aid organisations. On the other an important part of technology is looking at trends and planning their services for the future.

There is much scope for greater cooperation between MNOs and the aid and development sector. The MNOs invest a lot in market research and predicting trends in coverage and penetration and this information would be incredibly valuable for humanitarian aid and development organisations looking to communicate with communities in these areas.

To an extent, these issues were covered in the Humanitarianism in the Network Age (HINA) report, but are more important to heed than ever. Where the HINA gave rather general points, it is now important is to actually look at the specifics of the change on a country by country basis to observe how the landscapes are evolving over time and how humanitarian programming in that country is taking this into account. It is not optimal to be reactive and the nature of humanitarian aid needs to shift with economic, social, and cultural development within a country as it happens, and an evolving telecommunications and media landscape is an important part of that.

For example, on a national or sub-national level, if MNOs are rolling out cellular infrastructure to disaster-prone areas, they may see penetration increase dramatically in the space of a few months due to its importance. If this area was never previously connected to the network, there is a lot that could be done to educate citizens about the service’s potential to help them in a humanitarian crisis, for example like this project from the EJC or this academic research project. Online tools that couldn’t have been used before, now suddenly become an option for aid workers.

Thankfully, this message has been heard loud and clear by the different groups and organisations working on this. The ETC as part of their vision ETC2020 critically includes a dedicated workstream around partnership that may provide a forum to address some of these issues. This is supplemented by the Humanitarian Connectivity Charter launched by the GSMA – founded in principles of partnership and coordination – that hopes to bring MNOs fully on board with the goals of the humanitarian sector and increase understanding of the important role they play in a disaster situation. These are both valuables opportunities to build these relationships and capitalise on being able to ‘connect the dots’ to ensure that the strategic plans and direction of each of these different actors is taken into account by the others.

As we move forward, we need to retain a community-centric, rather than technology-centric approach to humanitarian aid. Technology is only a tool to facilitate communication and improve effectiveness of aid, but it will not automatically put communities in the driving seat.

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The CDAC Network is a growing platform of more than 30 humanitarian, media development, social innovation, technology, and telecommunication organisations, dedicated to saving lives and making aid more effective through communication, information exchange and community engagement.

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