Why we need to address the digital divide if we want to foster more democratic societies
Kenyan researcher and analyst Nanjira Sambuli, currently Senior Policy Manager at the World Wide Web Foundation, advocates for equal access to the Web, and is also an advocate for women's causes. At the Grand Barouf Numérique (20 & 21st of March, Lille) she will talk about the topic of access.
In her session “Access to the Internet as a public good and fundamental right” (Thursday, March 21, 15:15 - 15:30, French translation available) Nanjira Sambuli will share her vision of the future of the internet and demonstrate the importance of viewing the internet as an essential infrastructure and talk about issues of political, democratic, social and economic development as well as human rights, particularly for women and southern communities. We talked with her about digital inequality and the role internet access and inclusion have to play in shaping and iterating digital tools and services, and ultimately democracy itself.
What is digital equality and why is it important? What needs to change?
Simply put, it’s about everyone, anywhere, regardless of their standing in life, having universal, unconditional and affordable access to the digital technologies (especially the internet) influencing how we navigate the world today, and more than that, being able to contribute to their development.
We currently have an unequal situation where technologies are created by a few stakeholders in society, for the benefit (or harm!) of many who hardly get to input. We have half of the world’s population currently without access to the internet, for instance, a majority of whom are women and girls, and in the global South. The rate at which people are getting connected is slowing down dramatically. And even among the connected, there are new divides (and inequalities) emerging- the web, for instance, is still a very difficult space for persons with disabilities to navigate, something that, for instance, is a result of able-bodied people gaining prominence as the creators of tools, while not readily ‘seeing’ those who may not have the same abilities as well.
A lot has to change (at individual and institutional levels alike) about how we build, create, organise and decide how technologies work in our world, for us to achieve digital equality.
With Le Lab Ouishare x Chronos we’re looking at the 5 million residents living in economically disadvantaged neighbourhoods in France who are often left out in conversations about the digital or the design of digital services. Is there a digital divide in how different socioeconomic groups use digital tools?
The digital divides manifesting today- between the connected and unconnected, and even in the different experiences of the connected - are a mirror to society and how ‘analog’ systems work. Digital tools and services are not emerging from a vacuum; they’re directly influenced by the experiences and worldviews of the creators, who tend to be more privileged! And that is why digital divides will be noted in France or the US, much in the same way they would in Kenya or India. These divides present an opportunity to go back to the drawing board and bake consultative processes into the design and deployment of digital services. A good starting point is actually assessing how communities are represented, and how they are consulted by their representatives (especially in government/public service provision). Inclusion is a principle that still needs to be socialised in tech startups and governments alike, as a requisite for shaping and iterating digital tools and services, much as with ‘analog’ ones, eg democracy itself! This is particularly important for the people who have been left behind in this ‘digital revolution’ - their ultimate inclusion and participation in the digital world is pegged on how they are consulted, in turn becoming visible in policy and economic planning.
The Grand Barouf highlights controversies by imagining the future of public policies. Can you give some examples of effective public policies to make the world wide web a more inclusive space?
In my work, we summarise policy recommendations as REACT. That is, Rights, Education, (affordable) Access, (relevant) Content and Targets (government policies and regulations). Each of these elements requires a lot of work on its own, and they’re also interlinked.
Innovation, entrepreneurship and public policy are part of what should ideally be a virtuous circle; however, with digital technologies, they tend to be even more siloed. We have situations where those in policy making spaces pay lip service to innovation and entrepreneurship, but when it comes to doing the work to enable them, that stalls. Ensuring that there’s universal, unconditional, affordable access to the internet is a prerequisite for digital innovation but the reality today is, that the rate at which people are getting online, especially in the global South, is slowing down dramatically, because policymakers haven’t walked the talk. There are so many good ideas in the techpreneurship space that too often go to die, because the enabling ecosystem was wanting.
What is the role of digital service providers with regards to end-users? If there is a gap between those users and the services, what’s the best way to bridge it?
Consultation, consultation, consultation. Digital service providers must disabuse themselves of notions like ‘build it (for end users) and they will come’, or ‘move fast and break things’, or that because their service worked well in one area, it’s bound to work the same elsewhere. There’s humility that is required across the board, that communities know what’s best for them, and we can’t defer consultation to only when there have been harms!
To what extent can digital technologies be empowering?
So many reasons to remain hopeful about the potential and power of digital technologies! Some examples: we have seen use of social media platforms challenge the patriarchal systems in our world today- where women, LGBTQI+ communities eg, have not only raised awareness about their lived experiences, but educated people about their realities, organise, form new communities transcending borders and more.
We continue to see/hear amazing stories of opportunities unlocked by people, not just as entrepreneurs, but through referral networks (filling in existing gaps in traditional systems) matching people to job opportunities. In Kenya, this is manifested in a really cool Twitter hashtag called #IkoKaziKE, through which hundreds of people have shared about their search for jobs/employees, and also come back to it to share the successes.
Digital technologies have done so much good for this world, but it’s important that in celebrating the good, we keep in mind that there are very serious harms as well and not get carried away with thinking it’s all rosy...it’s about a nuanced recapitulation of what’s happening in this domain.