The hidden digital divide

The unstoppable global spread of the internet is encouraging, but wider access alone won’t close the data gap.

Data is fast becoming the universal currency that defines personal status and business success. Those with unlimited access to information have a clear economic and social advantage over those for whom it is not readily to hand. For example, people who can go online can access education and the global marketplace more easily. They also have the political knowledge to demand transparency from their government.

When the term digital divide was coined in the 1990s, it simply referred to the growing inequality between people with any type of internet access and those without. On this basis, clear gaps were visible between rich and poor countries, between cities and rural communities.

The rapid penetration of mobile phones with some internet capacity into even the poorest, off-grid regions helped reduce the gap. But the digital divide has evolved to mean much more than whether someone can or cannot get online. It now incorporates wider issues such as the speed and quality of access. In the world’s most advanced mobile markets — namely Japan, South Korea and the United States — those on high-speed fourth generation (4G) networks can consume twice as much data every month as non-4G users.

This means that, however fast developing countries race to catch up, those in front continue to accelerate away. All this raises ethical questions. Some people — including one communications expert we talked to —argue that internet access should be a universal right.

Connectivity — in the form of broadband coverage and speed — has now become a major differentiator between developed and developing nations, continuing to dictate where the power resides.

This comes with a price tag. Improving connectivity requires huge investment in national infrastructure and demands government support. In this respect, a lack of connectivity now underpins, and perpetuates, global inequality.

Access all areas?

Tracking the path of the digital divide is no mean feat.

Twenty years after it was first used, the term still means different things to different people. For some, it’s a simple yes-no answer to the question of whether someone has access to digital technology.

But many argue that it involves other factors such as the types of technologies on offer, for example basic mobile phones, smartphones or laptops. Each device can perform different tasks and works with the internet in different ways. Connectivity also differs, ranging from nonexistent to strong and reliable. It is not just about who is online and who is offline, but about how people use the internet.

To assess what people in different regions can do in reality with each device, we analysed 172 countries — home to 96 per cent of the world’s population — to estimate the number of telecommunication subscriptions, such as a contract for a mobile phone or broadband internet. This is roughly equivalent to how many internet-enabled devices can be found in a given country. Although some people may have more than one subscription for each device, for example, two SIM cards so they can access separate mobile networks via a single phone, it provides a general picture of how many people are connected to the internet.

We also analysed communication capacity, that is, the amount of data each device can process. Combining the two data sets provides an estimate of average internet capacity per person, or how much data each person can exchange through their device in each country at a given point in time. As a final step, we tracked how this capacity changed over time for four sets of countries grouped by their average national income. Countries were classified as lower, lower middle, upper middle and high income based on their gross national income (the total domestic and foreign output of a country’s citizens) per capita.

Explore the digital divide

This interactive visualisation illustrates how the digital divide has evolved.

We used a data set, compiled by Martin Hilbert from the University of California, Davis, in the United States, to measure the number and capacity of mobile and fixed-line internet subscriptions for 172 countries from 1986 until 2013.

In the scatter plot view, use the slider at the top right to show how the divide has changed over time. Using the controls on the right, you can visualise trends and focus on specific regions or the four country groupings based on national income.

The line chart view tracks the change over time for the different country income groups in bandwidth per person for fixed line subscriptions, mobile subscriptions and both subscription types together. Hover over the chart for more information.

Bridges over the divide

Texts reunite refugees

“Looking for missing family or friends? Text 1 to start your search.” So begins a simple text message service that offers Syrian refugees in Iraq, Jordan and Turkey a chance to find their loved ones.

According to UNHCR (the UN Refugee Agency),the growing conflict in Syria has displaced more than four million people. In February 2014, REFUNITE, a non-profit technology organisation supported by Swedish communications firm Ericsson, linked up with mobile operators Asiacell in Iraq, Avea in Turkey and Zain in Jordan to create an online and mobile-enabled platform that sends text messages to displaced people in refugee camps who have signed up to the service.

The message invites them to register their details with the service for free. This information is then added to REFUNITE’s database of around 400,000 refugees and internally displaced people around the world. The service was launched in 2008 to help refugees in Kenya, Somalia, Uganda and what is now South Sudan.

“Such a service would be very helpful for newly internally displaced people from ISIS-controlled areas, as most of their families were displaced in different areas of Syria and Iraq.”

Yazan Khalaf, chairman of the Kawergosk Camp

“It is designed to be very easy to use,” says Abdullah Hassan, media director at Asiacell in Iraq. He says that anyone searching for a missing person can call or send a message to the number 380 free of charge. They will then receive a series of questions via text message to help identify the person they are looking for.

In Iraq, the service is helping the more than 3.2 million people who have been displaced since January 2014.

According to Hassan, around 1,000 users a month sign up to the family tracing service, and Asiacell is working to promote it to the increasing numbers displaced within Iraq due to rising conflict in areas controlled by Islamic State (ISIS).

To increase the service’s reach, Asiacell handed out 10,000 free SIM cards to allow refugees to access their network and hundreds of mobile phones with free SIM cards to refugee camp supervisors, he says. At the same time, UNHCR joined with the UN Office for Project Services last September to give refugees in Iraq 100,000 kits that use solar power to charge mobile phones.

But Roshan Kasem, a refugee Syrian journalist in Kurdistan, northern Iraq, says more work is needed to promote REFUNITE. “Although such a service is essential to refugees in the ongoing conflict, most refugees in Kurdistan know nothing about it,” she says.

Kasem hopes more mobile operators in Iraq will offer REFUNITE, so that every mobile phone user can access the family reconnection service, not just Asiacell customers.

Yazan Khalaf, chairman of the Kawergosk Camp in the governorate of Erbil in Kurdistan, says: “Such a service would be very helpful for newly internally displaced people from ISIS-controlled areas, as most of their families were displaced in different areas of Syria and Iraq.” He adds that he previously knew nothing about the service, backing the case to boost promotion work, perhaps by UN organisations working directly with refugees to spread it through word of mouth.

Another hurdle to accessibility is language.

“The language barrier was a challenge for large numbers of refugees in using the tool, but REFUNITE rolled out the Arabic version in March 2014,” says Hassan of Asiacell. This means the family connect service is now available in seven languages: Amharic, Arabic, English, French, Somali, Sudanese, Arabic and Swahili.

Radio tunes into tech

“If it wasn’t for grass-roots radio, my family wouldn’t know anything about me,” Juvencio García says. Like many young Andean people, the 22-year-old currently works in Acobamba, capital of Huancavelica province in the Andean highlands of Peru, 120 kilometres from his family. They live in a remote village without a residential electricity system. Few of the 100 villagers own a mobile phone.

To let his family know he’s happy and thriving, García regularly sends a text message to the local radio station in Acobamba, which passes them on to another radio station close to his parents’ village. Staff here then repeat the messages over a loudspeaker outside the station for García’s family to hear.

It might sound convoluted, but this creative mix of old and new technologies is the easiest way for many local communities to stay in touch.Although in recent years Andean populations have seen improved access to faster broadband networks and the number of mobile phones has increased, the pace of change in some of the Amazon region has been slow, held back by its remoteness along with social and cultural issues, including discrimination.

When a young woman in the Quechua-speaking village of Huaylillas in northeast Peru went into a complicated labour, her family asked the local radio station to email the nearest district’s medical centre for help. During the hour-and-a-half it took the midwife to reach the village by pickup truck, she continually sent text messages for the radio station to pass on to the village health advisor, telling her what to do.

In Peru, like many other developing countries, radio stations offer various communication technologies, says Carlos Rivadeneyra, former regional coordinator of the World Association of Community Radio Broadcasters. “Each station adopts the different technologies that suit the needs of the community.”

"Communities here experience the opposite of global trends. They rely on mobile phones that only need charging once a week because electricity is limited. So they have to find clever solutions to specific problems."

Juan Fernando Bossio, specialist in communication systems for indigenous communities,

He says that the wider social benefits of grass-roots radio stations are not always taken into account in formal research. “[Radio] strengthens the self-esteem of the population, empowers people, gives them an identity and rewards them,” he says. “The unnamed become protagonists. This is very important in rural areas.”

Leonardo Tello is director of Radio Ucamara, which broadcasts in both Spanish and the indigenous language Kukama from the Amazonian town of Nauta in northeast Peru. He credits the station with making indigenous people more visible as it helped save Kukama from extinction by overcoming people’s reluctance to use it, for fear of discrimination.

“To begin with, elderly people listened to the radio secretly, just to hear their language and, step by step, the shame was broken and people started to greet each other in Kukama when they met at the river,” he explains.

That was three years ago. Now broadcasters and native speakers teach the language over the radio and keep stories and ancestral knowledge alive. All this has strengthened local people’s self-confidence.

But according to Juan Fernando Bossio, a specialist in communication systems for indigenous communities, a person born somewhere in Peru where most people speak an indigenous language is five times less likely to have internet access than someone born where Spanish is the main language.
Yet this yawning gap does not appear in official statistics, Bossio says.

“Communities here experience the opposite of global trends,” he says. “They rely on mobile phones that only need charging once a week because electricity is limited. They don’t search the internet via smartphones, because access is only available via municipal centres and radio stations. So they have to find clever solutions to specific problems.”

Tailored farming tips

Smartphones might make the humble feature phone look more obsolete every day but, globally, more people still use a feature phone than a smartphone. Most live in developing countries where smartphones are simply too expensive. Between October and December 2014, more than 41 million feature phones were sold in India, 65 per cent of all phones sold during the period. Even by the end of 2016, three-in-five mobile handsets are likely to be feature phones.

They may be basic but, for most people, making and receiving calls and texts, taking low-resolution photos and listening to an FM radio station is enough. Most also have primitive satellite tracking. And their limited functions mean the battery lasts for days — a bonus for people living in regions without reliable electricity.

Moreover, in an age in which the line between public and private data is blurred, feature phones may also be more secure. Not because they are harder to hack, but because users don’t have to reveal as much personal information to start using them. An Android phone, for example, requires users to log in with their Google ID to start using the device.

The sheer number of feature phones, though shrinking, provides an opportunity to reduce the digital divide so apparent in India. The government, for example, has developed a mobile platform called mKisan through which agricultural organisations at state and national government level can send text messages to farmers in their preferred language. This is used to share information and advice with farmers according to what and where they farm. Since its inception in 2013, more than 200 million texts have been sent to farmers throughout the country.

Rajasthan in northwest India is probably best known for the vast and remote Thar Desert. Thanks to Soya Samridhi, a mobile application that delivers regular expert advice, female farmers in the state have significantly improved their soya harvests. Through this app, the women learn about relevant techniques, best practice and how to monitor the growth of crops, with all the assistance tailored to their farm.The system also supplies information on prices, offers weather forecasts and predicts harvests. Crucially, Soya Samridhi targets women who farm no more than a hectare,a group that other government schemes generally exclude.

Market bulletins by text

Agriculture is vital to Bangladesh, generating more than a fifth of its gross domestic product. But despite their crucial economic role, farmers remain disadvantaged, and a lack of internet access in rural areas cuts many off from important information that could help their businesses.

Being left offline, they can’t access the latest price lists for the big local markets where their vegetables will be sold. As a result, they have to trust that wholesale traders will offer a fair price for their produce.

But a text messaging system gets around this problem by delivering up-to-date market information on a simple feature mobile phone. This allows farmers to negotiate the best price for their crops.

Healthcare over handsets

A stubborn, overweight taxi driver who was finally persuaded to change his lifelong bad eating habits. And another man who, even without a phone, receives regular medical counselling over his neighbour’s handset.

These are just two examples from the roughly 2,500 people with type 2 diabetes — the most common form — in Santiago, Chile, who have benefited from free medical advice delivered by nurses direct to their mobile phones and landlines as part of a set of mobile health (mHealth) programmes.

In Chile, as across Latin America, diabetes is a rising epidemic, encouraged by poor diets and an increasingly sedentary lifestyle. Nearly 28 percent of people in Chile are obese. In South and Central America, an estimated 24.1 million people — or eight per cent of adults — suffer from diabetes,with Chile top of the list. By 2035, that number is expected to rise by nearly 60 per cent to almost 38.5 million.

At the same time, more than 91 per cent of the population in Chile own a mobile phone, one of the highest penetrations in emerging countries. This is partly because, in 1999, the government required mobile phone operators to switch to the Calling Party Pays system in which the subscriber only pays for calls they make, not those they receive. Mobile phone subscriptions doubled that year.

One benefit was to mHealth initiatives, including the diabetes advice service provided by nurses working at the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile(PUC). This targeted support at health centres in low-income areas and the Calling Party Pays system made it free to users.

The schemes, which were mainly funded by public grants, involved various mobile phone-based interventions. Automated text messages sent once a week were tailored to support each patient’s current objectives, whether to do with healthy eating,exercise or sticking to drug treatment. To make them more friendly, the messages were signed by a character named Catete — a Chilean expression for an annoyingly persistent but lovely person.

Nurses also rang to counsel patients once or twice a month for about ten minutes. Finally,patients received interactive voice response messages asking them to provide health data using their phone keypad, with the system sending warning alerts to staff where necessary.

"Phone calls and messages can’t replace the personal encounters with medical staff, but they are a great complement.”

Claudia Alcayaga, PUC’s School of Nursing

“Compared with those in control groups, patients in the mHealth intervention groups managed to stabilise their metabolic control and show a significant improvement in their healthy eating, buy-in to health controls and predisposition to behavioural changes. They also made fewer calls to the emergency service,” Solange Campos,associate professor at the PUC’s School of Nursing, tells SciDev.Net.

She mainly attributes this success to the way the nurses worded their counselling calls and text messages. Rather than simply telling someone to lose weight or risk heart attack, the approach was designed to be more collaborative, asking questions such as: is your weight a problem for you?, how does this interfere with your daily life?, what would you like to do about it? “This way, they find their own incentive to make healthy change,” Campos says.

The nurses saw how patients begin to understand the link between what they eat and their blood sugar levels, find strategies to replace sugary foods with healthier items, and weigh up the risks and benefits of lifestyle decisions.

“They end up taking control of their diabetes,” says Claudia Alcayaga, another assistant professor at the nursing school. “The phone calls and messages can’t replace the personal encounters with medical staff, but they are a great complement.”

Closing the gap is only the beginning

Our data tells the story of countries racing ahead, countries falling behind, and everything in between. But for people in every country, the value of technology is the power to connect — to missing family, government services, business opportunities and entertainment.

The argument that digital access should be prioritised in a similar way to education and healthcare is gaining momentum as a cornerstone for international development. The UN includes the provision of digital infrastructure in the new Sustainable Development Goals that will span the next 15 years. In the meantime, our individual case stories show the resilience of people working with what they’ve got in an unequal world, but who should be able to expect more.

For these people, access simply means the right to compete on a level playing field. But closing the digital divide is only the beginning. Ever-increasing access comes with a new set of problems: fears over privacy, cybercrime and the power of governments and corporations to abuse citizen’s personal data. As digital access spreads around the world, the debate around its impact is far from over.