During the UN’s General Assembly this autumn, I had a twitter chat with Chris Fabian from UNICEF Innovate, and Sonia Jorge from A4AI, on the current status of digital inclusion initiatives, thus, this inspired me to write the post as a sort of plaidoyer for the universal and meaningful connectivity, and share with you some thoughts.
If you’re regular on Twitter and you follow the major online conferences and announcements related to the “connect the unconnected”, “leaving no one behind”, and digital cooperation, you’ve noticed in recent months a concept called a “meaningful connectivity“. Initially, meaningful connectivity term was set up by the Alliance for Affordable Internet (A4AI), an initiative by the Web Foundation, and it denotes “a new standard that measures not only if someone has access to the internet, but the quality of connection they have”. This new standard sets up the four dimensions of internet access: regularity of internet use – a dynamics of using the internet every day, the dynamics of using an appropriate device (smartphone, laptop) with enough data (an unlimited broadband connection) and a fast connection (minimum 4G mobile connectivity).
Meaningful connectivity, to me, implies both a technocratic and human-centric approach. We’ve seen that the basic universal connectivity is not enough. We need a new narrative for purposeful human-centric connectivity, with its goal to connect 3.5 billion people not included in this digital revolution. Here, I am discussing the following dynamics we need to consider that would influence the connectivity, access to tools, skills, and improved livelihoods.
Beyond the access: content and digital skills
There is more than connectivity that takes to bridge the digital divide. As an internet scholar and practitioner, I observe and analyze the present ICT dynamics. Currently, there are 3 levels of the digital divide, level one reflects connectivity, level two in digital literacy and skills, and the third level of the digital divide implies life benefits and opportunities gained from internet access and obtained digital skills.
You are probably familiar with the work of the UN’s High-level panel for the Digital Cooperation, and last year they published a report called the Age of Interdependence. And in that report, there are two major recommendations for digital inclusion: recommendation 1A- internet access and digitally-enabled devices and recommendation 1B-multi-stakeholders alliances including a platform for digital public goods (DPGs); a synthesis of access and information platform. Since numerous world-wide projects are accomplishing the 1A recommendation, I want to stress the importance of recommendation 1B, and the initiative called Digital public goods (DPGs) that represent digital products, standards, and the software, data, and algorithms that drive them. Examples of these goods exist all around us in the areas of information, education, healthcare, finance, and more.
Both of these two recommendations are undoubtedly relevant, however, the bond that is necessary for improved livelihoods obtained from the access and open-source content is the digital skills component.
Digital skills are human capital in an information age.
Implementing programs on digital skills and strategically tailored content based on local needs is another story that in synergy with techno-connectivity gives results. In order to reach 3 levels of digital inclusion, we need to address level 2: digital skills and focus on the 21-century digital skills, especially for children and youth, teaching them digital network literacy and online safety.
Back in February this year, at the ITU’s launch of DTC’s (Digital Transformation Centers) in Geneva, we all agreed that pure connectivity doesn’t mean anything if it stays just on that level. Digital literacy is a crucial empowering agent in a governmental, economic, and educational setting, as work and personal lives become increasingly technologized. In order to accomplish the “meaningful connectivity” and universal accessibility, along with the deployment of digital content and DPGs, I recommend digital skills training programs on a national level. Making content (DPGs) and digital skills as a part of a meaningful connectivity framework should be on the priority list. This will empower local communities and create a fertile ground for educating the vulnerable and marginalized groups in the society, empowering them with information and knowledge on how to use digital tools efficiently, and interact and produce content in a safe manner. Which brings us to partnerships dynamics.
Innovative cross-sector partnerships
Scaling the solutions for meaningful connectivity will require innovative and cross-sector partnerships that bring together a variety of multi-stakeholder organizations with an interest in standardized connectivity. By deploying early-stage blended finance, seed funds, and implementation of blockchain and incubation services to emerging connectivity business models, public and private partners can work together to bring high-impact, viable ventures to scale. This approach to scaling a connectivity ecosystem for the world’s poorest region requires leadership and collaboration.
The challenges lie in the financing, networking, and regulatory environments as well as deploying and scaling business models that can sustainably provide connectivity to low-income regions. Initiatives like the GIGA project, Digital Public Goods Alliance (DPGA) and the DPGs products (software/content/data etc.), DTCs (Digital Transformation Centers), InfoSpots in rural areas, contribute to recommendations of the High-level panel for Digital Cooperation as we are moving towards an inclusive digital economy and society. Those initiatives and knowledge content platforms can take various configurations: i) information spot websites and apps, ii) National knowledge portals, iii) Open access digital repositories, iv) Open data and open-source libraries, v) Digital literacy skills curricula and training materials, vi) digital transformation centers, viii) Multimedia content both online and offline, etc.
For example, the digital portals on the national level, with open source content and digital skills training programs, could address four critical areas: access, skills, regulations and inclusion, and build the framework for societal empowerment in developing countries. This way, through the direct collaboration of governments, organizations, and private entities, we are including and supplementing the UN’s recommendation 1b to 1a.
Scalability and sustainability: open source solution
Proposed tools for sustainability and scaling for connectivity include pipeline development project preparation, grants, and other concessionary financings, knowledge sharing, and technical assistance via platforms. This will increase the demand and the understanding of the basic connectivity and access to information, and further scale-up to community networks.
Through the open-source software and open learning resources for digital skills, we can address such big groups and communities in the local language, and open source has the potential to reach so many people. By distributing and creating open-source software and open learning resources, there are minimized costs for replication and it empowers people to customize the curricula to suit their local contexts.
Open source is a way of spreading skills, knowledge, and prosperity to society.
One of the solutions for scaling digital literacy would be offering and implementing free online services that require the use of the digital skills we seek here to impart, along with enough help and tutorials, that would address the matter for 75% of cases. For example, you can install NextCloud and LibreOffice online on a server in a protected environment, and LibreOffice can enable an interactive learning playground for digital skills programs. Also, you can install Next Cloud (without LibreOffice) on a Raspberry Pi and run it just with local power and networking.
The open-source strategies have started to come true on the global level. As a recent example, on October 21st 2020, the European Commission approved its new Open Source Software Strategy 2020-2023 of the Commission. This is an important step towards achieving the goals of the overarching Digital Strategy of the Commission and contributing to the Digital Europe programme. In the period to come, we will see how these new open-source strategies, have put those lines into practice globally, and eventually reach a positive impact on the local communities and society on a global scale.
People and networked practice
Finally, I would like to address the human and social aspects which is my favorite.
Digital transformation is technology and people, innovation and disruption – equally.
The human-centric approach to content use and meaningful connectivity implies people and networked practice through connected learning: learning that is socially connected, interest-driven, and oriented towards educational and livelihood opportunity. For example, in the United States, in New Mexico, there is this phenomenon in digital skills practice called, Teeniors. Teeniors are tech-savvy teens and young adults who help older adults learn technology through one-on-one, personal coaching. Whether it’s a smartphone, tablet, or computer – the goal is to empower the elderly, engage with the community (and the world) through technology while providing paid, meaningful jobs to youth in New Mexico. Also, with this practice where Youth is Teaching Tech To Seniors, it fosters generational connections, young adults help seniors to use new electronic devices such as smartphones. And teach them basic digital skills.
Digital engagement and participation represent other relevant dynamics. There is a need for collaboration practices and there is a need for community networks that would benefit from the internet access and digital skills programs, and improve the livelihood. From my previous internet research, the culture of collaboration is missing (even in high-income countries) and we need to find ways to encourage and foster collaboration in a digital sphere. One of our basic human needs is to belong to a group, a community. A sense of belonging positively affect participation and engagement in community engagement and planning efforts. And through engagement, we create literate and knowledge societies, network communities, and make connections and build quality relationships.
For example, the latest report by UNICEF, ITU, UNESCO, and Giga Connect, called “The Digital Transformation of Education: Connecting Schools, Empowering Learners”, provides a methodology and framework for connecting schools to the Internet. The focus is on the human element of connectivity, the type of solutions and content that can empower learners, teachers, and entire communities once connectivity has been established. That synergy of the purposeful content use and the affordable and solid access having in mind the users and their needs and wants, is what represents meaningful connectivity.
And finally, we need regulatory policy frameworks that directly support economic and social inclusion, and specifically content management and digital training. The framework process for policymakers is to define strategies, standards, and milestones towards achieving access and content for meaningful connectivity goals.