Connecting everyone to the web alone won’t bridge the digital divide, technical experts at the Web Summit said this week, citing other invisible hurdles such as high costs, low digital literacy and complicated user interfaces.
The so-called “digital divide” refers to the gap between those who have access to computers and the Internet and those who do not, the latter group representing nearly half of the world’s population, according to the Nations. United.
With many essential services like online education and banking, the coronavirus pandemic has brought new urgency to global efforts to bring the unconnected online by bringing internet coverage to remote or disadvantaged areas.
“(COVID-19) made it clear to us that what was previously considered ‘nice to have’ technology is now a ‘must-have’,” said ‘Gbenga Sesan, executive director of Paradigm Initiative, a pan – African social enterprise working on digital inclusion.
Reaching everyone can be a daunting task.
Even identifying where exactly internet access is needed is not easy in some parts of the globe, said Sophia Farrar, who runs a program that uses satellite images and other data to locate offline schools and schools. connect.
“No one really knows how many schools there are in the world,” Farrar, of the United Nations children’s agency UNICEF, told a panel at Europe’s largest technology conference in Lisbon.
“What we aim to achieve through mapping is even just defining what that basic goal is.”
The increased penetration of mobile has accelerated the process.
The number of active mobile broadband subscriptions worldwide jumped more than 75% to nearly 6 billion, including people with multiple accounts, between 2015 and 2020, according to the International Telecommunications Union.
Only about 450 million people live in areas not covered by mobile broadband, according to telecommunications lobby group GSMA.
But even where there is coverage, more than 3 billion are not online, largely because they lack the tools, skills and money to use it, said Robert Opp, director of the digital technology at the United Nations Development Program (UNDP).
“If you just connect someone to an infrastructure, that doesn’t mean you’re going to have productive use of your Internet connection,” the Thomson Reuters Foundation said in an interview.
Cost is a major obstacle, he noted.
There are only a few developing countries where internet prices are in line with the UN target of less than 2% of national average monthly income, Opp said.
Even in rich countries like Britain or the United States, the poor often cannot afford to buy data, an issue that has sparked calls for price caps and motivated some countries to report the internet. an essential public service during the pandemic.
Others may not have the skills to navigate often complex and jargon-filled websites and applications, Opp added.
The problem has become evident with the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine, as elderly and frail people in countries ranging from Sweden to South Africa report having difficulty reserving their vaccines online.
The lack of digital literacy also exposes people to risks such as misinformation and loss of privacy, Opp said.
While education is key to helping people protect themselves online, it’s also essential to design digital tools that are easier to understand and tailored to the communities they are meant to serve, said Howard Pyle, a digital designer turned entrepreneur. social.
“Most websites and mobile apps are designed for digitally privileged users who already know how to use these tools – typically the most profitable users with whom businesses will be most successful,” Pyle said in an interview with the Web. Summit.
“But that excludes people who have different needs or different abilities, for example, those who are older or lack experience with technology or low-income users who have limitations in terms of the types of devices to which they have access. “
Pyle’s social enterprise, ExperienceFutures, seeks to help businesses and governments make their web services more accessible by reducing jargon and complexity and engaging the communities they try to serve at the design stage.
“Right now there is too much emphasis on creating universal tools and expecting users to learn how to use them,” he said.
“We need to move to a place where the technology is flexible enough that people can understand it according to their capabilities.”