I just went over two different articles (The land of ‘no service’ and With Cable, Laying a Basis for Growth in Africa) in the New York Time explaining in lenght how connectivity is triggering social and economic development in Africa. Connectivity and bandwidth are surely much needed, and, for some businesses, for universities and research activities, this is clearly a bottleneck. But i’m wondering if connectivity really brings social and economic development? Is it a direct consequence ?
I’m not so sure. Obviously, i strongly believe in the power of ICT in Development, and i’m convinced that ICT can solve societal challenges and improve lives of millions of people. Obviously again, no connectivity means no ICT service. This is clearly an enabling factor. But, in my mind, ICT is not connectivity, it is content and services to people.
During the the last two decades or so, the leitmotiv on the international development agenda was: “bridging the digital divide”. I doubt that the arrival of the Web in a village has suddenly generated more income to the community. But a service allowing farmers to check that middlemen are buying their goods at a fair price is increasing their income. Receiving an alert of a risk of tsunami is also saving lives. So it is not about bridging the digital divide, but using ICT to bridge divides existing in access to education, healtcare, public services,… and this is all about content.
So where are we ? is it time to focus on connectivity to enable ICT services ? or is it time to focus on content now ? Imho, This should be not a ‘or’ but a ‘and’. Obviously, greater bandwidth, more powerful devices would enable more advanced applications, the use of video, and multimedia content and so on. So it is critical to continue in that direction, so that anybody in the World could enjoy the same quality of services. But we should not wait further before also launching initiatives on content. The critical masse is already assembled.
Indeed, the penetration rate of mobile phones is now over 28% is Africa (See ITU ICT Development Index 2009). 28% of the population has now a minimal computing power to access some kind of ICT services (at least SMS and Voice content, in many cases, even Mobile Web content). The number of stories that demonstrate how simple services are dramatically improving the lives of the people having access to them is impressive (see a list of stories). But, while impressive, this number compared to the potential (i.e. the 28%), is just a drop in the ocean.
Which international organization is focusing on content, and trying to launch appropriate actions to empower people and enable them to develop and deploy more of those services and content for their communities or their countries ? There are many organizations working on the connectivity. There are also many organizations focusing on enabling entrepreneurs from the business side. But i don’t know anybody yet focusing on technically empowering people on the content side, and focusing on providing expertise and tools for them to develop more valuable and useful content and applications.
This analysis led us to define one of the major focus of the Web foundation. With our program Web in Society, we are aiming at filling this gap, and focusing on lowering the barrier to allow all people to access and use content and services on the Web in general, and on mobile in particular, and investing in actions that can enable and empower people, for them to create valuable content for their communities.