I recently found a very interesting article by Kevin Randall from Fast Company “The Boob-Tube, Not YouTube, Is Transforming the World”. This is a good opportunity to clarify a bit where the Web Foundation stands in that discussion. In few words, the article is about the power and impact of the Web on social and economic development, and how it relates to other medias, TV, mobile, radio…
I believe that there are different angles under which to consider this question.
The easiest one is the concept of ‘bridging the digital divide’. I already developed a bit my view in a previous post “Connectivity == social and economic Development ?” . It is pretty obvious to me that just providing an Internet-connected computer to someone in a rural village might not have a direct positive effect: without addressing the barriers (textual illiteracy, digital illiteracy, languages, etc.), the Web, despite its trillions of resources, has been largely developed so far by westerners for westerners. Locally relevant information and services in Africa, in South-East Asia or in Latin America are largely non-existent. Locally-relevant information is best able to help people, more than Baywatch. In my little experience in this domain, I have the impression that major development agencies have finally shifted their focus and are now looking at services and content more than bridging the digital divide.
The second interesting question in this article is the debate concerning mobile vs. TV vs. radio vs. the Web. We have to refine what the Web is first. We tried to explain that in our ‘Why the Web’ section. It is important to make a distinction between the Web as a global space of linked information, and ‘browsing the Web’, which is using a browser to access information on the Web.
In the above-mentioned article, people are considering ‘browsing the Web’, and more specifically ‘browsing the Web from a computer’. On that topic, I’m convinced that it will take decades, if at all, before Web browsing on a computer will have an impact on development.
On another hand, the potential of the Web as a source of linked information is huge, especially if the Web of linked information can leverage mobile, TV, radio etc. Let’s start with mobile. I have a hard time understanding how we could oppose mobile and the Web. A mobile phone is an incredible device, with an incredible number of options to offer services and information to its owner: SMS, mobile browsing, USSD, voice services etc. One might consider that this is different world, different silos. In my view, it is potentially different channels to interact with Web content. Each of these technologies is far more powerful when coupled to the Web. Few examples from different domains:
- Twitter: the simplicity of SMS and the reach of the Web
- bulk SMS services: an way to develop and deploy SMS and SMS services through the Web at an affordable costs
- Ushahidi: using the Web and mobile for crowdsourced event monitoring
There are many examples that demonstrates how the integration on the Web enhances the capabilities of the original technology. It is the same for voice services (see the post I wrote on VoiceXML and voice for development)
In general, I think that TV, Radio, Mobile are useful to people, and are able to improve their lives, and to help them in their development if these media are able to deliver locally relevant information. This obviously explains for instance the development of community radio, and, to a smaller extend, community TV. However, it is a challenge to gather, and make available these information and services. This is where the Web has a pivotal role to play:
- It is a huge source of existing information
- It is a way to connect people, e.g. those with needs with those with expertise
- It is a technology that makes it easy and cheap for anyone to author and deploy content and services
In summary, I’m not sure this debate on which media rules is really useful. I’m sure there is agreement on the fact that information has the power to improve people lives in rural areas and in underprivileged communities. What is good is what’s available and accessible to people today (e.g. SMS might be available but not accessible for illiterate people). Sometimes it is radio, sometimes it is TV, sometimes SMS, sometimes Voice services, sometimes mobile Web browsing, sometimes a mix of few channels. The point is to empower those who have information, or who understand what would be useful for their family/community/district/country for them to be able to author and deploy content services on the most appropriate channel(s).
I think here again the power and the simplicity of the Web, its ability to enable people to become authors is obvious. One of our major focuses at the Web Foundation is now to make it easier for people to couple the power of the Web and the different delivery channels (more specifically in our programs: mobile, voice, radio). Make it easier means, making people:
- Being aware of the opportunity
- Having the expertise
- Using simple tools
- Witnessing shining examples that demonstrate the power of mixing the Web with traditional media