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New Project: Making the Web More Effective for Supporting Economic and Social Development

Stéphane Boyera · January 31, 2011

UGB Senegal

Advances in technology have been very seductive for development professionals, and for good reason.  Technological advances have the potential to multiply development efforts in many ways.  Some have proven to be appropriate applications of technology and have been  successful. Others have not.

Nowhere has this been more seductive than in the lure provided by information and communications technologies (ICTs), with the power in theory to connect people who live in information poverty with the information that needed to reduce their poverty level. Yet while the literature regarding the use of ICTs to ameliorate poverty  is full of anecdotal successes, there are few if any dominant themes or activities that are transferable internationally or replicable at close to marginal cost.

In short, the application of ICTs to development has for the most part succeeded in niches, but has not lived up to its promise.  Is this because of unrealistic expectations, or does it result from not understanding the barriers to such realization of those expectations?  The Web Foundation is undertaking a study, funded by the Rockefeller Foundation,  to address this question by examining the issues that affect the take-up of technology for development, understanding their nature, determining what investments might provide a high return to ameliorating the situation and finally, what are the roles and responsibilities of the various actors that operate in the ICT and development spaces.

The study will include users’ experiences accessing the Internet in the developing world, and will focus upon disadvantaged populations in areas of the world where there is a critical mass of such individuals and where there is potential significant return on investment in improving their ability to exploit the resources made available through the Internet and in particular, through the World Wide Web.

The audience for the study consists readers with a range of interests, from those wishing to have a general understanding of the state of technology in development to those in the broader policy community in the developing world and those who have a responsibility to suggest or implement investments to ameliorate such information poverty.  End notes and bibliographic references will be used to provide links to information beyond what is included in the document.

The document will be a compendium of a number of chapters, each written by one or more authors.  Authors will be chosen so as to capture both the knowledge of development practitioners and of people who live in and have worked in developing environments.  An analytical approach will be augmented by vignettes and stories of actual experience.  The document is expected to be about 100-120 pages long, although that may vary and will be ultimately based upon the output of the various authors who are to be chosen.



Access has a number of dimensions.  This structure differentiates issues of access to the Internet and issues of improving ability to use the Internet once some form of access has been achieved.

A critical area for discussion is the current Internet topology, wired and wireless, bandwidth capacities, rates of growth, provider cost considerations and implications for future user prices. To a large extent, the behavior of the telecommunications industry will determine the rate of progress in this area.  Recognizing the significant revenue potential of mobile Internet and mobile Web, carriers will for the most part increase their penetration of such offers.  However, their pricing considerations and their strategy for increasing penetration and coverage may well not correspond to the locations of underserved populations and their ability to pay.  Likewise, handset manufacturers are likely to serve mass markets, and their designs of handsets and their price points may not adequately serve disadvantaged populations directly.

Knowledge is a weapon
Knowledge is a weapon

Effective access is affected by governmental actions and by policy issues.  Effective assurances of privacy of communication and confidentiality of data provide a better basis for Internet use than their absence.  Legal and regulatory policy at the national level affect the ease of entry and the degrees of freedom afforded to the local ICT industry.  These are two areas in which leverage exists, but it may be more useful at this level more for the entire Internet user community than specifically for a disadvantaged subset.

This study hopes to provide a commonly accepted background of the current physical network supporting the Internet, the underlying technologies, cost considerations, current initiatives to ameliorate areas of high cost and limited capacity, and predictions regarding what can be expected in the medium term future.

Ease of Use

Ease of use includes issues such as interface design, accommodation for illiteracy of various kinds, availability of languages and character sets, and attention to challenged groups such as the blind and the deaf.

Using appropriate W3C interface standards clearly assists in helping certain classes of challenged users, and needs to be explored.  However, there are literally tens of millions of Web authors, and expecting even a significant minority of them to shift to using best practices is overly optimistic.  The focus for improvement lies more with challenged users and with significant special technological efforts to help them directly, regardless of how standards compliant are the pages that they choose to view.

Users accessing the Internet and the Web through mobile devices may have more issues in this respect than the users who employ hard-wired computes.  Internet access through mobile networks is spreading quickly than fixed wire internetworking; entry costs are cheaper; and there is a very large and growing collection of consumer devices for such access.  Disadvantaged populations are increasingly going to use mobile devices for initial Internet access due to lower cost and increased convenience.

The behavior of the telecommunications industry will determine the rate of progress in this area also, in particular with regard to character set support, handset features supporting illiterate users, and integration of voice, graphics, icons, and Internet-based services.  Most handsets do not have the flexibility to accommodate Unicode tables, so that language implementation choices are made centrally on the basis of market size and profitability.  Points of moderate leverage exist with both the telecommunications and the mobile handset industries, but do we now know how best to exercise that leverage in terms of working with them?

Application and Content

This is a major topic.  Among other things, it includes a study of what are relevant and cost-effective applications (e.g. online banking), the role of local content and substance, the supply and demand for both local and international content, and the role of “content push”

This section deals with supply factors – the supply of information and uses to which the Web and the Internet can be put.

It’s more difficult to get a handle on the demand side.  There are some measures for the demand for certain services, adoption of Facebook being one of the most visible.  Another indicator, slightly more indirect, is the growth of DNS registrations by country. However, such demand only comes into evidence when the product or service actually exists; demand for nascent services not yet realized is much more difficult to estimate because there is no visible product or service that consumers can relate to.

In the developed countries, content push was the most important factor in the development and growth of the web  — starting with the physics research community but rapidly spreading to many fields.  Why do we not see this in developing countries?  Is it because of lack of content?  Lack of entrepreneurial skills to provide such content locally?  Lack of a business model that can sufficiently reward making such content accessible?

The issues of language and culture are important here.  Why, for example, is Chinese content growing at a very fast rate, whereas Arabic content is growing only slowly?  To what extent has the relative dominance of English content satisfied users of the Internet, and to what extent has it undercut the need and/or demand for content in other languages?  Are the differences that we need to understand geographic, sectoral, governmental or cultural, and what are the interaction effects of these and (perhaps) other dimensions?


The cultural determinants of web use and expansion are strong, but it’s not clear that they are easily modified and therefore don’t provide lever for change.  Yet it is necessary to recognize and understand them in order to assess their impact upon our goals. Issues include societal acceptance of technology, the importance of knowledge and education, openness to outside values, and the role of and opportunities offered by social networks and applications.


The document will conclude with a synthesis and recommendations for progress.

George Sadowsky, a world expert in ICT for development, will be leading this work.  For a project fact sheet, see the project page.

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  1. Anand

    September 17, 2011

    Hello, Stéphane & George, Interesting project. Are you by any chance going to ICTD2012? I am doing my PhD research on social media for development (looking at international aid and development organisations and their usage of social media for engaging the stakeholder in the developing worlds and creating socio-economic development). See the Ning site (will be Facebook page later) I've created on that topic.Looking forward at your research findings!


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