Nov 13 2008

Guest Lecture: Digital Divide 2.0, The Myth of Leapfrogging, and Grassroots Innovations

by at 1:34 pm

Here is a presentation I will use for my guest lecture tomorrow in the Information Technology (IT) in a Changing World course at Georgetown University.

You can download the presentation with notes in a PPTX format, or view it online in a PDF format.

SLIDE 1: Global Digital Divide 2.0: Always Off in an Always On World

We can talk about digital divide in many contexts: between countries and within countries, driven by differences in race, gender, education, income and location. In this presentation, I’ll focus on the global digital divide, or the digital divide between countries, but the same ideas are often applicable to digital divides within countries.

SLIDE 2: Introduction

My views on this topic are colored by my own biases. In terms of education and experience, I’m a marketer. In my present role as the GU-ISD Yahoo! Fellow, I’m a quasi-academic. In terms of inclination, I’m a social media enthusiast and my next avatar may be as a social entrepreneur. A lot of the work I’m doing is at the intersection of technology, culture and development and it is informed by my understanding of emerging markets and emerging technologies.

SLIDE 3: Global Digital Divide

Let’s start off by looking at some examples of global digital divide.

SLIDE 4: The Link Between ICTs & GDP

Access to communications technologies is directly linked to the country’s GDP, especially for newer technologies like broadband. The distribution of older technologies like internet and mobile is less skewed, but it’s often a moving target. For instance, high income countries as defined by the World Bank, contribute to 15.7% of the world’s population but 79.9% of the world’s GDP. They also contribute 38.7% of the world’s mobile phone users, 42.7% of the world’s fixed phone users, 55.7% of the world’s internet users and 74% of the world’s broadband users 1.

SLIDE 5: World Map of Computer Penetration

The skewed distribution of technology is true for computers…2

SLIDE 6: World Map of Internet Penetration

internet access…3

SLIDE 7: World Map: Optical Fiber

optical fiber networks…4

SLIDE 8: Cost of Broadband Access

and cost of broadband access5. For instance, the cost of broadband access in Japan is $0.06 per 100 kbps (0.002% of average monthly wage) whereas in Mozambique it’s $361.83 per 100 kbps (1400 times average monthly wage).

SLIDE 9: Cost of Broadband Access

The same disparity exists between high income and low income countries on the whole. The cost of broadband access as a percentage of average monthly per capita income is 2.1% for high-income countries, compared to 909% for low-income countries. 6

SLIDE 10: Cost of ICT Access

The cost of internet and mobile access are less skewed. The cost of internet access as a percentage of average monthly per capita income is 0.9% for high-income countries, compared to 172% for low-income countries. The cost of mobile access as a percentage of average monthly per capita income is 0.7% for high-income countries, compared to 54.9% for low-income countries 7. The relatively flat cost of mobile access is, in fact, one of the main reasons why mobile penetrations have increase so fast in developing countries.

SLIDE 11: Reasons for Differential Technological Achievement

At this stage, it is perhaps useful to step back from ICTs, look at technology in general, and enquire into the reasons for differential technological achievement between countries.

SLIDE 12: Three Types of Technology Transfers

Technology transfer can happen in three ways in developing countries: new-to-market technologies can be invented in the country, technologies invented elsewhere can be adapted by the country, and technologies adapted by parts of the country can diffuse to the rest of the country8.

SLIDE 13: Technology Adaption vs. Diffusion

The good news is that the rate at which technology is adapted by emerging countries has increased: on average, the time it takes before official statistics in a developing country record significant exploitation of a new technology has declined from almost 100 years for innovations discovered in the 1800s to about 20 years for innovations discovered in the late 1900s.

The bad news is that emerging countries fair poorly on both invention and diffusion: even for technologies discovered during 1975–2000, only one third of the developing countries that have achieved at least a 5% penetration level have gone on to reach the 25% threshold and less than 10% have reached a 50% penetration level9.

SLIDE 14: Technological Achievement Index

As a result, even though the rapid progress in developing countries has led to relative convergence, the gap between high income and low income countries remains large.

In general, the level of technological achievement observed in a country is positively correlated with income levels. However, considerable variation is apparent within income groups.

Interestingly, the penetration rates of newer technologies such as mobile phones, computers, and the Internet (many of which are provided by corporations operating in competitive markets) are more directly correlated with income than is the case for older technologies such as fixed-line telephones, electrical power, transportation, and health care services (many of which were originally provided by governments)10.

SLIDE 15: What is Digital Divide 2.0?

As we discussed before, the digital divide will exist as long as income inequities exist. Over time, however, the shape of the digital divide has shifted.

SLIDE 16: The 4 Cs of Digital Divide 2.0

The 4 Cs of Digital Divide 2.0 include computing devices, connectivity, content, and capabilities.

In academic discussions on digital divide, two broad groups can be identified. The Digital Binary group has focused on access (computing devices and connectivity) whereas the Digital Inequality group has looked a broader definition of the digital divide that includes applications (content and capabilities) apart from access11 12.

The difficulties in bridging the digital divide often increase as we move from computing devices and connectivity to content and capabilities.

SLIDE 17: Digital Divide 2.0

As we move from internet and mobile to broadband, 3G and next generation networks on the access side and from SMS and e-mail to web 2.0, mobile 2.0 and the semantic web on the application side, it is difficult to not notice that digital equality is a moving target. As the gap on older technologies narrows down, new gaps on new technologies open up. The global digital divide, in fact, is widening, instead of narrowing.

Specifically, even as the ubiquitous use of mobile phones bridges the digital divide between the developed and developed countries, another digital divide — digital divide 2.0 — is opening up between them. Digital divide 2.0 is not about access to communications devices; it’s about the ability to leverage the power of group-forming social communications technologies to collaborate with others, self-organize into grassroots communities and create crowd-sourced content that is relevant for these communities.

SLIDE 18: The Promise/ Myth of Leapfrogging

Leapfrogging is the idea that poor countries can skip over stages in technology adoption (especially large-scale, industrial, infrastructure-heavy technologies) and directly adopt newer, better technologies (especially light-weight, distributed, ecologically sustainable digital technologies).

SLIDE 19: The Promise of Leapfrogging

The classic example of leapfrogging is the ubiquitous adoption of mobile phones in the developing world. The idea that access to mobile phones will transform the world has become popular not only in the academic and development circles, but also in mass media and popular culture.

Consider this ad film from Indian mobile operator Idea Cellular that promises education for all through mobile phones13

SLIDE 20: The Economic Value of Mobile

This idea is widely supported by research.

In 2005, research conducted by Leonard Waverman of London Business School showed that a developing country which had an average of 10 more mobile phones per 100 population between 1996 and 2003 would have enjoyed per capita GDP growth that was 0.59% higher than an otherwise identical country14.

In 2006, McKinsey & Co. found that the mobile industry contributes as much as 8% to the GDP of some countries, after factoring in direct impact from operators, indirect impact from other industry participants and the surplus created for enterprise and retail users15.

In fact, the very nature of mobile technology makes it an especially good leapfrogger: it works using radio, so there is no need to rely on physical infrastructure such as roads and phone wires; base-stations can be powered using their own generators in places where there is no electrical grid; and you do not have to be literate to use a phone, which is handy if your country’s education system is in a mess. Unfortunately, the mobile phone turns out to be rather unusual and the widespread diffusion of most digital technologies is dependent on the existence of a solid social, economic and industrial infrastructure16.

SLIDE 21: The Myth of Leapfrogging

Unfortunately, the mobile phone turns out to be rather unusual and the widespread diffusion of most digital technologies is dependent on the existence of a solid social, economic and industrial infrastructure.

Broadly, two sets of obstacles stand in the way of technological progress in emerging economies. The first is their technological inheritance. Most advances are based on the labors of previous generations: you need electricity to run computers and mobile phone networks. The second is the country’s capacity to absorb technology: which is dependent on education, R&D, financial systems, rule of law, business climate and good governance.

SLIDE 22: Mobile Interface for Illiterate Users

Even in the case of mobile phones, owning one is not the same as knowing how to use one.

In a long term qualitative research led by Jan Chipchase, the Nokia Research team found that non-literate mobile phone users typically know how to turn on the phone, receive calls and make local calls, but often struggle with features that require text editing, such as making long distance calls (by using prefixes), creating a contact, saving a text message, and creating a text message. Based on the research, they concluded that bringing personal, convenient, synchronous and asynchronous communication within the reach of textually non-literate users will require design innovations at three levels: on the phone; in the communications eco-system; and on the carrier network17.

SLIDE 23: Telecom Usage at the BOP

Similarly, in a large-scale quantitative research conducted in 2006, LIRNEasia found that most mobile users at the bottom of the pyramid felt that the phone improved their ability to learn and earn.

Still, most users only knew how to perform the most basic tasks on their phones. For instance, only 35% of the respondents in India had used SMS, because of low literacy and the absence of any social need to use it. 72% of the respondents in India hadn’t even heard of the internet18.

SLIDE 24: Telecom Usage at the BOP

Let’s look at these two videos to get a flavor of telecom usage at the bottom of the pyramid 19 20

SLIDE 25: How to Bridge Digital Divide 2.0?

The big question, of course, is: how do we bridge digital divide 2.0?

The good news is that we do know what to do. The bad news is that there are are no shortcuts to bridge the digital divide.

SLIDE 26: Government Policy is Important

Government policy is important, both for building linkages with other countries for technology adaption and for building the country’s absorptive capacity for technology diffusion. Only when these two are in place will the spillover and multiplier effects of communications technologies kick in21.

SLIDE 27: Grassroots Innovations Are Equally Important

…but grassroots innovations are equally important in bridging the digital divide.

Here are a few of my favorite ICT4D grassroots innovations.

SLIDE 28: VNL MicroTelecom (India)

VNL’s WorldGSM MicroTelecom is a low cost, rugged, solar powered mobile network designed to serve rural populations profitably.

SLIDE 29: Grameen Village Phone (Bangladesh)

The Grameen Foundation gives microloans to help poor rural woman become public phone operators.

SLIDE 30: United Villages (India)

United Villages uses a van fitted with wifi to connect villages to the internet, with a time lag.

SLIDE 31: QuestionBox (India)

QuestionBox uses human mediation to connect illiterate users to the internet.

SLIDE 32: EkGaon CAMS Mobile Framework (India)

EkGaon’s CAMS Mobile Framework is a paper-mobile hybrid document management system for semi-literate users.

SLIDE 33: BabaJob/ Microsoft Research (India)

BabaJob and Microsoft Research have created a text free job search engine.

SLIDE 34: Ushahidi (Kenya)

Ushahidi uses a Google Maps mashup to map crisis information using text messages sent by users.

SLIDE 35: MobiChange (India)

MobiChange, a project I’m evangelizing, hopes to develop a lowest common denominator mobile social networking platform.

SLIDE 36: Discussion

Finally, I’ll leave you with three questions –

– Is the digital divide narrowing or widening?
– Is leapfrogging a myth or reality?
– Is government policy more important, or grassroots innovations?


1 ITU-UNCTAD World Information Society Report, 2007

2 United Nations Global Development Goals Indication

3 Emiel van Wegen based on World Internet Stats data

4 Tata Communications

5 Wired Magazine based on ITU data

6 ITU-UNCTAD World Information Society Report, 2007

7 ITU-UNCTAD World Information Society Report, 2007

8 World Bank Global Economic Prospects, 2008

9 World Bank Global Economic Prospects, 2008

10 World Bank Global Economic Prospects, 2008

11 Technology and Social Inclusion, Mark Warschauer, 2003

12 Eszter Hargittai et al, 2001

13 Idea Celluler Education-for-All Ad

14 McKinsey & Co, 2006

15 Leonard Waverman et al, 2005

16 The Economist, 2008

17 World Bank Global Economic Prospects, 2008

18 Jan Chipchase et al, Nokia Research, 2007

19 Teleuse at the Bottom of the Pyramid, LIRNEasia, 2007

20 LIRNEasia Teleuse at the BOP Film, Part 1

21 LIRNEasia Teleuse at the BOP Film, Part 2

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