Liveblogging PPDD17: Introduction to the Current Status of the Digital Divide Around the World | MIT Center for Civic Media

Liveblogging PPDD17: Introduction to the Current Status of the Digital Divide Around the World

I'm in San Diego at the Partnership for Progress on the Digital Divide (PPDD) 2017 conference. PPDD engages a broad diversity of individuals and organizations to spearhead a multi-associational, multi-disciplinary partnership among scholars, practitioners, and policymakers to make significant contributions in closing the digital divide and addressing the many other challenges and opportunities presented by the digital age. I'll be here speaking about some of my ongoing research on Mapping Information Access and liveblogging the other panels as I can.

This liveblog represents a best-efforts account, not a direct transcript, of the lecture, presentation, and/or panel.

PPDD 2017 kicks off with a welcome and introductory summary of digital divide issues around the world. Our panelists are:

  • Chair: Karen Mossberger, Arizona State University
  • Europe: Grant Blank, University of Oxford and Oxford Internet Institute
  • Africa: Bill Tucker, University of the Western Cape and Bridging Application and Network Gaps
  • Asia the Pacific, and the Middle East: Ellie Rennie, RMIT University
  • Canada: Anabel Quan-Haase, University of Western Ontario
  • United States: Rafi M. Goldberg, U.S. Department of Commerce, National Telecommunications and Information Administration, Office of Policy Analysis and Development
  • Latin America and the Caribbean:Laura Robinson, Santa Clara University

Karen Mossberger welcomes attendees and thanks organizers. She frames PPDD as a gathering of people who care about digital inclusion and seek to empower individuals from all walks of life with the infrastructure of the digital age, and an opportunity for academics, practicioners, and policymakers to work together towards these ends. After recognizing our local sponsors, she turns it over to our panelists to talk about inititives in their regions of the world.

Grant Blank offers to canvass 30 countries in five minutes ("must like most American tours through Europe"). He outlines 'gradients' of Internet connectivity and access across Europe. The big divide he delineates is between urban and rural areas: the former being well-connected both with fiber and and wireless access, and the latter less connected, less wealthy, and less educated. One challenge in this area is that certain countries (e.g. the Scandinavian countries) have very good public data on connectivity, but other nations, particularly to Europe's south and east, do not have good public data on Internet connectivity, which makes it hard to study. However, the best available data suggest that in south/east Europe Internet adoption rates lag significantly, in some cases with only half of the population connected to the web. Grant links these lower rates to the economic challenges of these countries as both cause and consequence. Grant concludes by arguing that that the Internet has served to perpetuate and strengthen, rather than amelioerate, existing socioeconomic divides across Europe.

Bill Tucker, who was unable to attend, has submitted a video of his introduction, but it's hard to hear in the conference room. I'll see if I can get a copy of the video to embed in this post.

Ellie Rennie begins by discussing Australia's relatively high inclusion index, which (strangely, to me and I infer to her) does not include indigenous peoples, who are her primary research subjects. She describes a government-funded initiative to test whether free Internet, loaned devices, and culturally-appropriate advising could help more indigenous peoples participate in online education. The results of this initiative were very strong (i.e., many of the students completed certificates and/or further education), but complicated. For example, cultural norms around sharing meant that students would sometimes have their devices/data dominated by family members for entertainment purposes before they could complete educational requirements. Ellie describes online educational equity as a "monumental task" that will require not only more funding but more careful attention to the social webs in which students are embedded. She then summarizes cases of access in Malaysia and new initiatives by Dubai to become a blockchain-based city.

Anabel Quan-Haase begins by discussing some of the opportunities and challenges for Canada, which is the world's second largest country in terms of area but relatively small in terms of population, with a population disproprotionately distributed across the southern border with America. Canadian cities also have large migrant populations (half of Toronto's population was born outside of Canada). So Canada's challenges regarding the digital divide range across almost all possible aspects of the problem. She shares data from Canada that, like data in other regions, shows that age, gender, region, and income all predict Internet access and usage. One interesting phenomenon, however, is that immigration status doesn't: in fact, migrants use the Internet, particularly social media, as much or more than native-born Canadians. She concludes with a call for more grounded research in the actual needs and capabilities of (under)connected Canadians.

Rafi Goldberg begins by introducing the "mouthful" of the agency he works on and some of the data they capture. In 2015, 75% of Americans report having an Internet connection, and most have at least 2 devices. However, a "huge" digital divide remains, delineated, as in so many other cases, by education, income, and geography. The age gap is reducing, but this seems to be due to prior adopters becoming older, not older people becoming adopters. He concludes his short summary by identifying similarities and differences between what he's said about the USA and what others have said about the regions and what can be learned from there.

Laura Robinson begins by noting that, at PPDD17, many of the people in the room helped produce a volume of research on digital divide in Latin America and the Caribbean. At the time, they saw incredible variation across the regions of Central and South America, from 10% connectivity in Haiti to 61% in Chile. Latin America now represents 10% of the world's Internet connectivity, and slightly leads the global internet average for regional connectivity. She concludes by summarizing what we know and what we still need to learn.

Karen returns to the microphone to conclude our rapid tour around the world and tell us to go to lunch before the 1PM Plenary on Gaps in Digital Divide Understanding and Research.