ITU, Measuring the Information Society 2010: the digital divide is not narrowing

The International Telecommunication Union has issued their yearly report on the measurement of the Information Society, e-Readiness and/or the Digital Divide: Measuring the Information Society 2010.

The report provides new and up-to-date calculations of the ICT Development Index, which are then used to back the statement that The digital divide is shrinking slightly. The problem is that, in my opinion, the digital divide is widening. How is it so?

Four years ago I already had this same sort of reflection then concerning the World Telecommunication/ICT Development Report 2006. The ITU’s calculations were then technically right, and nevertheless my disagreement was twofold. On the one hand, I thought that not only euclidean distances but the absolute values themselves of telephone penetration should also to be taken into account; on the other hand, the ITU just did not took into account broadband to define the digital divide, an (in my opinion) unforgivable omission.

This year the problem comes over again. The report repeatedly states that the digital divide is shrinking. To be able to do so, the ITU creates four groups (high, upper, middle, low) in which economies are aggregated; averages are calculated et, voilà, the digital divide is shrinking. But we know the problem with averages: (1) I’ve got two apples, you’ve got none, on average we’ve got one each; (2) my left foot stands in frozen water, my right one in boiling water and, on average, I’m pretty comfortable, thank you very much.

Let us look instead at what has happened at the disaggregate level. And to do so, let us build a hypothetical model where, in the last year (from 2007 to 2008) every economy would have reduced by a half the distance they had in the previous year with the leader. That is:

IDIey = IDIey-1 + 1/2(IDIly-1 – IDIey-1)

Where e is a specific economy, l is the leading economy (the economy with a highest IDI value), and y is the year. If we plotted the IDI values for year 2007 against these hypothetical values for year 2008, the result is:

Graphic: Hypothetical evolution of the ICT Development Index
Source: ITU (2010). Measuring the Information Society 2010
for year 2007 values (year 2008 are made up).

If all blue dots stayed just on the red line, nothing would have happened. As the lesser digitally developed countries are far from it — while the higher digitally developed ones are closer to it — it means that their IDI values for this year are higher than in the previous one, and they are higher the more distant they initially were in relationship with the leader, whose IDI value has remained constant. This is what a shrinking digital divide would look like.

Let us look now at what has happened between 2002 and 2007 and 2007 and 2008, which is how data is provided in the two last Measuring the Information Society reports:

As can be easily seen, the evolution of the IDI during the 2002-2008 is just the opposite to what we should be expecting was the digital divide really shrinking. Instead, we see that the economies with higher IDI values (i.e. more digitally developed) increased their IDI values during that period much more than the countries with lower values. Yes, all economies achieved higher degrees of digital development as measured by the ICT Development Index, but the richer, the more development achieved, not the other way round, thus increasing the digital divide, not shrinking it.

My calculations could be wrong and my approach could be plain wrong, but aggregates usually are worst approaches than disaggregates. Besides, people wants to hear bad news (the digital divide is shrinking) rather than listening to wet blankets. The problem is that if we do believe the divide is shrinking then we can shift our attention and resources elsewhere, thus worsening a situation that was even worse than admitted.

Update 20100301

Giacomo Zanello suggests in the comments to analyze whether the distance of a specific country with the leader has either increased or decreased. That is, to calculate this (I slightly modify his proposal to adjust it to the nomenclature already used and to produce mostly positive values):

Δ IDI_distance_to_leaderey = |IDIly – IDIey| – |IDIly-1 – IDIey-1|

The results are even more clear than the ones I had already used. By using Zanello’s exercise, we do see that the distance to the leader in tems of IDI values increases the less digitally developed countries are. In other words: lesser digitally developed countries are increasingly far from higher digitally developed countries, hence the digital divide is increasing, and it increases more the worst you are.

Thank you so much for the tip, Giacomo!

More Information

ITU’s new ICT Development Index

The International Telecommunication Union has published their new ICT Development Index, measuring 11 Information and Communication Technologies indicators for 154 countries, and calculating its value for 2002 and 2007, so that comparisons can be made available.

The ICT Development Index (IDI) is a merger of two previous indices: the Digital Opportunity Index and the ICT Opportunity Index. From the DOI it takes indicators related to households and broadband and the methodology and presentation, while from the ICT-OI it takes indicators related to skills, the normalization method and the digital divide analysis and methodology.

This merger responds to the proposal — and need — of the ITU and other international agencies to concentrate all efforts in just one multi-purpose measuring device, instead of having several complementing indices fostered by different organizations. So we should congratulate all agencies contributing to making this possible for that effort.

But. While some consensus has been reached, the cost of is that the new index has evolved towards a lowest common denominator. In our opinion, losing the information that affordability brought to i.e. the DAI is a loss of shades that were of most utility. This way, the new index is more polarized and is mainly intensive in infrastructures and just shyly on usage and skills, leaving a big void in all other aspects of digital life: the ICT sector, digital skills (the new index uses but proxies) or the legal framework.

On the other hand, the most interesting thing to highlight from this index is that, unlike most other indices, the coefficients of the weigths assigned to each indicator and subindex are calculated statistically, using principal components analysis. Undoubtedly, this provides much legitimacy to the final index values, at least at the formal level.

To clarify the evolution within the UN Sytem of how ICTs have been measured we have prepared the following scheme:

More brief information related to these indices can bee accessed in the following links:

More information

Note: I want to thank Ivan Vallejo from the ITU for his quick and effective answer to my requirement. ¡Gracias!

About Me

    I am Ismael Peña-López.

    I am professor at the School of Law and Political Science of the Open University of Catalonia, and researcher at the Internet Interdisciplinary Institute and the eLearn Center of that university. Since november 2013 I am on a partial leave to join Open Evidence as a senior researcher and analyst. I am also the director of the Open Innovation project at Fundació Jaume Bofill.