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!

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Goverati: An alternative to representative democracy?

Yesterday I spoke at the Jornadas sobre redes y cultura compartida: De la cultura distribuida a la transformación del conocimiento (Conference on networks and shared culture: from distributed culture to the transformation of knowledge).

I had been asked to answer this question: could we, thanks to the Internet, forget about political parties and let people express their own opinions, debate and vote their representatives directly?

An initial answer to the question would be: well, yes, why not? But, should we?

Instead of providing such an answer — or any answer at all — I tried instead to:

  1. explain that some dire (socioeconomic) changes were taking place,
  2. focus on why these socioeconomic changes were taking place and
  3. infer, from this, what conditions shall take place in the future for
  4. another wave of changes to happen.

In other words:

  1. we have shifted from an Industrial Society to an Information Society (and what each concept means),
  2. that this has been because of digitization and Information and Communication Technologies (and other aspects, all of which led to second order factors, etc.) and
  3. that we should really be aware of digital competences, the digital divide and the unbalances of power
  4. for full e-Democracy to happen.

[click here to enlarge]

As can be seen in the presentation, I showed and explained almost 20 cases which I consider either successful or revolutionary or both, cases that have been replicated and will inspire many others.

But I also devoted plenty of time at showing, with real data, that these initiatives are mostly piloted by a tiny minority, my caveat being that we should try and bring more people in — by fighting the aforementioned barriers — instead of keeping on exploring new territories. The reason being that we could find ourselves having replaced a democracy by a digital aristocracy.

I admit that (One of) the bad point(s) in my approach is that it is very economy-focussed, instead of being politics/government based and thus leaving aside many aspects tied to the nature of the subject. On the other hand, I think that the good point is that it makes it easy to go back to the reasons, the whys, and not just the hows. Indeed, the approach is equally useful (as I did yesterday) to explain some changes in education or media.

During the questions & answers session, I really got clever feedback from the audience, while also giving me a second chance to clarify some aspects. Here they go:

  • The main aspect to address to achieve good e-Democracy is not the “e-” part, but the “Democracy” part. Difference, for instance, in the USA and European e-politics are more related with the political system rather than the different rates of Internet adoption or digital literacy (which are not that significantly different, by the way)
  • Information overload is a problem, which has to be addressed (among other things) with information literacy. Urgently.
  • New media literacies will be required too as we learnt to tell true from false when watching TV or FX-intensive movies.
  • Editors should be, in my opinion, a keystone in the new Information Society. The problem is that journalists/editors are more concerned about selling audiences to their advertisers or paper to their readers, rather than creating/editing good information and finding out how to get paid for it.
If you can’t see this video, please visit

Credits: horitzoTV

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UOC Tech Talks. Kul Wadhwa: Online strategies and New Business Models: the Wikimedia phenomenon

Notes from the second Tech Talks series of lectures held at the Open University of Catalonia (UOC), Barcelona (Spain), on February 22ndth, 2009.

Online strategies and New Business Models: the Wikimedia phenomenon
Kul Wadhwa, Managing Director, Wikimedia Foundation


Wikimedia is about the community, about volunteering. Since the project kicked off in 2001, there have been created 13 million articles in 271 languagesw, 17 million pages, 325 million edits, 330 million visits monthly, 100,000 active contributors (edit 5 times a month at least), over 50 books published on the Wikimedia phenomena, etc. All coordinated by the 27 world chapters of the Wikimedia Foundation, though with only 35 employees.

If we look not at what’s in there, but what people is looking for (visits to the website), some Wikipedias may already be shifting from encyclopedic core to more topical and current events content. On the contrary, though, 1/3 of the hits of the Spanish Wikipedia deals with science and technology content.

Besides current events or news, local content is increasingly searched for. There is also an increase of geotagged content on Wikipedia, thus the interest in local content. As anecdote, it can be said that the second Wikipedia ever created was the Catalan Viquipèdia.

Management model

  • Provide physical home (servers)
  • Basic rules
  • Leave the community work and grow on its own

Power shift to the citizen

  • Technology: insfrastructure, tools, open source
  • Cultural Movement: free culture (Linux, Apache), free knowledge
  • License structure: GNU FDL, Creative Commons (CC-BY-SA)

All in all, the question was that anyone could contribute and the result would be open to everyone.

How do we take care of the community: transparency, trust, thankfulness, respect, responsiveness.

Business Model

Servant-leaders achieve results for their organizations by giving priority attention to the needs of their colleagues and those they serve. Collaboration, communication, culture.

Create a platform, let other people build (i.e. Mediawiki). It happens everywhere: Google, Apple, Amazon, FaceBook, etc. This also applies to Education, as everyone has something to bring on the table. You have to figure out how to make people that know be involved in the process.

Small “workforce” that can adapt to market changes very quickly, plus a virtual larger “workforce”, using the community as research and development.

You have to figure out what you’re good at, and forget about controlling the whole value change. Do not try and do everything. Networks form to address needs: you have to figure out where you fill into that.


Ismael Peña-López: would your model be different were the Wikimedia Foundation be Wikimedia “for profit” Corporation? It depends on your project, as everyone is different and there is not a unique model, but leveraging the community might still apply. You definitely have to focus in your goal and where you can contribute best to achieve it. If you’re running a talent based project, you definitely have to share some of the wealth in it. Talent goes where it is appreciated most.

Q: Is it a must to have a professional core? A: It really depends on what you want to achieve. There is definitely not “a” model.

Silvia Bravo: where do we start from? A: Figure out what your goals are and find who’s your champion. Once the project is started, things become easier, but the difficult thing is to start up the project, and the role of the champion is crucial here. Then, you need to create something that people can build things on top of. Make sure you have a clear goal, find out what tools will you be needing and get a champion to promote the project.

Q: how do you deal with security hazards/attacks? A: It is very important to have a clear and shared framework (linked to your goals) that everybody can relate to. And the system works the same way.

Q: what’s the physical structure like? A: only 20 servers [guess I got that right], as most information is only text. But the challenge is how to keep up with changes and still being able to bring the relevant information, which increasingly comes in rich media (photo, sound, video, etc.). That’s why Wikimedia Foundation engages in partnerships with the corporate sector to be ahead of the future.

Llorenç Valverde: how do we engage the community, and invite everyone to add value? A: Culture is the biggest problem. The way collaboration and sharing ideas happens varies a lot depending on the culture, understanding culture not only at the country level, but also at the company level. E.g. if you’re a newcomer to a firm, you might have brilliant ideas but you might not be (self)legitimate to share them openly. Culture is doubtless the toughest part of all.

Llorenç Valverde: so the starting point is to share information within the organization? A: Certainly. Add everybody in the process.

More information

People are always going to want to share their knowledge on the web, an interview with Kul Wadhwa.


The two divides in digital access: income and refuseniks

Two years ago, in the US (which can probably be extrapolated in most higher income countries) the reasons for not subscribing to the Internet where many, but an important one was refusal to, that is, people that just did not want to connect to the Internet.

Three years later we do not speak anymore of Internet access, but of broadband access, as we believe that what increasingly matters is the broadband divide rather a “simple” access to the Internet divide.

And the composition of the digital divide related to access has slightly changed:


  • 44.6% do not have broadband access because of cost (we can assume that not having a computer or an inadequate one is also because of its cost)
  • 37.8% state they do not need or are not interested in the Internet

It looks like skills are becoming less important and that economic reasons become more important. Though slightly decreasing, it is still astonishing that, of those who do not have broadband access, more than a third do not find any utility in going online.

There is something really wrong in here. On the one hand, as the crisis strikes with more virulence, more people is left behind in our Information Society because of lack of access. On the other hand, we are definitely failing in raising awareness that the Information Society is a train that you’ll either take or it’ll run over you: no “leave it pass besides you” option.

ICTs won’t necessarily bring better health, higher quality education, a more transparent and participative democracy, more wealth and jobs for all. But lack of ICTs will most likely decrease the probability to access health services, education, democracy, economic development and jobs at all. The more time I devote to studying the Information Society the lest optimistic I am that ICTs will change the main structures of the world, but I also am the more pessimistic that lack of them will end up with entire societies and ways of living.

When chances are uncertainty of improvement or almost certainty of perishing, we should definitely:

  • Enable physical access for those that are not online, maybe through public access points embedded in their communities
  • Raise awareness on the impact of ICTs in our society, so that those who could be online but just don’t want are (sorry to be patronizing here) better informed to take their decisions.

More information

National Telecommunications and Information Administration (2010). Digital Nation: 21st Century America’s Progress Towards Universal Broadband Internet Access. Washington, DC: National Telecommunications and Information Administration.