Between a rock and a hard place: Digital inclusion remains elusive for many

It's difficult to understand how, in 2017, the digital divide still exists. And it doesn't just exist in developing countries – one report suggests 14% of people in Europe have never used the Internet. And 2015 U.S. Census data found about one-fifth of Americans don't have Internet access at home. The good news is that we're regularly seeing new initiatives launch to increase digital inclusion around the world; we’ve shared some below. – Liz Enbysk


A television broadcast from a rural school in central Ghana shows students using rocks they found in the schoolyard to simulate how a computer mouse works. There's no computer in the school, so in an ICT lesson, the teacher improvises.

"We lack a lot of things with teaching aids and a lot of things here," Augustine Kusi, a teacher at Assin Asamankese Primary School, told local news channel Joy Online. "We haven't had anything like a computer to teach them."

They've asked for one, but are still waiting.

The rocks may be one of the most graphic examples of the digital divide, occurring in a country where at least 45% of its 26.8 million population lives on less than US$1.25 a day, according to a 2015 World Food Program report.

Lifting people out of poverty
In today's digital world, there's little argument that removing barriers to Internet access can help lift people out of poverty, whether it's in rural Ghana or poverty-prone areas of the U.S.

As Rochester, NY Mayor Lovely Warren said recently in announcing a new low-cost, high-speed broadband Internet service in her city:

"Lowering the cost barrier to Internet access for families is essential if we are to close the digital divide and help them rise out of poverty. Internet access is increasingly essential for students to do homework, for jobs seekers to research and apply for jobs, pay bills and remain connected with society."

Fortunately, like the program in Rochester, there are efforts around the world to close the digital divide. Let's look at a few of them.

  • WiFi4EU is a new initiative in the European Union that will have free wireless internet access points in public places such as town halls, hospitals and parks by the end of 2017. "WiFi4EU will make fast Internet available to many citizens who otherwise might not have the chance to experience high-quality connectivity," said Emmanuel Mallia, Malta's Minister for Competitiveness and Digital, Maritime and Services Economy. "It will encourage the use of digital services and reduce the digital divide, including in places with limited internet access," he added.

Earlier this month telecom giant Huawei held its fifth annual European Innovation Day in London where its rotating CEO Ken Hu urged regulators to create a more favorable policy around telecoms so they can help close the connectivity divide with Asia and the U.S. “We have to figure out how to bridge the gap as soon as possible, or Europe risks falling further behind," Hu said.

  • Boosting technology skills in Lagos to alleviate poverty and empower young people is the mission of a new technology skills acquisition and development center in Eti-Osa, Lagos. Jointly built by Huawei Technologies and Fortis Projects Service, the Funmilayo Mobolaji Johnson Skill Acquisition and Development Center was donated by the companies to the state government. It came about, according to a piece on ThisDayLive.com, when Huawei Technologies Managing Director Frank Li relayed his experience with a young girl and her mother who lacked access to skill acquisition. Li said it was that singular episode that continues to motivate him to help children and teenagers in the community at every opportunity.
  • Digital literacy in Philadelphia is getting a helping hand from some big companies, including Comcast, according to a newsworks.org report. The companies, part of the Digital Literacy Alliance, recently awarded grants to eight groups working to teach people to use online tools to find jobs or housing. "The work that we do in technology innovation is really going to be the solution to our poverty problem in Philadelphia," Mayor Jim Kenney said. "We can talk about manufacturing, which is important," he added "But unless our young folks and old folks and middle-age folks get involved in the innovation space and the technology space, we're not going to move the needle."
  • Re-inventing the classroom at Mundaring Primary School in Western Australia involves exposing young people to cutting-edge technologies through a global educational network. The Learning Studios initiative is part of a Microsoft and Hewlett-Packard effort to encourage student-centered experiential learning, according to school Principal Paul Larkin. Some 60 schools are involved. “A Learning Studio is a place to dream, investigate, design, create and solve,” Larkin said. Students at Mundaring Primary School have completed projects to support the UNICEF goals to end poverty, fight inequality and address climate change by building websites and creating 3D printed logos, fridge magnets and badges.
  • An effort to bring STEM to life for young people in Sentul, Malaysia uses the Lego Mindstorms Education EV3 and guidance from Hope Worldwide Malaysia, a poverty relief organization. Hope Country Director Darick Wong told the New Straits Times that in today's digital world where technology became a vital part of everyday living, many are still left out in a digital divide caused by poverty. "Hopefully, the exposure to the program will lay the foundation for future passion and interest in the concept of STEM," he added. Dow Chemical Malaysia, which made the program possible, has partnered with a number of NGOs like Hope Worldwide to promote STEM learning. Dow Asia Pacific President Peter Wong said one goal is to develop the next generation of leaders who can solve major world challenges. "More importantly," he added, "through this program it will also bring hope to these youths and change their life."

Related topics:
Left behind in Gig City? How Chattanooga is promoting digital inclusion
Report: Technology in classrooms can lower poverty and broaden social benefits

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This article is from the Council's Compassionate Cities initiative which highlights how city leaders and other stakeholders can leverage smart technologies to end suffering in their communities and give all citizens a route out of poverty. Click the Compassionate Cities box on our registration page to receive our weekly newsletter.

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