Monday, July 16, 2018

Internet: Underdevelopment’s new enemy, and poverty’s new friend

“Are there any poor people on Quora, as Internet access is very cheap nowadays?”

This is one of the most introspective question threads on Quora. The initial answers were very generic descriptions of poverty experiences. But one gentleman from India, Rajana Siva, replied by simply posting pictures of his lifestyle which were self-explanatory of his poverty. The answer soon got viral with 2.3 million views. But most importantly, the answer opened a Pandora’s box. Other users started replying to the question too. This time not through text but by ‘showing’ their poverty using pictures. This started a phenomenon, in technical terms which are called participatory monitoring.

Read Rajana Siva's answer to Are there any poor people on Quora, as Internet access is very cheap nowadays? on Quora

The industrial revolution has been considered mankind’s greatest love affair with technology. But, actually, the 20th century saw another revolution which changed the way we live, interact and function fundamentally and forever. In the 1980s, when the 'World Wide Web' started functioning, possibilities seemed endless and today, four decades later we can see those possibilities in reality.

The Internet has made it easier for us not only to get instant messages from across the world, but we can also make video calls at really nominal spending. Today industries from banking, media, market, to airlines, are dependent directly or indirectly on the internet. Even governments are pushing towards a more internet based governance. Apart from that, private enterprises like Uber Cabs, Google Maps, have made our lives easier in many ways.

How will the internet make a better world?

In 2017 Internet World Stats published a report on their website on the global internet penetration data. An overview of the report suggests that since 2000 the world has seen exponential growth in internet users including countries in Africa, Latin America and South East Asia which are tagged as developing.

In India, PM Narendra Modi launched the Digital India campaign in 2015 with an aim to find practical solutions to our problems through the internet and extensive digitization of data as well as governance processes. Today, in India, almost all government services from filing a police FIR to applying for driving licence or passport is done online.

Many universities are considering remote access courses through which students in deep forests lands and rural areas can listen to the lectures of the top university professors. Even remote access medical surgeries are on the cards. The advantage of instant communication is being banked upon by government and private stakeholders alike.

Internet as a monitoring tool.

Till date, public development works have been under heavy influence of corruption and laziness on the part of the bureaucracy. Even if the party running the government are committed to developing the infrastructure and allot heavy funds to the same, the bureaucrats actually working on the field often do not implement them and only do an imitation job if the government authority comes for a review. Thus, there is no real-time monitoring possibility as of now.

This is where the internet comes in. Today even underdeveloped countries like Kenya have an internet user rate of 85 per cent of the total population. In such a case, if a crowdsourced mechanism of monitoring is conceived, it may be fruitful for both the government and the public.

Participatory monitoring is a process of generating the data needed to close the information gaps and achieve the evidence base needed for robust implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals set by the United Nations. This model follows a bottom-up approach in which the end beneficiary or the user can directly monitor the development indices and report in a pool of data which can be accessed both by the government as well as the public. For example, if the Google maps contained user-generated pictures of the potholes in a street, then not only the user would avoid using the road but this will also push the government officials into prompt action.

Challenges and Possibilities.

The main objection to such an approach of data collection is that the data might be incomplete as most of the internet users live in urban spaces or are generally very well to do people. Thus, they are more interested in Snapchat and Twitter rather than developing their nation using the internet.

But, this perception, however, is partially true. This is because of the following three reasons,
  • Internet-enabled devices like Laptop, Tablets and Mobile phones are becoming cheaper and cheaper. 
  • Internet usage rates are falling drastically worldwide due to market competition. We can expect half of the world to be internet users by 2030. If one out of two persons uses the internet, then we can expect a global pool of data easily. 
  • The Internet makes citizen journalism a reality and real raw data can be collected from volunteers who are inspired by participatory monitoring. 
However, the internet can only be a catalyst in development and if the catalyst itself is not allowed to spread then it might become a hurdle. Reports have suggested that many African government agencies have barred millions of dollars meant to increase internet access. Another report found that most of the African nationals have a deep dig at their pocket due to internet usage. In countries like Libya or South Africa, average monthly spending on the broadband internet is as high as 55 US Dollars or higher. These facts show that the developing countries, especially in Africa are not very welcoming towards the internet. The market as well as the state both have been exploitative and resisted deeper internet penetration.

This might be a serious challenge to the #Envision2030 agenda of Sustainable Development Goals.