Wednesday 17 June 2009

ICTs in an unequal world

Today I'm going to interview Hannah Beardon for a podcast to use with OU Course T324: Keeping ahead in ICT.

Hannah is the author of a report on the use of mobile phones for development that we are using in one of the assignments for T324 this year.

One of the contributors to a video used in T324 ("African Renaissance', originally produced for the discontinued course T305), a phoneshop owner in a South African township, says that cellphone are 'what Africa has been waiting for', and there's no doubt that mobile phones have been taken up and used by the people in developing countries in remarkable ways. But, as ever, it is not quite that simple.

Hannah says in the final section of her report:
As this guide shows, mobile technologies have great potential to enhance access to information and communication capacity and contribute to social development or change objectives. Some of the issues of access, affordability or usability which may undermine the sustainability and scalability of work using other ICTs, such as computers or video cameras, are less pressing when it comes to mobile phones, which have been widely adopted and adapted by people in even the poorest areas, with least capacity. However, many of the other issues and concerns around the digital divide and ICT as it relates to social change do remain. [...]

For one thing, users in more developed markets are able to take advantage of the highest functionality, and usually the cheapest rates. There are great differences in opportunities provided by the mobile market throughout Africa (i.e. the difference in network capacity between South Africa and other African countries) and within countries, such as between urban and rural, or rich and poor.

Manchester University Development Informatics group found that despite the potential of mobiles to flatten information asymmetries there is still a “mobile divide”, which has its roots in fundamental access barriers of electricity, network coverage, and income, as well as difference in functionality of elite high-end models. So while mobiles provide a fantastic tool to enhance community-based development and social equity work, they also are another area to watch as regards inequality of opportunity.
These sorts of issues don't only apply to mobile phones in developing countries, they are to do with the relationship between technology and people everywhere.

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