Have we closed the “digital divide”, or is it just getting wider?
Andrea Powell, CIO, CABI
With the ubiquity of mobile phones in the developing world driving the global growth in mobile broadband subscriptions, you could be forgiven for thinking that the digital divide no longer exists. Indeed, in the recently launched Sustainable Development Goals, there is no single goal which calls for global and equitable access to information, perhaps recognising that access to knowledge is not an outcome of development, but an essential catalyst for it. The agenda includes the following words: “the spread of information and communication technology and global interconnectedness has great potential to accelerate human progress, to bridge the digital divide and to develop knowledge societies.”
Right at the end of SDG 17, however, there is a section labelled “data, monitoring and accountability”, in which it is recognised that there is a need to build capacity in developing countries to increase the availability of high-quality, timely and reliable data, and to develop statistical skills to enable systems of monitoring & evaluation to be implemented and owned within those countries.
I would add to this that there is a pressing need to develop other kinds of digital skills, otherwise the next digital divide will not be between those who have access to information and those who do not – it will be between those who have the digital skills to make use of that information and those who do not.
What kind of skills do I mean? Here are a few for starters:
- The ability to distinguish authoritative and evidence-based information from the “noise” of the World Wide Web;
- the ability to interpret, monitor and evaluate data to ensure that decisions are based on the best available evidence;
- the know-how to convert the outputs and findings of scientific research into practical, relevant and actionable guidance for those who need it most;
- the skill to analyse multiple sources of information to identify best practice and to make recommendations to policy-makers;
- the understanding of metadata and semantics to draw out new insights and to create relationships between seemingly unrelated pieces of information;
- the data management skills that will ensure knowledge is preserved, shared and made interoperable with other datasets.
At CABI we run many donor-funded programmes in the developing world that aim to create just these kinds of skills and to build the long-term capacity needed to solve the world’s problems in agriculture and sustainable food production. Take a look at our Plantwise initiative (www.plantwise.org) or the African Soil Health Consortium (www.cabi.org/ashc) to see examples of this.
There are many other examples on our website – www.cabi.org – including one project which provided free access to a range of CABI information resources (normally subscription-based) to 32 institutions in central, eastern and southern Africa through a network called RUFORUM. But providing access to these products is not enough on its own; you have also to provide training and support in how to use them and how to ensure that their availability has an impact on agricultural research for development.
Developing digital skills is a long-term game and donors are waking up to the need to include knowledge management components in their programmes. Hopefully, this will go some way to ensuring that, in 2030, we are able to measure and quantify how far we have come in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals.
Other Notes from Andrea Powell