Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

Big data and the assembly of global insight out of small scale, local and micro-local data 8: reconsidering the digital divide 2

Posted in business and convergent technologies, reexamining the fundamentals, UN-GAID by Timothy Platt on January 28, 2014

This is my eighth installment to a series on big data and how wide-ranging and even globally significant insight can be developed out of small-scale local and even micro-local data (see Ubiquitous Computing and Communications – everywhere all the time 2, postings 265 and loosely following for Parts 1-7.)

I have been writing about digital haves and have-nots in this series since Part 5, and about have and have-not nations and societies and about the global digital divide starting with Part 7. I continue that line of discussion here, and as with Part 7, I base this posting on the specific example of my recent experience in Tanzania, as its varied peoples and communities seek to enter and engage in the global online community.

I wrote in an earlier series: Developing Critical Infrastructure from a Human and a Societal Perspective, about Tanzania too as its national government actively seeks to bridge the digital divide, there focusing on their national education system’s initiative for bringing computers and internet access into their school system (see United Nations Global Alliance for ICT and Development (UN-GAID) as postings 16-21 for Parts 1-6). And I continued that line of discussion on that point of implementation in this series in its Part 7. I turn here to consider the potential for private sector involvement and even leadership in this type of divide-crossing endeavor. And as a core consideration as to how that could best be achieved, I will consider here how the principle of technology leapfrogging is likely to shape this development process.

As originally used, the term leapfrogging referred to a process in which industry and marketplace leading businesses held patent and proprietary trade secret control over large portions of available market share for their industry. And newer, upstart companies would work around that barrier to their success by leapfrogging any up-to-then advantage held by these more established competitors by developing and bringing in disruptively new alternatives, bypassing any special advantage held from controlling key technologies and capabilities for this industry as it has (perhaps even moribundly) become. In effect they leapfrog current technologies and their current implementation forms, bypassing them as unnecessary in moving into new and more effective alternatives.

In an infrastructure development sense, and as applied to the development of new capabilities in have-not countries and regions, this has come to mean skipping technological stages that more developed countries have gone through in moving their infrastructure systems to their current stage of evolutionary development. So in this context, technology leapfrogging is all about ontogeny not having to recapitulate phylogeny, and about how new and even cutting edge technology-based infrastructure can be developed and implemented without having to build to older and “intermediate-stage” technology standards first (see recapitulation theory for a discussion of that often presumed necessary, but here-violated principle.)

• One point that I made several times in my Developing Critical Infrastructure series as cited above, is that while most of Tanzania lacks electricity or even a steady supply of safely potable water for lack of electrical power grid and plumbing infrastructures, you can buy and use cell phones even in small and out of the way villages and across most of the geographic span of the country.
• Most cell phone usage in Tanzania is via basic cell phone technology thought there is some penetration of smart phone technology in that country too and particularly in its larger cities (e.g. Dar es Salaam and Arusha) with connectivity options and speeds up to 3.75G available as of this writing.
• This in and of itself would serve to greatly limit immediate access to wireless internet, with the technology in already in place. But this level of widespread implementation and this level of antenna and signal booster infrastructure means that a significant amount of the necessary signal transmission infrastructure that would be needed for a more smart phone-based public access system is already in place, significantly narrowing the gap still to be crossed here.
• And as a matter of technology leapfrogging, this does not require ever developing or installing a more historically traditional cable-based system as an intermediate step in this country’s technology infrastructure development, beyond what is already largely in place. I note that other countries have successfully followed this development strategy already, bypassing cabled network infrastructure development stages and particularly where geographic barriers would make cabled network systems unrealistically costly. Some of the Scandinavian countries come immediately to mind in this context.

I primarily wrote my Developing Critical Infrastructure series in terms of bringing simple, ultra-low cost tablet computers into classrooms and into the school experience, but right now Tanzania as a society is facing a race, even if an unannounced one, between its government-led educational development programs and initiatives, and its phone company and telephone equipment provider private sector participants with their free market efforts to wirelessly connect their citizens into the larger and even global community. And with this I come back to the name of this series, and to a specific phrase in it: “small scale, local and micro-local.”

When the internet initially went widely mainstream in developed countries, with the advent of the World Wide Web and the first NCSA Mosaic web browser, its attraction came from how it offered people anywhere they could go online, an opportunity to immediately connect into a vast network of information sources and resources. Then at a time when this type of widespread and even globally reaching connectivity was becoming taken for granted, a capability was added in to bring this same level of information gathering and sharing power into a seemingly anywhere and everywhere here-and-now local focus, for finding places and people and ways to meet specific here-and-now needs. So in the developed world and its have nations and communities, distance-independent and even globally reaching connectivity came first, and then local and micro-local emerged as a killer app add-on.

That situation, I suspect, arose in the developed-world countries because of the order and way that the internet and its overall capabilities evolved. When a country such as Tanzania more fully enters this online and interconnected community, with a seemingly full range of globally and locally connecting resources already developed and widely implemented elsewhere and in place there, it is a lot less certain where its perceived immediate killer apps will be found from among this pool of resources – which of this overall system’s uses and potential uses will prove to be most compelling in bringing its citizens actively online. On the one hand, curiosity about the world as a whole and the world outside of their borders and their direct experience will make global internet reach very attractive. On the other hand, we do physically live in our own local special and temporal contexts and in our own local communities, and local and micro-local search and connectivity enable participation in them in whole new ways – making local search a compelling reason to go online and to become interactively involved online too.

I was told in no uncertain terms and by people in their educational system, that the national government-led effort to bring computers and internet access into their schools is driven from a policy objectives perspective, by a desire to give their citizens essential skills for the modern world. But at the same time it was also made clear that this educational system still seeks to offer a unifying curriculum that can serve as a key part of their framework for keeping their diversity of 130 tribal groups all one single nation. Tanzanian internet connectivity in their school system will be a part of their overall national education system. And this means developing and offering vetted Tanzania-sourced online content too, that would fit into and support their grade by grade national school curriculum. But it will prove impossible to close this door to the world to wider searches too, and both globally, and locally too.

And more and more big data will be developed about the peoples of this country and they will begin to tap into and use it too.

I end this series on that inconclusive point – inconclusive of necessity as I write here simply noting changes still to come. I will come back to reconsider and further discuss issues that I have been raising here, in future postings and series. Meanwhile, you can find this series and other related material at Ubiquitous Computing and Communications – everywhere all the time 2 and also in my first Ubiquitous Computing and Communications directory page. And I also include this series in my directory: Reexamining the Fundamentals and in United Nations Global Alliance for ICT and Development (UN-GAID).

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