The Importance of Understanding Digital Divides During the COVID-19 Response
Mar 26, 2020
Our work at DAI’s Center for Digital Acceleration intersects with global COVID-19 responses in many ways. Earlier this week, our data scientists presented an analysis of risk factors and last week we got a glimpse at the hardware community’s approach to the crisis. There is another element to our work that I think is critical to highlight—digital ecosystem assessments.
I’ve been thinking a lot about how so much of my life, professional and personal, has moved online due to COVID-19 and how aside from the occasional pixelated co-worker, has been seamless. However, this is definitely not the case for everyone. This fast transition to social distancing, isolation, remote work, and online over in-person communication has diverse implications for those who are not digitally included. I think COVID-19, in some ways, is a case study for why it is important to understand a country’s digital ecosystem, especially the digital divide and issues around connectivity and access.
Last month, I spent two weeks in Colombia conducting part of a digital ecosystem assessment. Across 60 interviewees ranging from civil society activists to government officials and international technology companies, a primary finding was that the country’s digital infrastructure is insufficient and contributes to a growing rural-urban digital divide. The assessment revealed that there is a clear need for coordination amongst actors to implement innovative inclusion-oriented solutions for last-mile connectivity.
A satellite dish bringing WiFi to rural Colombia. Image taken by author.
The rapid spread of COVID-19 has me reflecting on the importance of these types of assessments to informing targeted prevention, protection, response, and recovery efforts. The digital divide plays out between and within developed and developing countries in various ways. Below are some considerations in the context of the COVID-19 crisis:
Information sharing: Individuals who lack internet access may not receive critical health information. Barriers to accessing and using the internet may leave already vulnerable populations at a significant disadvantage when it comes to getting real-time information. This is not only an issue for individuals, but also for societies. If we are all intent on flattening the COVID-19 curve, there needs to be alternative ways to share information about case concentration, symptoms, tips for prevention, and resources.
Education: Globally, to date, 138 countries have closed schools, affecting almost 1.4 billion learners. Online learning is not an option for all schools, teachers, or students. They face challenges around digital infrastructure, teacher training, and digitized curricula. The impact of the digital divide during the COVID-19 crisis will exacerbate existing educational inequities. There is an opportunity to experiment with new ways of leveraging or distributing public WiFi for digitally excluded learners. For example, equipping school buses with solar-powered WiFi and locating them strategically within insufficiently connected communities.
Work: Though recent years have seen a rise in remote work, not all workers can move their source of income online or remote. Not only is this apparent around the globe with the closure of small businesses in the service and entertainment sectors, but it is particularly resonant for countries with large informal economies, where leaving the house is the only way to generate income.
Social connection: Digital communication channels and social media help make mandated social isolation bearable and feasible. Humans are, by nature, social beings. However, in societies that have not or cannot adopt such platforms, imposing necessary pandemic response precautions may not be as feasible. Moreover, in many of the countries where we work, crowded or shared homes do not allow the necessary precautions. Digital communication has no opportunity to replace in-person interaction.
As country governments, global development organizations, and private sector actors develop COVID-19 responses it is important to understand disparities in digital connectivity and access. If digital divides go unacknowledged, existing inequalities will only be exacerbated by the progressing pandemic. Furthermore, as global development professionals busy working remotely on various project contingency plans, it is imperative we don’t let issues related to digital divides fall by the wayside. Instead of being perceived as competing priorities with global health or economic impact, they should be seen as complementary to ensure inclusivity-driven responses are put in place.