While technology is designed for a global audience, technology policy oftentimes is developed locally and varies greatly in different parts of the world, creating inequality to access. That was the concern expressed by IEEE Member Deepak Maheshwari, vice chair of the IEEE Internet Initiative, at its Internet Inclusion: Advancing Solutions event held in October in Washington, D.C.
The event was part of the initiative’s ongoing series, which convenes technical and policy leaders to develop and implement road maps that support an inclusive, safe, and more trustworthy Internet in every region of the world.
The event kicked off with a roundtable discussion, “Advancing Solutions for Digital Inclusion,” with representatives from Amazon Web Services, GSMA, the Internet Society, the Mozilla Foundation, and the World Bank who are overseeing Internet inclusion efforts at their organization.
They discussed how to develop applications of technology for the poor and people living in remote and rural areas, as well as how those residents can leverage technology to form businesses.
“In every village in India, residents can get Nike shoes delivered by Amazon or find a shop in the most godforsaken places selling a cold can of Coca-Cola,” said Solomon Darwin, executive director of the Garwood Center for Corporate Innovation, part of the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley. However, “the lady who is making the beautiful sari in an Indian village can’t put it on the Internet to sell to people in other countries,” Darwin said.
Sonia Jorge, executive director of the Alliance for Affordable Internet and head of the Web Foundation’s digital inclusion program, added: “The gender digital divide continues to increase. A lot of innovation is still not being thought through by women for women. There needs to be a different approach to policy, informed by a gender perspective.”
Another disparity discussed was reliable energy, which is a requirement for Internet access. Nilmini Rubin, vice president of international development at Tetra Tech, said her working group will analyze different policies for expanding both Internet and energy access. The two fields need to work together to provide both Internet service and energy to underserved communities, she said.
The Profile Project Roundtable provided an engaging talk in which speakers showcased their programs. IEEE Senior Member Kartik Kulkarni, former chair of the IEEE Special Interest Group on Humanitarian Technology, shared innovative projects from the SIGHT group in Tunisia. One was a “train the trainers” project to teach people in the community how to use the Internet for various tasks, such as paying bills and accessing local news, so then they can train others.
The Tunisia SIGHT group is also accessing the Internet to learn how to accomplish humanitarian projects such as monitoring the cleanliness of water.
“Once residents can see what the Internet can do for them, it becomes contagious,” Kulkarni said.
DiploFoundation, Geeks Without Frontiers, Guru-G Learning Labs, IST-Africa, pinBox Solutions, and Vanu.com shared the impact their projects were having on advancing Internet inclusion and what more needs to be done.
Several speakers talked about financial technology projects that could help people in underserved areas. Aging populations in many countries do not have savings to fall back on once they stop working. One venture, pinBox Solutions, is tackling the lack of pension funds for workers. Its pension solution product would enable employees to save small amounts of money through an online deduction system. Their employers could contribute as well.
The lead of the IEEE Internet Initiative’s Public Access Working Group, Don Means, said that during the next six months, his group will be focused on advancing collaborative projects such as connecting African libraries and other public-access facilities to the Internet. He said it’s the most economical and equitable way to reach the most people, with the added potential to deliver training and support for digital literacy.
Means’s working group plans to introduce initiatives advancing existing exemplary collaborative actions in Colombia and other Latin American countries. Part of the work will focus on cybersecurity concerns, he added.
Visit the IEEE Internet Initiative website for more information on joining Internet inclusion working groups and related discussions, and to find event reports and related resources.
Karen McCabe is IEEE’s senior director of technology policy and international affairs, in Piscataway, N.J. She leads the organization’s partnerships with the United Nations and other international bodies, with a focus on engagement of the technical community and the intersection of policy and technology in information and communication technologies. She is a member of the Internet Society and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s Internet technical advisory committee.