What does it mean to be truly inclusive in a highly digitised world? Is it time to refine what we mean by ‘access’?
In an increasingly digitised society, access to digital tools does not always equal participation, and as such, access to digital technology is not enough as a measure of inclusion. Oftentimes, the digital divide persists even when people have access to technological tools, because their knowledge may be limited, thus limiting their ability to fully participate on the internet. This redefines the concept of digital inclusion significantly; requiring more introspective questions about what real inclusion means and looks like in relation to digital participation.
The Civic Tech Innovation Network (CTIN) and the International Civil Society Centre (ICsCentre) partnered up for a Digital Dialogue Series and the first dialogue of this series focused on ‘building inclusive civic tech communities’. Onica Makwakwa and Astha Kapoor made up the panel of speakers while malebo sephodi facilitated this dialogue.
Makwakwa opened the discussion by stating that the drive for access to digital technologies is not enough; that those with access to digital tools and the internet needed to be meaningfully connected in order to truly participate in the digital world and economy. According to Makwakwa, to be meaningfully connected means that users are not just merely consumers of content but also active participants who contribute to the internet.
“Those who are meaningfully connected…are able to use the internet for more essential activities, such as accessing healthcare information, taking classes, [and] engaging in dialogues like this one. So 30 to 33% of those who are meaningfully connected, are able to use this access to digital technologies in a way that’s empowering, and also enables them to do good in their communities”
Speaking from a civic tech perspective, Kapoor criticised the singular lens of access from which civic tech initiatives work. She proposed an additional lens from which to work which involved interrogating digital technologies from the perspective of negotiation. Kapoor encouraged the audience to think about their ability to negotiate with technology and what the next step to access might be.
“What happens once you engage with technology? And what happens as we’re generating all of this data? How do we use the data meaningfully [and] resist the sort of extraction of data that we’re all sort of going through? How do we meaningfully engage with both the state and the private sector using technology? And again,…how do we negotiate on questions of our rights?” asked Kapoor.
Kapoor continued to say that while access and inclusion are important and should be rigorously pursued, there are questions about how digital technologies affect how governance happens, and how we can interact with the State. Kapoor shared that people’s ability to negotiate with the State diminishes when services are digitised and so does their ability to organise. This is because they lack the language and understanding of how these tools work in the first place, and as such are unaware of when these tools are being used to exploit and abuse their rights.
This lack of awareness creates new challenges, and it has the power to alienate citizens who feel that their struggles are individual and not part of the collective. This is because the dominant narrative around technology is that it is a private experience and not a collective one. This assertion weakens the ability of citizens to collectively challenge the State.
Advocates for inclusion thus need to interrogate what access to digital tools means for how citizens are able to interact meaningfully with their world and with the State; not simply operate from the stance that basic access eliminates the challenges of the digital divide.
Access to digital tools does not automatically eliminate other challenges associated with the digital divide. The aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic gave us many examples of this. Makwakwa recalls governments employing what she calls ‘uncoordinated digital development strategies’ in South Africa and other developing countries as a response to the necessary lockdowns at the time. The government’s deployment of digital platforms for service delivery and learning was done with the assumption that citizens were educated about how to utilise these tools and that they had access to high-speed internet connection to connect them to the platforms they need. She recounts the story of school children in South Africa who needed to learn remotely during the COVID-19 lockdowns.
“… the assumption was that parents are digitally literate, that homes are connected, and that teachers are also digitally literate, to be able to conduct instruction over the internet. So there were a lot of assumptions that we made that just really did not match with the reality of what we were actually dealing with.” said Makwakwa
Kapoor mentions that civil society organisations offline efforts played an important role in closing the knowledge gap and ensured that citizens could use these tools and access their civil entitlements. Their efforts ensured that citizens would be well informed and skilled enough to use these tools in the first place.
Inclusive communities should therefore not just be about giving access to communities without digital tools but should also be about these communities being able to engage meaningfully with tech tools without harming them in the process. Inclusive civic tech communities should be made up of not only tech innovators but also those that experience and get to use these innovations. These communities should have a say in what and how they would like to experience civic tech tools in their lives.
Makwakwa is Head of Africa at the Alliance for Affordable Internet; a global coalition working to drive down the cost of internet access in low and middle-income countries through policy and regulatory reform.
Kapoor is the director and founder of the Aapti Institute; a research institution that generates public, policy-relevant, actionable, and accessible knowledge from the frontiers of tech and society, about our networked lives, to support the creation of a fair, free, and equitable society.