Worldwide web still has holes that need filling in

Bridging the Digital Divide
October 6, 2006

It is said that a well-known courier company today guarantees delivery to all parts of the world except Baghdad and Canning Town in East London. My institution now prefers, as more reliable, the electronic transmission of documents to and from external collaborators around the world, including parts of the world one would not until very recently have associated with a high penetration of technology. When I have problems with my internet service provider or my computer, I talk to someone at a call centre in India. What links these phenomena is the bridging of the digital divide - the subject of the study reported in this collection of papers originally presented at a conference in 2004.

Each paper forms a chapter and focuses on one country; two chapters are devoted to southern Africa, one deals with South Africa and the second with other countries in sub-Saharan Africa. The collection is framed by introductory and final chapters, which draw general conclusions, both written by the editors.

There is a wealth of material here, and care has been taken to make it coherent. This is in the face of complexities involving multiple agencies and projects in different countries and regions (the authors provide an eight-page glossary to help readers through the alphabet soup of acronyms).

Depressingly, this plethora of projects might lead to overlaps or gaps in infrastructure unless agencies such as the New Economic Partnership for African Development succeed in fostering collaboration and information management.

The improvement in ICT provision over the past ten years in many of these regions is nothing short of extraordinary, although Africa and South Asia still lag behind the rest of the world. ICT indicators cited here, such as the proportion of the population with PCs or mobile phones, are particularly improved in South Africa and Mauritius, with Botswana not far behind, certainly as far as mobile phones are concerned. Other African countries are not doing so well, and it is instructive that most communication there goes via expensive European routes. As one author points out, most African states lack an effective ICT strategy, which is frequently too complex for a region riven by conflict, poverty and non-collaborative regimes to design.

The chapter on China is particularly interesting because it is so hard to get reliable information about the changes taking place there. In 2004, the internet was being used by about a quarter of the population in the Beijing and Shanghai regions, but it was used by far fewer elsewhere, mirroring a distinct economic divide also in evidence in Brazil. China is undergoing such rapid change that these figures probably underrepresent current usage.

The flaw in this collection is that the data is not completely up to date, but that is inevitable in such a project. With web publishing becoming more mature, the days of this kind of publication may be numbered.

The writing is generally of a high standard, but one or two of the papers would have benefited from more editing. Overall, however, this is a fascinating study that will be of benefit to anyone interested in ICT strategy and science policy.

Tony Valsamidis is senior lecturer in information systems and multimedia, Greenwich University.

Bridging the Digital Divide

Editor - Angathevar Baskaran and Mammo Muchie
Publisher - Adonis and Abbey
Pages - 256
Price - £22.50
ISBN - 1 905068 15 8

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