Designing digital services for equitable access
In 1995, the United States National Telecommunications Infrastructure Administration was the first government agency to empirically document the existence of the “digital divide” – the gap between those who have and those who don’t. do not have easy access to internet service. In a report that year …Fall through the net“… The agency described the geographic, demographic and economic divisions in the adoption and use of the Internet. The report was far-sighted in recognizing the role of disparate infrastructure and access to hardware in driving digital inequalities and showed how these inequalities impact the way people use the internet.
The NTIA report also made a crucial false bet. He assumed that there was “one” Internet and that broadband from the landline to a personal computer would be the common denominator technology to provide access. But the world hasn’t primarily adopted fixed broadband. Instead, mobile phones and mobile internet have become the primary mode of access. While the NTIA was correct that the main drivers of digital adoption were content and services, the presumption of a computerized Internet has shaped a generation of service providers to design digital platforms that don’t reach not nearly half of the world, making these services inaccessible to those who need them most.
As the digital divide is now a globally understood phenomenon, more than 25 years after the NTIA report, service designers continue to design and build public technology systems that depend on the Internet, preferring well-connected people and integrating the digital divide. The tendency to design services for the Internet, both in the adoption of technology and in the services that depend on it, is the digital service design divide.
COVID-19 and the lockdowns that accompany it have only accentuated the division of digital service design. Public institutions have turned to digital tools both for their internal operations and to interact with those they serve, relying on tech companies to safeguard vital public functions, from online court proceedings to digital payments taxes and fees. This tour integrated the digital divide in these systems. The most striking example of this divide has been the adoption by the public education system of digital tools (many of which prioritized continuity on equity in educational interventions). Even before the pandemic, the “homework shift” was described as “”the cruelest part of the digital divideWith 50% of students saying they were unable to complete their homework because they required Internet access. Early research suggests that the well-being and performance of students suffered during the pandemic, and that these effects are also to be felt unfairly—By the same groups that the NTIA identified in 1995.
As it turns out, cell phones have become the common denominator of technology and messaging around the world, much more than the Internet, its killer app. Some 26 years after the NTIA report, 3.7 billion people – half of the world’s population – still have no form of internet access, and putting “the remaining half of the world online will be a whole other thing.” ball game ”, as Doreen Bogdan Martin, who heads the development office of the International Telecommunication Union, observed at the recent Global Digital Development Forum. Even though Internet access is lagging behind, mobile phone penetration is accelerating. There are 5.27 billion unique cell phone users in the world, representing two-thirds of the world’s population. And there are more mobile phone connections than people in the world. However, 3.4 billion people live in an area with mobile broadband coverage, which is how most people access the Internet, but do not use the Internet. This makes the usage gap (the number of people who live in an area with mobile broadband but don’t use it)six times bigger than the coverage gap, which refers to the number of people who have no access to mobile broadband at all.
Despite the proof, history and stock Exchange demonstrating that digital infrastructure is not the main problem, utility designers fail to meet users on the platforms available to them. Rather than acknowledging this and requiring designers to create services for widely available tools, institutions primarily focus on hardware, infrastructure, and patchwork fixes, such as distribution. devices and public hot spots. Thus, service by service, people not or underserved by technology are categorically and cumulatively marginalized by public services. The more utilities focus on digitization as the next step in their evolution without proactively addressing the digital service design divide, the more digitization disconnects the less connected.
The design and deployment of national immunization campaigns have demonstrated the challenges of not providing accessible services. Much like access to connectivity, vaccine distribution has favored the rich and powerful, and the use of technology to enable access to vaccines has amplified this dynamic, especially in India. In January, the Indian government has begun its vaccine deployment by making the doses available exclusively through a web-based system, CoWIN. Making access to vaccines conditional on registration through a web portal has failed to meet the needs of a large Indian population without internet access and digital literacy. While the number of mobile connections in India equals 79% of the population, Internet connectivity is between 20.1% (ITU) and 56% (Indian government), depending on who you ask. Exacerbated by supply problems, vaccine distribution in India failed to achieve widespread inoculation. At the end of June, barely 4% of the country’s population was fully vaccinated.
While it’s easy to speak out on the imperfections of digital infrastructure and its adoption, digital design boils down to a series of choices, for example, how to manage who gets vaccines and how vaccines are deployed. And while the case of India is illustrative, the same dynamic has been present in digital responses to COVID-19 worldwide, regardless of jurisdiction or connectivity. India’s decision to make online registration a requirement for vaccines is a choice, which incorporates the inequalities of the digital divide in the way Indians access vaccines. These decisions are made so often across millions of services that they seem inevitable – and their cumulative effect, like climate change – is to individualize the responsibility for the divisions that public institutions allow through their service design choices.
The digital service design divide has at least two policy effects: (1) it places much of the blame for systemic failure on those who cannot access digital systems, and (2) calms those with the knowledge and resources required to access the system. Responsibility for equitable provision of public services rests with government, but the design of a digital public service usually begins with an assumption of internet connectivity and digital literacy. By making the delivery of public services more convenient for those who have the ability to use online services comfortably, usually the urban elite, the divide in the design of digital services becomes invisible to many with political influence to impose best practices. As the saying goes, “the greatest trick the devil has ever played is to convince the world that it doesn’t exist”, and the digital service design divide it hides behind innovation. or ignorance, has become a vehicle for perpetuating problematic politics and systemic racism. .
The phrase “digital divide” is a valuable piece of nomenclature, but like the NTIA report that solidified its existence, the phrase misses critical framing. Internet access alone is not sufficient if services remain inaccessible. The role of public governance and service design is to build services that recognize disparities and create a balance that prevents them from becoming a driver of inequality and conflict. The digital service design gap is both immediately addressable and the kind of little cumulative harm that may seem impossible to close. The first step is to prioritize equity in the design of services. Otherwise, the more we use digital services to create social safety nets without designing for the holes, the more of us – as the NTIA pointed out 25 years ago – will continue to fall apart.
Sean mcdonald is co-founder of Digital Public and senior fellow at the Center for International Governance Innovation.