Everything is correlative

People working in the realm of information technology love polarising arguments, something I’ve touched upon a number of times. [Just type in “blefuscu” into the search box for the blog and you will see the posts]. Over the last five years or so, one of the arguments I have been fascinated by is that surrounding the value of “web 2.0” tools to the developing world. The question at the heart of the debate is simple, and germane to policymakers worldwide:

Is investment in technological infrastructure by itself a significant factor, when looking at the development needs of a country?

Morten Rask has been studying this question, and he put forward a number of hypotheses to be tested in answering it, looking at correlations across a number of factors. Here’s a graphical representation of his findings:

You can see the whole article here.

His conclusions are given below:

In spite of some claims, Wikipedia is generally more suitable for participants from developed countries. However, participants from less developed countries can benefit from involvement in Wikipedia. These findings contradict some of the promises (Cairncross, 1997; Friedman, 2006; Negroponte, 1995) discussed earlier in the paper. In contrast to some of the enthusiasm for Wikipedia — where only an Internet connection is a precondition for participation (Baumann, 2006; Economist, 2006d; Tapscott and Williams, 2006) — we conclude that an adequate technological infrastructure is not sufficient alone. These findings agree with earlier studies that recognized the importance of socioeconomic and other factors in e–business (Bouwman, 1999; Doern and Fey, 2006; Fesenmaier and van Es, 1999; Kraemer, et al., 2006; Steinfield and Klein, 1999; Steinfield, et al., 1999) and e–policy–making (Barzilai–Nahon, 2006; Kraemer, et al., 2006). For policy–makers, investments in technological infrastructure are not solely significant, but need to be considered along with improvements in literacy, education, and standard of living. For some businesses and other organizations, an examination of Wikipedia in specific markets can be useful as a screening and monitoring model.

My gut feel is that while most of the statements he makes are correct, his overall assertion is wrong. More specifically, I believe that the correlation between technological and economic factors needs to be looked into further. Rask uses the Human Development Index (HDI) as a proxy for “economic factors”, but I think in doing this he underestimates the recursive nature of that relationship: how the technological infrastructure itself directly influences the level of the HDI.

Rask’s work is structured and scientific, and should bear a lot more weight than my untutored assertion. It’s a hunch, nothing more. Having majored in Economics and Statistics at university, I am acutely aware that my assertion is weightless in comparison to the excellent work he’s done. So this is not an attempt to rubbish his work, but to suggest that a key conclusion bears more examination.

Why do I have this hunch? Simple. I have seen the impact of mobile telephones in developing countries, and I believe in that particular context that it is very simple to prove that the very act of investing in that technical infrastructure pushes the HDI up significantly. Any offers?

I think people underestimate the economic, social and political value of affordable connectivity; that the individual hypotheses in Rask’s work are all correct and not surprising at all; that at least one of the key conclusions he draws deserves further analysis, because of the recursive nature of the correlative relationship he relies on, that between technological infrastructure and HDI.

Only connect.

5 thoughts on “Everything is correlative”

  1. I suspect your hunch is right – although it may not be as simple as measuring correlation. ICT does not come in one flavor, and while the author is focused on Wikinomics, the problem is that by looking for impact on HDI the field of view becomes overly constrained. More precisely, trying to measure the impact of Wikinomics on HDI is almost as reductionist as “correlation equals causation”.

    If on the other hand, a wider perspective was used to correlate the richness of the communications environment with HDI (along the lines of the ITU studies), your hunch may be borne out. Perhaps this can be summarized as moving away from static knowledge to the dynamic communications of the net. To return to your original question, investments in ICT infrastructure alone will only bring this about to the extent they contribute to, and enable, the overall richness of the communications environment.

  2. I lean towards your hunch, having just returned from Namibia. Connectivity via mobile phones is very high. In one farm I stayed at (which had no running water and wasn’t connected to the grid) there where at least 3 to 4 mobile phones in the household. Another example is that a lot of the San Bushmen and Himbi tribesman had mobile phones.

    I think the use of Wikipedia probably masks the effect of affordable connectivity given the different valuation of uses of time between the developed and developing world. Time uses that support living are valued higher in the developing world than uses of time that are around status i.e. editing a Wikipedia article.

    Clay Shirky’s cognitive surplus is measurably different in the developing world than the developed world.

    I gave the issue some thought while there and I think that affordable communications/connectivity is very important. Many of the technological and infrastructural developments over the last 100 odd years that are considered fundamental in the developed world are about improving communications in one form or another. Wireless communications like the mobile phone provide the ability to leapfrog the previous technological/infrastructural developments and achieve the a level of communications that supports prosperity similar to the developed world.

  3. Having connectivity without the literacy and other support needed for its effective use is much like having a car, but no driving instruction, maintenance information and no maps. The car becomes only a curiosity with which to experiment.

    While it is true that eventually, the car will be put to some appropriate use, it won’t produce the promised advantages without some collateral support.

    To truly utilize the technology, the population has to have some idea what it can be used to do and how to do it which is the point of the article.

  4. I’m surprised that the bullnotbull.com reference is so dated. A lot has changed RECENTLY. In the last year the world changed from being mostly rural to mostly urban. China became the nr 1 user of the Internet. And mobile users, or subscriptions rather, topped more than half the world’s population. Discounting multiple subscriptions, 2008 is the year we finally can say that MOST of the world’s population has acess to a phone.

    2005 is ancient history!

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