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.