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Digital Divide: Closing Gap Between Access And Innovation In Latin America


By Sandra Zuniga Guzman

In early December of last year, some of the finest web developers in six Latin American countries came together for the first time to pledge their expertise to work on “digital solutions for social problems.” Developers from Peru, Uruguay, Chile, Brazil, Argentina, and Mexico developed software simultaneously, not only breeding innovation but also putting it to the test as each group met with users in a specific country sharing insights with their counterparts in neighboring countries who were participating electronically, thanks to live streaming and video conferencing. In such gatherings, these groups worked together to create applications for addressing three basic problems through simple and cost-effective means: education, public budgeting and security. All applications were ultimately shared in Open Data format through different online media, giving anyone the capability to perfect and employ software with some innovative solutions for persistent Latin America problems. In this way, these six Latin American nations have managed to pave the way towards a more sustainable future through independent cooperation.

The conference, called Desarrollando América Latina (Developing Latin America)[1], foreshadows a possible future of Latin America, but also brings to mind the region’s not too distant past, and its present reality in the field of technology. With sustained growth blessing the region, Latin America found itself with an expansive business sector and a demanding public sector, all looking to technology for answers to big social issues. But if something differentiates Latin American development from that of the “Asian Tigers” and “Dragons” is its relative obscurity in the sector of technology development. Thus, most of these countries are still far from developed, when compared to some of its larger North American neighbors. Most Latin American nations could be described as straddling the gap of the digital divide in a sustained balancing act.

The Digital Divide: Filling the Definition Gap

Latin America
Latin America

Today, the term “digital divide” has become shorthand for any gap between individuals, households, businesses and geographic areas with regards to both their opportunities and access to Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs). To highlight the differences between the Global North and South, the United States, Canada and Latin American power giant Brazil own close to 80% of all fixed telephone lines on the two continents.[2] Similarly, the United States and Canada are estimated to have had four times the fixed phone line penetration rate of many countries in Central and South America and the Caribbean in 2006.[3] Such gaps are higher than the statistics relating to the Internet for the same time period, proving that the digital divide in Latin America, even in an international context, always has been about more than just access to the Internet, or a computer.

Understanding the Role of ICTs and the Internet in the Developing World

To understand the evolving problems of the digital divide, it is important to know why development policy has geared more importance to the Internet and computers than to other forms of media. This is explained by the difficulties of studying and creating policy for rapidly changing technological innovation. Though the original format of the Internet was created in 1989 through the invention of the World Wide Web and hyper-text language by Tim Berners-Lee in Geneva, the modern Internet is more about the result of Netscape brainchild Mosaic.[4] In 1994, the floodgates of the Internet were opened as Mosaic became the Netscape Navigator Browser and was distributed for free.[5] In an unprecedented deluge of adoption, with 3 million users worldwide taking advantage of Netscape in 1994, and in one year, the number had more than quadrupled to 26 million.[6] The online population has subsequently roughly doubled every year since then, reaching an estimated 407 million people by late-2000.[7]

Regarding Latin America, the poorly documented historical role of ICTs and the Internet in that region does not tell a story of inclusion and equitable distribution of success for all. While some affluent elites of the developing world have managed to integrate themselves into the modern IT system, a big majority of poorer areas within countries—the periphery of the periphery—continue to live in the dark, some with the equipment (machinery) but not the tools (knowledge) to promote the same socioeconomic empowerment of their richer counterparts. This is especially troubling since ICTs represent a local community’s access to an unprecedented quantity and quality of resources—information, economic markets, skills, and education. But even in places like the Caribbean and Latin America, where programs have been in place to promote access to ICTs, a majority of the targeted populations have not become integrated like their more affluent neighbors.[8] For these countries, the digital divide is not a problem that can be fixed by having more desktop computers in homes, or telephones, computers, and television sets in neighborhoods; instead, it is a problem of knowledge and sustainable innovation. Essentially, then, it can be summarized as a problem of penetration into the daily spheres of work and life.

As recently as 2005, the United Nations staged the second half of its planned World Summit on the Information Society in Tunis. The results compiled for this conference by a UN specialized agency known as the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) presented a comprehensive range of statistics on ICT penetration, accessibility and use. When summarized, the results were unsurprising: over the last 10 years, the digital divide has been shrinking in terms of accessibility based on the numbers of fixed phone lines, mobile subscribers, and Internet users around the world.

As technology continues to rapidly expand and innovate, narrow policy simply focuses on trying to expand access without looking at some of the deeper problems of Internet access proliferation. This is potentially the case in communities that could fail to maximize the benefits of ICTs in infrastructural development.[9] In fact, a perfect example can be seen in the most recent usage of Twitter, Facebook, and other social media in the wake of the Arab spring for making the possibilities of democratic and social change highly feasible amongst distinguished communities with the capability or possession of technological literacy. Such a level of empowerment and extension of agency can only turn out to be positive for communities of Latin America by having an impact on civic engagement through the creation of virtual political systems. More importantly, though, with the rapid changes seen within globalization, technological literacy today becomes important for communities in need of understanding the technologies of tomorrow.

The Modern Latin American Reality

As previously mentioned, policymakers sometimes fail to understand the needs of the more marginalized elements of the population in their nations and do not necessarily engage in innovative ways to expand ICTs through methods that make sense when it comes to internal development. At present, Latin America suffers from a research deficit in the field of the “digital divide.” Few reports can be found focusing on specific countries within the region, leading most international analysts to base their generalizations based on the experience on similar groups of countries, in such cohorts as Argentina, Mexico, Chile, Uruguay, and, typically, Brazil. Still, most statistics register positively in reveling that Latin America has adequately bridged the accessibility gap. In fact, recent statistics from the Internet World Stats rank Latin America at the top for Internet user growth over the last decade.[10] Unfortunately, when considering Internet penetration ratio as a key factor to analyze global usage, the region, in fact, is actually ranked closer to the bottom.[11]

However, views regarding the importance of research and development are changing, rather rapidly. LATINCOM[12] is one of the most important conferences on communications that are held in Latin America. The event, which took place from October 24 to 26 2011 in Brazil, has provided an opportunity for both the Latin American industrial and academic community to come together and examine the benefits of joint research and development efforts in the region—not only for the creation of new technologies, but also to better understand the type of technological landscape that might create more investment opportunities for businesses.

Opportunity growth is certainly the main target on the region’s radar. After all, there is an understanding that Latin America is now growing faster than expected, an advantage over most regions of the world. Its sustained economic expansion shines in the midst of less than optimistic international trends. “Global activity has weakened and become more uneven, confidence has fallen sharply recently, and downside risks are growing” said the latest edition of the International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) World Economic Outlook in reference to the worldwide economy points to this facts. Alas, Latin America is projected to expand over 4% at the end of the year 2011.[13] Here, economies show that “activity is above potential” and “credit growth is high.”[14] Unprecedented economic growth now gives Latin America the opportunity to address some of its most pressing needs – perhaps, throughtechnology innovation that could further benefit business as well as the economic expansions of new markets.

LATINCOM reports similar findings to move public: the opportunities in Latin America for sales growth are considered massive, especially for equipment manufacturers and as well as for telecom services providers. This is partly because government-sponsored programs focus mostly on expanding access. But it is also because, as the accessibility gap continues to close, there is further momentum gained in social demand for more goods and more services. Sometimes, the pressure is international in scope. In preparation for the World Cup, over 70 percent of Brazilian households are expected to have Internet access by 2014 thanks to network expansion projects subsidized by the government in Brasilia.[15] At other times, though, expansions are more local; inspired by economic growth that enables some to buy and access the newer and popular technologies that they want and see their own richer counterparts posses in television, movies, and the magazines to which they will now have access.

In countries such as Uruguay, Chile, and Argentina, “one notebook [laptop] per child” programs have distributed computers to schools and individual children. Jointly, these three countries of Latin America have distributed close to 2 million netbooks. And the effects are certainly being felt; especially as computer ownership continues to rise with unprecedented speed, even if Internet access proliferation follows at much reduced speed.

These statistics show that the problem of the digital divide in Latin America isn’t just an issue of accessibility anymore. But, even as cell phones have become cheaper, as new programs have been implemented to distribute computers, and as network expansions continue to make the Internet more accessible and cable cheaper, policy initiatives have remained access-obsessed without evolving to tackle some of the effects of persistent inequality characteristic of the region. While Uruguay, Chile, and Argentina hand out net-books, Latin America continues to be the home of over 4% of the world’s malnourished children. While growing Latin American countries now have an opportunity to initiate campaigns that foster social and economic development for their societies, policy initiatives have remained unchanged. For the time being, the expansion of physical accessibility to technology is bringing some worthy accomplishments for Latin American statistics. But for how long?

A Positive Case Study[16]

Dr. Tomás Sanabria, a surgeon with degrees in internal medicine and cardiology from Harvard, has been recognized as a groundbreaking innovator for his work in rural Venezuela in the field of telemedicine.[17] The concept of telemedicine is simple: using technology to bring health information and services to patients that are isolated by distance. Alongside his colleagues from the Fundación Proyecto Maniapure, Dr. Sanabria successfully managed to implement ICTs to give medical advice to remote, marginalized communities. His emphasis on preventive action has made use of the social penetration of older ICTs, like the radio to give people the knowledge they require to become active participants in the improvement of their health and social conditions. Born in Maniapure, Dr. Sanabria’s project began when he started working during holidays and vacations along with some colleagues, providing services in a small clinic facility. His later work in radio programming led to attempts at creating a telemedicine radio station, which then resulted in the successful efforts to buy a satellite connection. These men’s success in bringing a satellite system ended up meeting the medical needs of over 10,000 people, and then grew to a large-scale effort that now employs 50 doctors in three different medical centers. Now, these doctors have managed to independently upgrade their technology to make better use of the internet, allowing exposure even more knowledge to the people of the Maniapure community, and confirming the program’s validity

The result is a lesson in the ways in which an understanding of how technology penetration works can, with some innovation, breed sustainable and meaningful development. Perhaps what is most impressive is how Dr. Sanabria’s familiarity with the community he worked with enabled him to put to use an older and cheaper technology – radio – and through it to bring unprecedented change to a community otherwise forgotten by its national government. In this way, the work of Fundación Proyecto Maniapure and other organizations like it are having a more lasting impact in alleviating poverty, health deficits, and inequality, than perhaps some nationally sponsored projects that are bringing more technology to communities, but are not quite putting it to its full possible use.

Conclusion: Bridging the Gap?

The impact of independent groups in Latin America should give us hope that if national governments adopt more conscientious policies with a clearer understanding of the current state of the digital divide and the needs of their people, then Latin America might become one of the more successful regions in promoting sustainable development in the era of “big data.” Alas, even as the public sector continues to develop, national governments maintain old notions that are then reflected in their increasingly obsolete policy initiative, in which the majority of which are not having the same big impact on communities that they had years ago, at a time when the technological gap of Latin America was more an access-opportunity problem and less a venue of effective technology expansion.

However, the achievements so far of Latin America in bridging the accessibility gap that should not be overlooked. The technology leaders of this region should be proud of their accomplishments. The message in the rapidly evolving narrative of Latin America is giving us insight to how we may adapt for a brighter future. With that said, the Desarrollando América Latina conference is a reminder that change is taking place in Latin America, and with it bringing new digital solutions to social problems, while helping regional integration at large:

“When Desarrollando América was first dreamt up, the first thing that was decided was that it should be thought of as one country, America, where Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Mexico, Peru, Uruguay where only cities in this great country we named America. There should be no nationalities to divide us, not when it comes to trying to find solutions to problems that affect and united all Latin-Americans.”[18]

COHA Research Associate Sandra Zuniga Guzman

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COHA, or Council on Hemispheric Affairs, was founded in 1975, the Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA), a nonprofit, tax-exempt independent research and information organization, was established to promote the common interests of the hemisphere, raise the visibility of regional affairs and increase the importance of the inter-American relationship, as well as encourage the formulation of rational and constructive U.S. policies towards Latin America.

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