Category Archives: Digital Inclusion

Digital Divide Research as a Practice of Big Data

Big Data seems to be the new buzzword of the moment and the solution to all of society’s problems. Often we hear people coming up with studies involving a great amount of data aggregated from Twitter, Facebook and so on. I truly believe these studies are good; they take snapshots of scenes, let us know of interesting moments in a specific time and give us an overall idea of the problem.

boyd and Crawford (2012) define big data as “a cultural, technological, and scholarly phenomenon that rests on the interplay of: (1) Technology: maximizing computation power and algorithmic accuracy to gather, analyze, link, and compare large data sets. (2) Analysis: drawing on large data sets to identify patterns in order to make economic, social, technical, and legal claims. (3) Mythology: the widespread belief that large data sets offer a higher form of intelligence and knowledge that can generate insights that were previously impossible, with the aura of truth, objectivity, and accuracy.” (p. 663)

Big Data is usually thought as big numbers, the big N approached quantitatively. These numbers are generated based on people’s produced data; people that are online and constantly talking, sharing, posting, tweeting and “liking” things. But what about the people that are not doing that frequently, or even, not doing these activities at all? If we take Big Data and extend it to the ones experiencing digital inequalities, we would be imposing a colonial practice in which the voice of those constantly online will be obscuring the voice of those who are not. These voices are often clashing in different of contexts since they are rooted in social tensions and differences of power.

So, how can Big Data tell us the story of the people that are on the “wrong” side of the digital divide?

Mary L. Gray (2011) makes the case that Critical Ethnography is a practice of Big Data. She invites us to think of Big Data not solely as numbers and quantitative approaches, but also as a practice that is able to balance the value of ethnographic significance and statistical significance. Big Data is usually deeply concerned in mashing as much number as possible to be able to have some sort of reliability and statistics strength. The more you can get, the more reliable the information is.

Qualitative work is often seen as being too specific and doesn’t tell us anything, but Gray argues the opposite, qualitative approaches tell us something different, they give us a different perspective of the story. Ethnographic significance should be integrated as a complement in collaboration with statistical significance, so we are able to get something transformatively different.

I agree with Gray; at an earlier post here on the Social Informatics Blog (Digital Divide Research: one myth, problem and challenge) I make the case that the Digital Divide Research should move on from the statistical charts, census and Big Data, and go in the field to tell us about the context of those who are not on the internet, or not as often due to digital inequalities.

Big Data was the reason why I ended up going to the slum of Gurigica in Vitoria, Brazil. According to the census, the locals have a very low access to the LAN Houses and Telecentros that are inside the community. But if it wasn’t for my ethnographic research, I would have never known that this was happening due to the activities of the drug cartel that didn’t allow them to circulate freely on the streets. Therefore, Critical Ethnography is a powerful tool to approach the issues of the Digital Divide and contextualize the notions that Big Data gives us.

References (I highly recommend Gray’s video):

danah boyd, & Crawford, K. (2012). CRITICAL QUESTIONS FOR BIG DATA.Information, Communication & Society15(5), 662-679.

Gray, M. L. (2011). Anthropology as BIG DATA: Making the case for ethnography as a critical dimension in media and technology studies. http://research.microsoft.com/apps/video/default.aspx?id=155639

Digital Divide Research: one myth, problem and challenge.

The Myth: Digital Divide has a small literature. Pretty much, almost every book or paper on the topic will say this. I used to believe that not enough work has been done on Digital Divide, until I started studying for my qualifying exam. Fortunately or unfortunately I found out that the literature is actually very large. The problem is that the digital divide research is spread throughout all kinds of disciplines, such as: ICT4D, Community Informatics, HCI, Social Informatics, Sociology and Communication studies. In fact, the literature is not new, because it goes way back when academics were studying the diffusion of telephones and televisions.

The Problem: Quantitative approaches are addressed to answer the wrong questions. A lot of the research done on digital divide is done quantitatively. They rely on the data collected by International Telecommunication Union, World Bank and other agencies. And what these researches do is to identify a digital gap and try to correlate that gap with some sort of social, economic or political issue.  For example, there is a cross country study done by Luis Andres, he says that, based on his quantitative analysis, in order to bridge the digital gap we need to liberalize the telecommunication market to promote internet provider competition. I agree, but Brazil has had this free market for about 15 years, and we still have a vast digital divide. So, obviously, this is not an issue for Brazil, something must be happening that is keeping the divide wide. What I’m trying to say here is that in order to fully understand and propose meaningful solutions, the digital divide research requires local and context based research. It doesn’t matter if it’s quantitative or qualitative, I don’t want to get into this argument, but we need to understand that each country has its own set of policies, people have different cultural backgrounds, so solutions need to be tailored and not based on general auto analysis.

The Challenge: “How to talk to policymakers?”. Policymakers of the digital divide tend to have a technological deterministic perspective. They focus on single factors, such as “access”, because they are convenient since they are easy to measure. These simple measures can be used to influence public opinion since lay people can relate to them. Policymakers also need to justify allocation of resources, which is easier to do when they can create benchmarks (Barzilai-Nahon, 2006). So policymakers are strung up on numbers, and how can we show them that subjective factors such as education and training can be of much better value to promote the digital inclusion than pure access? I don’t want to blame policymakers for approaching the digital divide quantitatively, but I’d like to leave this challenge for us, digital divide scholars, to realize a way to start conversations with people that can only see numbers.

References
Barzilai-Nahon, Karine. 2006. “Gaps and Bits: Conceptualizing Measurements for Digital Divide/s.” Information Society 22:269-278.

On Building Social Robustness and Enduring Computing

As many of you know, I am now directing a Social Informatics (SI) Group in a School of Informatics and Computing (SoIC) at Indiana University Bloomington. The SI group is quite unique in Informatics/Computer Science/Information Studies, it that is has chosen to oriented itself explicitly to the field of Science, Technology, and Society (STS, also referred to as Science and Technology Studies). I am also thinking about retirement in the next 3-5 years. Being in these situations has shaped the research agenda that follows.

My current research is all framed generally within Socially Robust and Enduring Computing. SREC is based on the notion that developing a notion of social robustness, comparable to the technical notion of robustness in Computer Science, is a goal worth pursuing. I have developed SREC with colleagues in Trento, Italy.

My main research time commitment at the moment is to a writing project on Value(s) with Maurizio Teli, a young researcher at the Foundation in Trento, where I spend a couple months every year. My interest in this area grew out of efforts to identify the forms whereby and the extent to which computing professionals are responsible ethically for the current economic and social crisis set off in finance. Maurizio’s and my value(s) project is a continuation of this work on the crisis and is linked to the project of David Graeber in Debt: The First 5000 Years, itself a work that builds on much of the recent anthropology of value. That is, we want to give a similar account of the ways in which value and values are and should be treated and thought about in the reproduction of current social formations. Such an account is made necessary by the ways in which contemporary reproduction is increasingly detached from the prior industrial dynamics but which has not yet established a new dynamic. In our view, establishing new social formation reproduction dynamics requires identification of new values, new institutions for pursuing those values, and new means to measure especially value relating to the success or failure of establishing these new values and institutions. A major point we wish to make regards the increasingly larger role in these new dynamics we see being played by common pool resources, the focus of Eleanor Ostrom, winner of the 2009 Nobel Prize in economics, and, until she died last Spring, a valued colleague here in Bloomington.

It is my hope that this writing will be paralleled by a research and demonstration project in Trentino on new systems, including information systems, for supporting the independent living of Seniors. This Suitcaseproject will build on my previous work in disability studies and technology, as well as more general ethnography in this region. Another aspect of the Trento ethnography is an attempt to understand what has made the region relatively hospitable to Participatory Design. PD is the focus of what I hope to and expect will be my last permanent contribution to the curriculum in the SoIC. In addition, I am working on another, related writing project, a text on Organizational Informatics, with Stefano De Paoli, another researcher. This text will incorporate much of the work behind my 2011 AAA paper in the business anthropology sessions as well as my current teaching, including my course on the Ethnography of Information.

A final areas of research, this time in collaboration with two SoIC graduate students, Nic True and Shad Gross, is on Massive Multiplayer Online Games (MMOGs). In this work, we engage the current interest in Big Data, intending to show how some of the epistemological shortcomings in its standard approaches can be address when it is triangulated with ethnography. In our case, we argue that a preliminary ethnography of gaming can provide clearer direction regarding what we should be looking for in the automated analysis of large corpora of game play data. This work is directly related to the effort in SoIC to create a professional masters degree in Big Data.

Presented in this way, it should be easy to see, as I said initially, the multiple ways in which this research agenda is a function of my current position. While I have participated in the AAA meetings and CASTAC occasionally since I went to Indiana in 2004, this occasional connection has not been enough to justify systematic orientation of my research toward anthropology. Ironically, when I studied the careers of anthropologists interested in STS in the 1980s, I found a similar phenomenon; there were few if any examples of individuals who developed these interests while sustaining strong connections with academic anthropology. I should mention that my efforts to interest Indiana University Bloomington Department of Anthropology scholars in this type of work has born little fruit.

I mention these things as a warning: Interest in the anthropology of science, technology, and computing is not automatically, or even generally, a good way to build a career in anthropology. Working in and through vehicles like CASTAC should thus be understood as essential to the work of anthropologists who wish to continue to do so.

This blog post can also be seen at: http://blog.castac.org/2012/11/on-building-social-robustness/

Review: Eubanks’s Digital Dead End

I recently read Virginia Eubanks’s Digital Dead End: Fighting for Social Justice in the Information Age and thoroughly enjoyed it. What I loved the most about this book is that it is work that manages to both investigate social relationships and critique the role of information systems within them. Eubanks offers a compelling analysis of the role of technology in the lives of impoverished women in upstate New York. I found her discussions of participatory research and development and technological citizenship to be particularly helpful. These concepts help to define the kind of human engagement in the creation, implementation, and use of technology that social informatics research seeks to cultivate. This book is a great example of the kind of work that should be characterized as social informatics because of its thorough investigation of sociotechnical phenomena and its aims to address real problems experienced in everyday life.

Eubanks spent several years working with women in at the Troy-Cohoes community YWCA. She worked with a group called WYMSM (Women at the YWCA Making Social Movement), comprised of women who were organizing to “use technology as a tool for social change” (xviii) to help disadvantaged women.  Eubanks argues that contrary to the popular vision of impoverished people suffering from lack of access to technology, technology actually permeates these women’s lives and these women have strong ideas about the role information systems play in their daily lives. Eubanks argues that the digital divide is not simply a gulf between those who have technology and those who do not. The women of WYMSM simultaneously see technology as a means to opportunity and as something that limits their possibilities.

In fact, Eubanks shows that the construct of the digital divide is not only useless for actually understanding the complex sociotechnical ecology in which these women live, it is dangerously misguiding as it pushes agendas for increasing access, when that, as Eubanks shows, is not necessarily needed. The problem is that it is not a lack of access that keeps marginalized people from prospering in today’s high-tech oriented economy.  If the problem is not lack of access, then programs that work to distribute access to technology will not only fail but will perpetuate the real problems.  Eubanks critiques the idea that the solution to helping people out of poverty is to give them access to technology, calling such ideas “magical thinking.”

Eubanks argues that throwing technologies at these social problems only makes them worse by obscuring the ways in which information systems reproduce, or even strengthen, oppression.  Eubanks defines technology as a process, a continual scene of struggle. She writes,

“…technology embodies human relationships, legislates behavior, and shapes citizenship. Our mistaken assumptions about technology’s static ‘thingness’ prevent us from recognizing the real world of IT, and from realizing what Ruth called ‘technology for people’” (21).

She argues that the real problems are political, economic, and social. She advocates for a new strategy of developing technologies she calls “popular technology.”  Popular technology privileges the perspective and participation of everyday experts. It is described as

“an approach to critical technological citizenship education based on the insights of broadly participatory, democratic methods of knowledge generation…popular technology creates a space in which all participants can become more critical technological citizens” (104).

Notions of participation are underscored throughout the entire book. Eubanks used participatory action research methodology to conduct her research. She sees the women she works with as colleagues rather than her subjects.  The book concludes with an agenda that includes several broad social changes, such as the protection of lower-tiered (customer service and manufacturing, for instance) high-tech industry jobs, that might be possible through such participatory practices.

I see this focus on the creation of critical technological citizens as a goal shared by a social informatics perspective.  Eubanks describes critical technological citizens as those who “can meaningfully engage and critique the technological present and respond to the citizenship and social justice effects of IT” (30).  Social informatics research seeks to create knowledge that meaningfully engages and critiques the technological presence. I share this goal not only in the research I produce, but also in my teaching of undergraduate social informatics courses.

The vision of a society in which technology is liberating for all and never a tool of oppression, where the democratic participatory possibilities of networked technologies can honestly be leveraged by anyone might be fantastically optimistic, but we will never get anywhere close without the kind of work Eubanks has done here. While not all social informatics work is as overtly political as Eubanks’s work is here, we share the critical stance Eubanks expresses. Such nuanced understanding of sociotechnical relationships is absolutely what social informatics work should strive for.

Eubanks, Virginia (2011) Digital Dead End: Fighting for Social Justice in the Information Age. MIT Press

Digital Inclusion in Brazil: a Social Informatics epistemological problematique

Brazil is currently the world’s fifth largest country, both by geographical area and by population. It is the world’s eighth largest economy by nominal GDP with one of the world’s fastest growing major economies (World Bank, 2011). With such outstanding macro indexes, it is a shame to look into a close up reality of the Brazilian society, which is characterized by its abysmal gap between the rich and the poor. The marginalized poor people are not only deprived from decent services to their basic needs, but also to the access of technology. About 47% of the Brazilian population never used a computer, and 66% of the population never had access to the Internet. 64% of the people that had/have some sort of access to the Internet, never had a formal training on how to use the internet (CGI, 2006), which highlights the need of critical education and consciousness of its use.

The Brazilian government has been trying to fight such digital divide by introducing digital inclusion programs in order to socially include the marginalized population. Before moving on, I would like to revisit such terms since they have different meanings but often times are used as the if they were the same. Digital divide refers to inequalities between any groups in terms of access and use of digital technologies. Digital divide is usually concerned with statistics of access and can help us by acknowledging where the problem is situated. Digital inclusion refers to the process of democratizing the access to digital technologies in a way that the digitally marginalized is inserted in the information society.  For digital inclusion, access is not enough; the process should be worried about empowering the marginalized and teach them how to appropriate the digital technologies.

Digital Inclusion policies in Brazil have a technological deterministic approach, in which policymakers are mainly concerned about giving access to technology to the poor classes. Issues such as empowerment and appropriation of technology don’t seem to be on their priorities. In 2005 the Brazilian government invested over $400 million in various programs, equipment, infra-structure and tools to afford the poor population to access to technology. The Brazilian government was mostly concerned about lowering the price of computers and pushing them into the people’s homes instead of providing social programs that would involve technology. (Rebelo, 2005; “Info Plantao” 2007).

Currently, the Brazilian government has two main strategies to promote digital inclusion: LAN houses and Telecentros. LAN houses are establishments where, like a cyber cafe, people can pay to use a computer with Internet access and a local network (LAN). According to the Internet Steering Committee in Brazil, LAN houses are responsible for almost 50% of Internet access in Brazil and in poor areas it is responsible for 82% of the accesses (“O GLOBO”, 2009). Although LAN houses are privately owned business, the government provides several credit lines and loans with low interest rate in order to spread the number of facilities, especially in poor areas. Telecentros are facilities where the general public can access the computers for free. The computers are equipped with a variety of software and connected to the Internet. Several computer lectures are offered to the population throughout the year in order to fight the digital divide. Some Telecentro programs are owned by the government and some others by the private sector. Telecentros are usually implemented in areas where the populations with low income reside.

Because of the relative nuance of the Digital Inclusion programs in Brazil and even in the rest of the world, little substantive research/theory literature exists on the effective ways to measure change brought about by providing access to ICTs (O’Neil, 2002). The reason for such inefficiency is due to the erroneous methodological approach by policymakers whom are mostly strung up on hard numbers and statistics. The “problematique” of Digital Inclusion should be approached by qualitative methods which work well for exploratory studies in new fields as monitoring their progress and offers a holistic view of a dynamic situation (Patton, 1990). In this way, Digital inclusion research can build on Social Informatics research that considers social factors influencing ICT use. Social Informatics provides theoretical tools that can assist researchers in considering and understanding the social factors influencing ICT utilization (Kling, 2000).

The topic of digital inclusion hasn’t been fully explored in the eyes of Social Informatics. A lot of analyses have been done on policies regarding the topic, but a proper study that researches the users’ behavior, culture and attitude towards digital technology is almost nonexistent. No one can argue whether digital inclusion leads to social inclusion or not, because the previous studies try to tackle such question in terms of numbers, and as I already mentioned, it can’t be answered quantitatively. Digital Inclusion has been my main research interest, and as a Social Informatics PhD student, my goal is to ethnographically explore the actual digital inclusion units (LAN houses and telecentros), talk to people and understand their culture in order to properly answer some questions.

References

World Bank (2011, April 15). World Development Indicators database. Retrieved from http://go.worldbank.org/I358WVLTT0

CGI (2006, May 30). Survey on the Use of Information and Communication Technologies in Brazil: e-Government Indicators – Households and Enterprises. Retrieved from http://www.cetic.br/palestras

Info Plantao. Retrieved December 7, 2011, from http://info.abril.com.br/aberto/infonews/082007/08082007-17.shl

Kling, R. (2000). Learning about information technologies and social change: the contribution of social informatics. The Information Society. 16(3), 217-232.

O Globo. Retrieved December 7, 2011, from http://oglobo.globo.com/blogs/cat/posts/2009/06/19/lan-houses-caminho-da-responsabilidade-social-197174.asp

O’Neil, D. (2002). Assessing community informatics: a review of methodological approaches for evaluating community networks and community technology centers. Internet Research, 12(1), 76-102.

Patton, M. (1990). Qualitative evaluation and research methods. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.

Rebelo, P. (2005, May 12). Inclusão digital: o que é e a quem se destina? Webinsider. Retrieved from http://webinsider.uol.com.br/2005/05/12/inclusao-digital-o-que-e-e-a-quem-se-destina/

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