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Maps of Internet Connectivity in Africa Expose Hurdles to Digital Inclusion

Currently, the digital economy excludes over half of the world’s population who remain disconnected from the web, with more than half of Africa still offline and 37 percent of rural US households with no access to broadband. This inequity inspired the design of the Digital Inclusion Challenge, for which I am serving as a Faculty Co-Chair. MIT Solve is now undergoing the review of hundreds of solutions from around the world that are working to improve accessibility to the digital economy. 

Meanwhile at MIT, I have been working with my team at the Civic Data Design Lab (CDDL) on creating visualizations to depict the inequities in internet connectivity in Africa.

In many rapidly developing cities, there is a lack of data on which populations have access to the internet and which do not. Without this information, it is hard for governments to develop targeted plans for broadband that would serve those who need it most. However, private companies, such as Facebook and Google, have spatial data on connectivity, user connections, and internet strength, and this data can help generate maps of internet connectivity.

Using aggregated and anonymized data from these global data powerhouses, we created a Cities Connectivity Index (CCI) to determine the current availability of internet in our test city Nairobi, Kenya. Combining this index with demographic and infrastructure data, CDDL developed a demand model highlighting the communities with the greatest needs. The results provided a picture of inequity in internet access across the city. 

In Nairobi, we found that the areas with the low-income population had the lowest CCI score, and that commercial districts and the central business district had greater connectivity. The maps were categorized as high- and low-performance clusters, and there were significant differences in how the internet was in each of these clusters. This mapping process was also repeated throughout several cities in Africa.

In high-performance areas, both men and women are very likely to be internet users, with 80% of respondents from both groups claiming to use the internet. However, in low-performance areas, there is a gender disparity in internet usage as only 59% of women claim to be internet users, compared to 68% of men. Women therefore have greater potential for increased internet use.

Exposing the inequity through the maps was an essential part of the work. It was not surprising that many of the locations with the greatest need were low-income urban areas or informal settlements. What was important was that the maps provided proof of what everyone knew and called government actors to be accountable.

Nairobi residents also expressed that low internet use in some communities was attributed to a host of other social problems such as literacy, income, and interest, rather than simply lack of access to the infrastructure. For example, many women in Nairobi lacked interest in using the internet, but, in some cases, demonstrated why they might want to use it. 

In general, women bear the brunt of digital exclusion as they're 80 percent less likely to own a mobile phone than men across lower- or middle-income countries, and 20 percent less likely to be online. If we work to close the digital gender gap over five years in these countries, we can add USD 700 Billion to their GDP growth.

The results of the Lab’s project support other research that states some of the most significant barriers to the internet are lack of interest, affordability, digital illiteracy, and lack of infrastructure for information communication technology (ICT). 

“That’s why Solve’s Digital Inclusion Challenge is so relevant now. We have a huge opportunity to augment solutions to structural problems that the pandemic is highlighting, in terms of access to infrastructure, affordable data, digital literacy skills, culturally relevant content, and financial solutions for anyone to be part of the economy,” said Carlos Centeno, Lead for the Economic Prosperity Community at Solve. “Connecting the rest of the world could add $6.7 trillion to the economy and lift 500 million people out of poverty.”  

The CCI and in-person discussions gave us robust insight into the spatial distribution of internet connectivity and individual-level barriers to internet usage. There is a need for further research into the unique obstacles, whether socioeconomic or cultural, that women in Africa face in accessing ICTs—perhaps even a spatial model that focuses primarily on the gender disparity in internet access. 

The research also led us at the CDDL to collaborate with Kounkuey Design Initiative and Tunapnda in Kibera to develop Living Data Hubs, a community-built and community-owned wireless hotspot and data collection centre. One of the owners of these hotspots is a woman-owned business based in Kibera, which gives us hope that their work will inspire other women to engage with the internet.

The Digital Inclusion Challenge Solver teams will be announced at Solve Challenge Finals in September. The MIT Solve community is actively looking for partners who want to amplify the selected solutions through collaboration and resources. To learn more about how to partner with Solve, contact Bruna Braga, Head of Partnerships.


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