The Digital Divide: a challenge to overcome in tackling climate change

Submitted by John Roome

Students from Tonga's Tailulu College making the most of new high-speed broadband services at 2013 World Telecommunication and Information Society Day celebrations in the the Tongan capital, Nuku'alofa. Nukua'lofa, Tonga. Photo: Tom Perry / World Bank

Students from Tonga’s Tailulu College making the most of new high-speed broadband services at 2013 World Telecommunication and Information Society Day celebrations in the the Tongan capital, Nuku’alofa. Nukua’lofa, Tonga. Photo: Tom Perry / World Bank

Try to imagine a world without the Internet.

Impossible, isn’t it?

Over the past 25 years, the Internet has become the nervous system of our society, interconnecting all the different parts of our everyday lives. Our social interactions, ways of doing business, traveling and countless other activities are supported and governed by this technology.

At this very moment, just over three billion people are connected to the Internet, 105 billion emails are being sent, two million blog posts have just been written (including this one) and YouTube has collected four billion views. These numbers give you a glimpse of the extent to which humanity is intimately and deeply dependent on this technology.

The digital revolution has changed the daily lives of billions of people. But what about the billions who have been left out of this technological revolution?

This and many other questions have been addressed in the just released 2016 World Development Report 2016: Digital Dividends, which examines how the Internet can be a force for development, especially for poor people in developing countries.

A striking contradiction

In many developing countries, more families now own a mobile phone than have access to electricity or clean water. No major technology has reached more people in such a short time but, unfortunately, there’s still a significant digital divide between the poor and the wealthy parts of the global population when it comes to Internet access. Perhaps not surprising that the same digital divide has an impact on the ability of developing countries to deal with the impact of climate change.

According to our recently released Report, Shock Waves: Managing the Impacts of Climate Change on Poverty, climate risk management requires data and knowledge. Connectivity is therefore a fundamental part of the equation for protecting poor people from climate change.

Making the difference on the ground

We already know that greater connectivity in vulnerable countries is crucial for ensuring access to information before, during and after a disaster. The Global Facility for Disaster Reduction and Recovery has developed a wide array of tools for disaster risk management (DRM), and they rely heavily on the Internet’s infinite capabilities.

The GFDRR’s Open Data for Resilience Initiative (OpenDRI) is helping countries to set up open disaster information platforms. Through the GFDRR’s risk identification efforts, like OpenDRI, over 160 million people in 60 countries have gained improved access to risk information, and 1300 new datasets are now freely available to the public. Digital technologies also allow us to use innovative approaches to disaster risk management such as crowdsourcing and social data mining, which can expand the information base rapidly and cheaply. These digital approaches can also facilitate closer collaboration between all parts of the government, enable fuller integration of public and private services, and allow greater involvement on the part of the public.

The Flood Tags project, for example, is developing a tool to harness data collected via Twitter for on-the-ground flood observations. Such mining of social data can give us a constant and up-to-the-minute understanding of the situation during a disaster, in a way that could not be done before. Connected open-source mobile weather stations can help reduce flood damage and increase community preparedness by collecting crucial weather data and broadcasting SMS-based communications to early warning systems.

As outlined in the Shock Waves Report, another great example of how connectivity can help poor people is financial inclusion. In most developing countries, poor people have less access to financial tools than the rest of the population, often forcing them to save “in kind.” Thanks to mobile banking, it is now possible to provide convenient and affordable financial services to those living in rural areas, reducing the vulnerability of poor families. And that matters. For instance, changes in rainfall patterns can mean farmers may have to adjust their practices or  need to invest in new machinery and seeds, or possibly learn new techniques. Without access to credit, these measures may be unaffordable, and they could become locked into activities with declining productivity and income.

Moving ahead  

As underlined in the World Development Report 2016: Digital Dividends, more investments are needed if we are to boost our efforts to close the digital divide and make the Internet universal, affordable, open, and safe. Equally we know solving the “climate puzzle” will take a vast array of resources and forward-thinking solutions. The Internet is, without any doubt, the tool that will best allow us to connect, share information and gather collective intelligence in the years to come.

John Roome

World Bank Group Senior Director, Climate Change.

Original article