Digital Inequality Beyond the Digital Divide

How can we understand digital inequality in an era of digital inclusion?

As the open-access journal paper, Digital Inequality Beyond the Digital Divide: Conceptualising Adverse Digital Incorporation in the Global South” explains, the digital divide has been an essential and powerful concept that links digital systems with inequality.

But it is no longer sufficient.  A majority of the global South’s population now has internet access and is included in, not excluded from, digital systems.  Yet, as the figure below illustrates, that inclusion also brings inequalities – the small farmers in digital value chains losing out to large intermediaries; the gig workers whose value and data are captured by their platforms; the communities disempowered when they are digitally mapped.

Figure 1: From an Exclusion-Based to an Inclusion-Based Perspective on Digital Inequality

We need a new conceptualisation to explain this emerging pattern.  I refer to this as “adverse digital incorporation”, defined as inclusion in a digital system that enables a more-advantaged group to extract disproportionate value from the work or resources of another, less-advantaged group.

As shown below, I have inductively built a model of adverse digital incorporation, based around three aspects:

Figure 2. Conceptual Model of Adverse Digital Incorporation

Future digital development research can apply this model deductively to cases of digital inequality, and can further investigate the digitality of adverse digital incorporation. 

For digital development practitioners, the challenge will be to achieve “advantageous digital incorporation”: designing digital interventions that specifically and effectively reduce existing inequalities.  This means going beyond digital equity to digital justice: addressing the underlying and contextual causes of inequality not just its surface manifestations.

For further details, please refer to the paper; “Digital Inequality Beyond the Digital Divide: Conceptualising Adverse Digital Incorporation in the Global South”.

How Does Technology Affect Smart City Governance?

What is a Smart City?

A Smart City (SC) capitalises on technology, proper governance and collaborations between the various stakeholders to comprehensively promote city prosperity and eventually improve the quality of citizens’ lives.

Figure 1. Envisaging the smart city[1]

Cities are agglomerations of economic, social, and cultural benefits[2]. On the other hand, cities are increasingly confronted with issues such as diminishing public management efficiency, backward infrastructure, traffic congestion, environmental pollution, and general security concerns, among others.

The Smart City is a concept that has evolved around the world to solve urban problems and enhance urban development. Several municipalities, such as Cape Town, Ottawa, San Diego, Southampton, Barcelona, Seoul, and Shanghai, have developed SCs to serve citizens better and improve the quality of citizens’ lives.

What is Smart City Governance?

New governance patterns are required to manage SCs. The governance models for SCs could be divided into two categories:

  • Some of the governance models are technology-driven, focusing on the role of big data and technology.
  • Other governance models emphasise the human and institutional factors,  such as the role of governance structures, citizen-centricity, social capital, human resources and stakeholders.

At the intersection of these two, Smart City Governance (SCG) emerges mainly due to the growing roles of technology and human capabilities in the functioning of cities, which gives the government the opportunity to optimise the governance process and outcomes. A typical description of SCG is “crafting new forms of human collaboration through the use of ICTs to obtain better outcomes and more open governance processes” [3].

How does technology affect SCG?

The technology revolution has altered the city governance model. The impact of technology on governance models is roughly in two directions. One is to use technology to strengthen the government-centric bureaucratic model, and the other is to use technology to distribute decision-making power to more stakeholders.

  • Technology contributing to the concentration of power

The case in Shenzhen, China shows how technology can strengthen a top-down governance model. The Shenzhen government propagated a programmatic document for SCG, the Shenzhen Municipal New-Type Smart City Construction Master Plan, in 2018[4]. In this plan, the SC structure of Shenzhen includes three layers and two supports, as outlined in the figure below.

The primary layer is the SC Sensory Network System, which mainly includes sensor networks, communication networks, and computing storage centres; the middle layer provides support for government decision-making, which is composed of the Urban Big Data Centre and SC Operation and Management Centre; the top application layer includes four parts public services, public safety, urban governance and smart industries.

In this scenario, technology is the core element of governance and is used to strengthen the government’s decision-making and implementation capabilities. In this kind of governance model, technology is used to collect public management-related data and information, help make governmental decisions and finally reinforce the rationality and efficiency of government.

Figure 2. Shenzhen’s smart city structure [5]

  • Technology contributing to the decentralisation of power

On the other hand, technology may give impetus to the bottom-up governance model. For example, in the case of Amsterdam Smart City (ASC)[6], the Amsterdam Economic Board governs and funds it using an open web-based platform. This platform allows stakeholders to communicate and disseminate information in a fair and transparent manner. Furthermore, open-house programmes and open gatherings help citizens communicate and empower themselves. This case demonstrates how technological innovation has aided in the distribution of information and power to more stakeholders in ASC.

Figure 3. Amsterdam Smart City

In conclusion, data and information bestow stakeholders’ power and legitimacy in urban governance to a certain extent. From the standpoint of technology, the power distribution of data and information may affect the governance model towards decentralisation or concentration.

References

[1] https://www.arcweb.com/industries/smart-cities

[2] https://ec.europa.eu/regional_policy/sources/docgener/studies/pdf/citiesoftomorrow/citiesoftomorrow_final.pdf

[3] Bolívar, M. P. R., & Meijer, A. J. (2016). Smart governance: Using a literature review and empirical analysis to build a research model. Social Science Computer Review, 34(6), 673–692. https://doi.org/10.1177/0894439315611088

[4] http://www.sz.gov.cn/zfgb/2018/gb1062/content/post_4977617.html

[5] Hu, R., (2019). The state of smart cities in China: The case of Shenzhen. Energies, 12(22), p.4375

[6] https://amsterdamsmartcity.com/

Workshop on China’s Digital Expansion in the Global South

Credit: ASPI https://chinatechmap.aspi.org.au/

China is fast-emerging as a global digital superpower and has a rapidly-growing digital presence in other low- and middle-income developing countries of the global South.  Yet research to date has been relatively limited on this rising phenomenon which is having important economic, social, political and geopolitical impacts.

This online workshop – held 1000-1730 (UK time/BST) on Thursday 21st July 2022 – presented new findings based on primary research in the global South, and also provided a space to reflect on the agenda and collaborations for future research.

Recordings of the presentations in the three main workshop session can be found at: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLjghFTNvDEIyEUpx7nlYqWDKeA5JkWczL

The workshop timetable is shown below:

1000-1200:

The Future Research Agenda on China’s Digital Expansion – Richard Heeks, Angelica Ospina, Chris Foster, Ping Gao, Xia Han, Nicholas Jepson, Seth Schindler & Qingna Zhou (University of Manchester)

Learning Along the Digital Silk Road? Technology Transfer, Power, and Chinese ICT Corporations in North Africa – Tin Hinane El Kadi (London School of Economics)

China’s Digital Expansion in Africa: South to South Cooperation or South Dominance? – Grace Wang (Stellenbosch University)

1300-1445:

Chinese Digital Platform Companies’ Expansion in the Belt and Road Countries – Yujia He (University of Kentucky)

Global Developments of Chinese E-commerce Livestreaming: Case of AliExpress and Lazada in Southeast Asia – Xiaofei Han (Carleton University)

Transnational Governance behind Chinese Platforms’ Overseas Content Moderation: A Case Study of TikTok’s Global Reach to Southern and South-eastern Asia – Diyi Liu (University of Oxford)

1500-1645:

The Chinese Surveillance State in Latin America? Evidence from Argentina and Ecuador – Maximiliano Vila Seoane (National Scientific and Technical Research Council, Argentina) & Carla Álvarez Velasco (Institute of Higher National Studies, Ecuador)

China’s Expansion in Brazilian Digital Surveillance Markets: Between Public Actors and Foreign Enterprises – Esther Majerowicz (Federal University of Rio Grande do Norte) & Miguel Henriques de Carvalho (Federal University of Rio de Janeiro)

Alibaba in Mexico: Adapting the Digital Villages Model to Latin America – Guillermo J. Larios-Hernandez (Universidad Anahuac Mexico)

1645-1730:

Future Research Agenda Activity

The workshop was co-hosted by the University of Manchester’s Centre for Digital Development and Manchester China Institute

Graphic credit: ASPI at https://chinatechmap.aspi.org.au/

COVID-19 and the Unsettled Questions of Digital Governance

A meeting on e-commerce at the World Trade Organisation, source: WTO photos

How will ongoing debates on digital governance shape the future of digital development?

One of the important implications of the COVID-19 pandemic has been the further acceleration of growth in the digital economy and the expansion of cross-border digital flows. Driven by the pandemic, large and small businesses across the world adapted their business models by shifting completely or partially to internet-based models. As a result, digital transactions, within and across countries, increased dramatically over the last couple of years. While measurement of such flows is challenging, some reports estimate that global Internet Protocol (IP) traffic was expected to more than triple between 2017 and 2022 and that domestic and international IP traffic in 2022 will exceed all Internet traffic up to 2016.

This growth has intensified the debates around digital governance. These debates have begun prior to the pandemic as the growth in the digital economy on the one hand and the move by some states to adopt “interventionist” digital policies drove intense discussions on how to govern the digital world and where to draw the line between sovereignty of states on the one hand and the need to adopt international rules and norms to maintain the global nature of the digital world.

The success of some countries, particularly China, in building digital capacities and firms through selective, and often limited, integration in the global digital market have intensified those debates as other countries began to look to the Chinese model as a guidance for their digital strategies. As a result, questions around the appropriate forum to govern digital issues, the limits of state power vis-à-vis international rules and norms, and the applicability of such rules to different economies have dominated digital policy debates for a number of years. Some of those debates have taken place within regional blocs such as the European Union (EU) and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) while others have taken place within international bodies that are focused on digital governance such as the Internet Governance Forum (IGF).

While these debates continued in different forums, a difficult link between digital governance and the international trading system was established largely as a result of pressure from the advanced economies. Issues such as data flows, source code and algorithms, and cybersecurity, amongst others, became increasingly linked to trade regimes with recent trade agreements adopting digital chapters that include rules on a range of digital issues.

While the link between trade agreements and the digital world is not always clear (while some cross-border flows are trade flows, a huge percentage of these flows are not trade-related, and the two are very difficult to separate), the trade regime offered an established forum with the ability to produce binding and enforceable rules to govern the digital space. Today, negotiations on digital issues continue in a number of multilateral, regional, and bilateral trade forums as states pursue different visions of the digital economy and how to govern digital flows. The advanced economies, in particular the United States, the EU, Japan, and Australia in addition to emerging economies such as India and China are the key drivers of these processes.

The implications of such processes for development issues are profound, and often overlooked. The economic and social value of data, for instance, is not yet fully understood and, as such, it is unclear what adopting binding international rules around data flows will exactly entail. Some argue that developing countries will benefit from global open data policies as it gives them an opportunity to integrate in the digital economy and to achieve technological progress. Others, however, question this position and argue that developing countries should resist any rules that could undermine their policy space to adopt digital policies. As discussions on these issues continue in different forums, more engagement from digital development scholars is needed.

In the context of the dramatic expansion of the digital economy driven by the pandemic, better understanding the implications of digital governance for digital development particularly in lower-income and smaller developing countries is crucial to help shape the processes driving digital governance and to ensure that digital rules do not undermine the objectives of economic and social development that are increasingly tied to digital issues in today’s world.

Global South researchers succeeding against the odds: how are they different?

Understanding the Context

How are some global South researchers able to overcome contextual constraints and become highly cited?

There is a clear research divide between the global South and the global North[1] in terms of research investment and capabilities. The average national expenditure on research and development in Southern countries is 0.38% compared to 1.44% in Northern countries[2]. The number of researchers per million population in 2017 was 713 in the global South and 4,351 in the global North[3]. This had implications on the volume and impact of scientific outputs produced by the global South in comparison to the global North. Excluding China and India, in 2018 global North countries produced an average of more than 35,000 scientific and technical journal articles per country while global South countries produced 4,000 journal articles per country, out of which less than 2% made it to the top 1% most cited articles globally. This can be partially explained by the lower levels of investment and English proficiency, smaller relative populations of researchers, institutional exclusion factors and/or biases against Southern researchers when it comes to accepting their papers in top tier journals or awarding grants.

Despite all of the aforementioned challenges, there are a few Southern researchers who are able to achieve better outcomes than their peers. Such researchers could provide valuable insights and lessons that might help to better understand and even mitigate the current North–South divide in research outputs and citation. This blog post will highlight some of the valuable insights emerging from our recently published study that attempted to uncover publication-level and individual-level factors underlying the outperformance of information systems researchers in Egypt.

The Method

 This study employed the “data-powered positive deviance” (DPPD) methodology that uses digital datasets to identify positive deviants (those performing unexpectedly well in a specific outcome measure that is digitally recorded, mediated or observed) and potentially also to understand the characteristics and practices of those positive deviants (PDs) if digitally recorded.

Three main steps were conducted to identify and characterise PDs, as shown in Figure 1:

  • In the Define step, we defined our study population and the performance indicators that will be used to assign a score for each researcher. The study population comprised 203 information system researchers in Egyptian public universities. Six well-known citation metrics (h-index, g-index, hc-index, hi-index, aw-index and m-quotient) were calculated for each researcher using Publish or Perish and Google Scholar bibliometrics. Several citation metrics were used to avoid putting certain groups at a disadvantage due to factors such as the length of their research career, the size of their research departments, the age of their papers or their publication strategies.
  • The Determine step aims at identifying the PDs based on the scores calculated in the previous step. In this study, PDs or outliers were defined as researchers who significantly outperformed their peers in at least one of the six citation metrics. The interquartile (IQR) method was used to identify those outliers based on their deviation from the median, i.e. lying beyond the 1.5*IQR added to the third quartile in at least one of the six citation metrics.
  • The third step, Discover, consists of three main stages. In Stage 1, primary data was collected through in-depth interviews from a sample of PDs to explore practices, attitudes and attributes that might distinguish them from non-PDs. During Stage 2, the key findings from Stage 1 plus other predictors of research performance drawn from the literature were used to design a survey tool. That survey then targeted the whole population and tested if the proposed differentiators were significantly different between the two groups. Finally, in Stage 3, the Scopus database was used as the basis for analysis of researcher publications; extending and validating some of the findings identified in the previous stages.

Figure 1: Summary of the applied DPPD method

 What we found

 A combination of data sources (interviews, surveys, publications) and analytical techniques (PLS regression, topic modelling) were used to identify significant predictors of positively-deviant information system researchers. One of the key findings was that PDs contributed to the creation of roughly half (48%) of the publications and achieved nearly double (1.7x) the total number of citations of non-PDs despite representing roughly one-eighth (13%) of the study population. While there were significant predictors of outperformance that are structural (e.g. gender, academic rank and role, workplace perceptions), our focus in this post is on highlighting factors that are transferable i.e. practices and strategies that are to some extent within the control of the individual researchers. Table 1 provides a summary of such factors.

Individual-Level Predictors

 

Positive Deviants

Non-Positive Deviants

Travelling abroad to obtain their PhD degree

More PDs got their PhDs from global North countries 

Fewer non-PDs got their PhDs from global North countries

International research collaborations

Frequently part of multi-country research teams 

Seldom part of multi-country research teams

Co-authorship

Published more papers with foreign reputable authors

Published fewer papers with foreign reputable authors

Securing research grants and travel funds 

Secured more grants and travel funds

Secured fewer grants and travel funds

Research approach

Less inclined to do radical research

More inclined to do radical research

Student supervisions

Supervised a larger number of postgraduate students

Supervised a smaller number of postgraduate students

Capacity development  

More PDs took scientific writing and English writing courses

Fewer non-PDs took scientific writing and English writing courses

Publication-Level Predictors

Length of paper

Longer papers

Shorter papers

Length of abstract

Longer abstracts

Shorter abstracts

Length of title

Longer titles

Shorter titles

Number of authors and affiliations

More authors and affiliations

Fewer authors and affiliations

Number of references

More references

Fewer references 

Publication type

More journal articles and fewer conference papers

More conference papers and fewer journal articles

Quality of journals

Higher SJR journals

Lower SJR journals

Publishers

Published more in Elsevier Journals

Published less in Elsevier Journals

Topics

PDs publish fewer papers covering business process management and neural networks and published more papers in wireless sensor networks and hardware systems

Non-PDs publish more papers covering business process management and neural networks and published fewer papers in wireless sensor networks and hardware systems

 Table 1: Significant transferable predictors of outperformance

The analysis also included a visualization of topic prevalence over time for the PD corpus and non-PD corpus as presented in Figure 2. It shows topics, such as Classification Models, where PDs were early movers and then they were followed by NPDs. There is a greater prevalence of Expert Systems and GIS-related topics in the PD corpus in comparison to the NPD corpus. Conversely, there is lower prevalence of Neural Networks and Business Process Management & Process Mining. There are also topics that had very similar proportions over time for both groups, such as Social Network Mining.

Figure 2: Topic proportions of PD corpus (left) and non-PD corpus (right) over time

 Implications for practice and policy

This analysis cannot, of course, guarantee that applying these factors more broadly would lead to the same outcomes achieved by PDs. Nonetheless, there would be value in individual Southern researchers reflecting on the research- and paper-related behaviours that have been shown associated with positively-deviant research profiles. For instance, Southern researchers work in contexts of resource limitation, hence, research grants and travel funds are of outmost importance. Including partners from Northern universities (as PDs do) increases the chances of securing the funds as those partners are more familiar with grant procurement processes and more experienced in writing proposals. Studying abroad also seems to put Southern researchers at an advantage as it does not just equip them with the technical know-how and the degree needed to pursue their academic careers, but also helps them establish channels of collaboration with their supervisors and their PhD granting universities, long after they returned to their home countries. Those long standing relationships provide further access to research grants either directly or via joint grant applications.

In terms of paper-related strategies, Southern researchers could avoid low-visibility local conferences and can select journals instead as they are more likely to deliver citations. Publishing with more authors (domestic and international) could also help pay for journal publication fees, with fees split across more authors or paid from overseas sources. Publishing with foreign authors could also help Southern researchers overcome the institutional biases[4] among editors, reviewers in single-blind or open review systems, and readers. PDs’ preference for working on established research areas rather than on radical research topics may also help in relation to institutional barriers, with research that builds incrementally on existing ideas and literature being more likely to be accepted for publication by referees, and cited by others working in the established area. Hence, Southern researchers seeking more citations could consider contributing to mainstream topics that build on existing work. Along the same lines, having multiple authors and affiliations increases the likelihood of citations, as each author has their own network and bringing those networks together can increase readership. Similarly, publishing papers with a larger number of references increases paper visibility through citation-based search in databases that allow it, such as Google Scholar, and through the “tit-for-tat” hypothesis i.e. authors tend to cite those who cite them.[5]

Higher education institutions and higher education policy makers may also reflect on the findings, and consider strategic implications for training, resource provision, collaborations, etc. For example, English and scientific/formal writing courses were associated with PD performance; such courses could be prerequisites for starting a PhD research. There could be more academic training designed around research grant writing and providing guidance on funding bodies that researchers can apply to. International research collaborations appeared as an important predictor of PDs; so, university senior managers and policy makers can explore ways to reduce barriers and increase opportunities for overseas PhD study, post-PhD return, and ongoing joint research projects with global North universities.

Citation rates are, of course, not the “be all and end all” of research: there are and should be other motivations and indicators of research. However, we hope the findings presented here can provide valuable “food for thought” for global South researchers.

 ________ 

[1] The terms “South” and “Southern” will be used to refer to countries classified as upper-middle income, lower-middle income, and low income. Accordingly, the terms “North” and “Northern” will be used to refer to countries that are members of the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) or are classified as high-income economies by the World Bank based on estimates of gross national income per capita.

[2] Blicharska, M., Smithers, R. J., Kuchler, M., Agrawal, G. K., Gutiérrez, J. M., Hassanali, A., Huq, S., Koller, S. H., Marjit, S., Mshinda, H. M., & Masjuki, H. (2017). Steps to overcome the North-South divide in research relevant to climate change policy and practice. Nature Climate Change, 7(1), 21–27.

[3] World Bank. (2020). Science & Technology Indicators. World Bank.

[4] Karlsson, S., Srebotnjak, T., & Gonzales, P. (2007). Understanding the North-South knowledge divide and its implications for policy: A quantitative analysis of the generation of scientific knowledge in the environmental sciences. Environmental Science and Policy, 10(7–8), 668–684.; Gibbs, W. W. (1995). Lost science in the third world. Scientific American, 273(2), 92–99.; Leimu, R., & Koricheva, J. (2005). What determines the citation frequency of ecological papers? Trends in Ecology & Evolution, 20(1), 28–32.

[5] Webster, G. D., Jonason, P. K., & Schember, T. O. (2009). Hot topics and popular papers in evolutionary psychology: Analyses of title words and citation counts in evolution and human behavior, 1979–2008. Evolutionary Psychology, 7(3), 147470490900700300.

 

Latest Digital Development Outputs (Data, Labour, Platforms, Society, Ed Tech, MSc) from CDD, Manchester

Recent outputs – on Data-for-Development; Digital Labour; Digital Platforms; Digital Society; Ed Tech; MSc Programme – from Centre for Digital Development researchers, University of Manchester:

DATA-FOR-DEVELOPMENT

Data Powered Positive Deviance: Combining Traditional and Non-Traditional Data to Identify and Characterise Development-Related Outperformers” (open access) by Basma Albanna, Richard Heeks, Julia Handl and colleagues from the DPPD project, presents a new methodology through which datasets can be used to identify “positive deviants” – those who outperform their peers in development – and to identify and scale the factors behind their outperformance.

Publication Outperformance among Global South Researchers: An Analysis of Individual-Level and Publication-Level Predictors of Positive Deviance” (open access) by Basma Albanna, Julia Handl & Richard Heeks, uses interviews, a survey and analysis of online datasets to identify those among a group of global South researchers who outperform their peers.  It identifies characteristics of both the high-performing researchers and their publications.

DIGITAL LABOUR

Systematic Evaluation of Gig Work Against Decent Work Standards: The Development and Application of the Fairwork Framework” (open access) by Richard Heeks, Mark Graham, Paul Mungai, Jean-Paul Van Belle & Jamie Woodcock, explains the development and application of the Fairwork framework, which is used worldwide to rate gig economy platforms against decent work standards.

Stripping Back the Mask: Working Conditions on Digital Labour Platforms during the COVID-19 Pandemic” (open access) by Kelle Howson, Funda Ustek-Spilda, Alessio Bertolini, Richard Heeks and other colleagues from the Fairwork project, analyses the Covid policies of 191 platforms in 43 countries. It finds some positive worker protections but also entrenchment of precarious work as platforms leverage the opportunities arising from the crisis.

DIGITAL PLATFORMS

Digital Platforms for Development” (open access) by Brian Nicholson, Petter Nielsen & Johan Saebo, provides an editorial introduction to a special issue of Information Systems Journal on the link between digital platforms and development processes.

Driving the Digital Value Network: Economic Geographies of Global Platform Capitalism” (open access) by Kelle Howson, Fabian Ferrari, Funda Ustek-Spilda, Richard Heeks and other colleagues from the Fairwork project, uses insights from global value chain and global production network frameworks to analyse power imbalances and value extraction across territories by gig economy platforms.

DIGITAL SOCIETY

“Toolkit for Measuring Digital Skills and Digital Literacy“ (open access) by authors at CSIS Indonesia, supported by Matthew Sharp, offers a comprehensive and original framework for measuring digital skills in Indonesia and other G20 countries. The toolkit incorporates insights from pilot individual and firm-level surveys on digital skills undertaken by CSIS in the Greater Jakarta area.

How can Smart City Shape a Happier Life? The Mechanism for Developing a Happiness Driven Smart City” by Huiying Zhu, Liyin Shen & Yitian Ren, introduces a Happiness Driven Smart City (HDSC) mechanism, composed of a three-layer structure and underpinned by a set of strategic measures. A case study shows the HDSC mechanism’s effectiveness in helping decision makers understand the status quo, strengths and weaknesses of smart city development in their context, so that their SC blueprint can be better aligned towards a happiness-driven direction.

ED TECH

The Effectiveness of Technology‐Supported Personalised Learning in Low‐and Middle‐Income Countries” (open access) by Louis Major, Gill Francis & Maria Tsapali, provides a meta-analysis examining the impact of students’ use of technology that personalises and adapts to learning level.

Evaluating Digital Personalised Learning Tools in Kenya: A New Research Study” (blog) by Becky Daltry, Louis Major and others, reports on a new research study to rigorously evaluate the integration of digital personalised learninginto Kenyan classrooms for young children, aged between 4-8 years old.

MSc PROGRAMME

Centre for Digital Development staff provide the core directorship and teaching for the University’s new MSc programme in Digital Development, which will launch in Sept 2022.

Mapping research on digital water in developing countries: state of the art and future research agenda

There is no doubt that digital water — use of digital technologies in the water sector — is growing, with evidence of widespread adoption and use across countries.  Many water service providers are investing in new technologies not only to improve infrastructure performance and enable existing systems to operate more efficiently, but also to make new service delivery models possible.

However, it is sometimes difficult to distinguish between the hype and hope of digital technologies to tackle water sector challenges, especially in developing countries. It is in this context that we’re witnessing a growth of interest in the discussion, evidence case studies and research on digital water. How have digital water innovations (DWIs) been implemented and what has been the impact?  And how is the growing implementation of digital water innovations in global South cities researched? Our recent systematic review paper of urban DWI in the global South answers some of these questions for the first time by analysing a total of 43 papers.

The findings

Literature profiling: Findings demonstrate the relative recency and volatility of publication – first paper published in 2006, 67% of papers published in the last five years of the review, and more than one-third in the last two years – reflecting the relative recency of digital technologies being deployed in developing countries.  Also, research is strongly dominated by engineering with limited focus on social science and limited engagement with theorisation (40%) (see Figure 1). At present, the majority of the research focused on Africa (58%).

Figure 1. Disciplinary focus for reviewed papers

Scope of DWI implementation: In terms of type of digital technology implemented, the current literature focused heavily on data processing/visualisation such as geographic information systems and what we called “action support technologies” such as mobile payment systems. There is relatively little research on digital technologies applied at the upstream end of the value chain such as water sources, headworks and treatment. To date, research reflects a provider-centric view of innovation with no instances of user-driven or government-driven innovation or even co-design or participative approaches to implementation involving users or government. Indeed, almost all (93%) of papers discussed water service providers with much less focus on end-users/consumers (25%) as key stakeholders of relevance to the focal digital water innovations and research. Partly related, research has focused mainly on use of digital for on-grid water supply, with only limited studies looking specifically at digital water innovations for off-grid water users.

Scope of DWI impacts: Overall, there has been relatively limited focus on the impact of digital systems.  Just under half of papers reported something about the impact of the digital systems, but more than a third of these were solely speculative and almost all of the remainder reported just pilot or early-stage evidence. Where impact findings were presented, they were skewed towards benefits more than disbenefits: on average each paper talked about four different types of benefit but fewer than two types of disbenefit; and they were skewed towards the impact of one type of DWI:  action support technologies. There was no primary evidence-based research on the impacts of the great majority of digital water innovations including data capture, data processing and decision support technologies.

Digging down, research interest was clustered around benefits for users and water service providers, and benefits such as financial, operational and other service benefits.  This meant that evidence of broader impacts — such as environmental impact, or impact on inequalities — was limited and tended to extrapolate from individual studies. Nor has research yet engaged with the datafication of water; that is, the growing presence, use and impact of data in the water value chain.

What does this tell us about implementing and researching digital water?

In the review, we found a field of research that is still at a formative stage, which thus provides ready opportunity for future research on specific technology, implementation and impact priorities. This calls for rethinking digital water innovations, with future research attention on:

  • social science research including socio-political and inter-disciplinary socio-technical perspectives;
  • particular digital technologies with proven water-related potential such as data capture technologies (remote sensing, smart meters, SCADA, telemetry); data processing technologies (big data, data mining, machine learning, artificial intelligence, blockchain, virtual and augmented reality); and less-researched action support technologies (water ATMs, digital purification systems);
  • “upstream” water value chain technologies and technologies for off-grid and low-income users;
  • user- and government-centred or -participative innovation processes, including action research;
  • impact, including evidence of longer-term and broader impact;
  • interpretive and critical realist research, qualitative and mixed methods research; and
  • more explicit use of theory and conceptual frameworks including re-use of conceptualisations by other researchers.

It is our belief that researchers, technology implementers, utilities and policy makers will continue to engage with digital water innovations in the coming years. To contribute to this discussion, I am currently undertaking a research project on digital water innovation impact in urban Ghana, with some early results already emerging. Stay tuned!

Fairwork vis-à-vis ILO Decent Work Standards

Fairwork logoHow does the Fairwork framework of five decent work standards in the gig economy – fair pay, conditions, management, contracts, representation – compare to more conventional frameworks?

As explained in a recently-published paper, Fairwork is a simplified, revised and measurable version of the 11 elements of the International Labour Organization’s decent work agenda.

Comparing the two, as shown in the table above, Fairwork is not as comprehensive.  Some ILO elements not covered were seen as unrelated to Fairwork’s purpose.  For example, the contextual elements lie outside the control of platforms, and no evidence was found of child or forced labour.  Quantum of employment measures are not directly relevant to Fairwork’s aims though it would be informative to know if platforms are creating new work as opposed to just substituting for existing work.

While outside the scope of Fairwork’s principles, work security and flexibility were investigated via open questions in worker interviews.  Workers did raise the issues of flexibility and autonomy, as positive attributes of their gig economy work.  These supposed benefits are arguably more perceptual than real.  Hours of work are often determined by client demand and shaped by incentive payments offered by the platform to work at certain times or for certain shift lengths.  Work is recorded and managed via the app and platform to a significant extent.

In sum, the Fairwork framework covers the decent work-related issues identified in the research literature on platforms, and covers the majority of decent work elements within the ILO framework.  Its ratings could nonetheless be contextualised in a number of ways by adding in broader findings about national socio-economic context, about any creation of work and autonomy by the gig economy, about dimensions of inequality within and between gig sectors, and about longer-term job (in)security and precarity.

You can find more detail about this and other foundations for the Fairwork project in the open-access paper, “Systematic Evaluation of Gig Work Against Decent Work Standards: The Development and Application of the Fairwork Framework”; published in the journal, The Information Society.

The Rise of Digital Self-Exclusion

Digital ExclusionWhy are marginalised groups self-excluding from digital systems?

The digital exclusion problem used to be people outside the house unable to get in.  For example, the digital divide preventing groups from accessing the benefits of digital systems.

Recently, a new digital exclusion issue is arising: people deciding they’d rather stay outside the house.  Some examples . . .

1. Informal Settlement Residents

In researching for our paper, “Datafication, Development and Marginalised Urban Communities: An Applied Data Justice Framework”, my co-author Satyarupa Shekhar identified this pattern among informal settlement residents:

“businesses such as schools and pharmacies in Kibera did not wish to be [digitally] mapped.  They feared visibility to the state might lead to closure if their location became known and their informal status or activities (e.g. sales of stolen drugs) were then discovered …

… Particular settlements in Chennai refused to participate in data-gathering.  They believed that drawing attention to their existence and informal status – being under the ‘gaze of the state’ – would increase likelihood of eviction”

2. Refugees

The recent Information Technology for Development paper “Identity at the Margins” finds self-exclusion among refugees in relation to registration on UNHCR digital ID systems:

“Some participants were so concerned about the potential consequences of data sharing that they avoided registering altogether. For example, a male Syrian refugee living with his family in a one-room apartment in Lebanon told us:

Everybody was registering with the UN, but we did not. We were suspicious and scared. We don’t know if the UN shares information with anyone, so that is why I did not share many things with them.”

3. Migrants

The chapter, “The Dilemma of Undocumented Migrants Invisible to Covid-19 Counting” in recent online book “Covid-19 from the Margins” outlines the dilemma of those undocumented migrants unwilling to register with health systems despite contracting Covid, for fear of this alerting other arms of government which would then deport them.

4. LGBTQ People

The report, “Privacy, Anonymity, Visibility: Dilemmas in Tech Use by Marginalised Communities” explains how some LGBTQ people in Kenya have been unwilling to use digital systems designed to help them report discriminatory violence because of fears that their identities would become known.

Analysis

In one sense there is nothing new here.  Individuals have for centuries sought to avoid being included in government censuses and other records: to avoid tax, to avoid being conscripted for war, etc.

The difference with digital is the ease with which data can be transmitted, leading particularly to a fear that it will find its way to the agencies of state security. This fear applies not just to data collection by other state agencies but also to NGOs (who were undertaking the community mappings in the first examples) and to international organisations like UNHCR.

Whereas incorporation into historical data systems such as the census offered no individual benefit, this is not true of the digital systems cited above.  In all these cases, the marginalised are foregoing direct benefits of incorporation – better community decision-making, access to UN assistance, access to healthcare – because these benefits are outweighed by the fear of perceived harm arising from visibility to particular arms of the state.

All this in turn can be understood in terms of data justice models such as the one below from “Datafication, Development and Marginalised Urban Communities: An Applied Data Justice Framework”.  At a basic level, the perceived utility of exclusion from these digital systems outweighs the perceived benefits.  But these perception are themselves shaped by the structural and historical context:

– A lack of credible, known data rights for those in marginalised groups

– A structural relation of perceived powerlessness vis-à-vis the state

– A lack of institutions and resources with which that powerlessness could be counteracted

Unless those wider, deeper causes can be addressed, the marginalised will continue to self-exclude from digital systems.

Latest Digital Development Outputs (Data, Economy, Health, Platforms, Water) from CDD, Manchester

Using SmartphoneRecent outputs – on Data-for-Development; Digital Economy; Digital Health; Digital Platforms; Digital Water – from Centre for Digital Development researchers, University of Manchester:

DATA-FOR-DEVELOPMENT

Strengthening the Skills Pipeline for Statistical Capacity Development to Meet the Demands of Sustainable Development: Implementing a Data Fellowship Model in Colombia” (open access) by Pete Jones, Jackie Carter, Jaco Renken & Magdalena Arbeláez Tobón, considers the importance of quantitative data skills development implied by the UN Sustainable Development Goals. The success of a partnership programme in the UK is used to explore how ‘data fellowships’ can fulfil some of the unmet capacity needs of the SDGs in a developing country context, Colombia.

Building Information Modelling Diffusion Research in Developing Countries” (open access) by Samuel Adeniyi Adekunle, Obuks Ejohwomu & Clinton Ohis Aigbavboa undertakes a literature review – including current and future research trends – on the adoption of building information modelling in developing countries.

DIGITAL ECONOMY / PLATFORMS

Conceptualising Digital Platforms in Developing Countries as Socio-Technical Transitions” (open read access) by Juan Erasmo Gomez-Morantes, Richard Heeks & Richard Duncombe demonstrates how the multi-level perspective approach can be used to analyse the lifecycle of digital platforms: the process of innovation, rapidity of scaling, and development impacts relating to resource endowments, institutional formalisation, and shifts in power.

Digital Platforms and Institutional Voids in Developing Countries” (open access) by Richard Heeks, Juan Erasmo Gomez-Morantes, Brian Nicholson and colleagues from the Fairwork project, analyses how digital platforms change markets through their institutional actions.  Using the example of ride-hailing, it finds platforms have formed a market that is more efficient, effective, complete and formalised.  At the same time, though, they have institutionalised problematic behaviours and significant inequalities.

Navigating a New Digital Era Means Changing the World Economic Order” (open access) by Shamel Azmeh, discusses the implications of digital shifts for global economic governance.

DIGITAL HEALTH

Cost-Effectiveness of a Mobile Technology-Enabled Primary Care Intervention for Cardiovascular Disease Risk Management in Rural Indonesia” by Gindo Tampubolon and colleagues demonstrates how to determine the economic impact of m-health.  It calculates the cost-effectiveness of a mobile-based health intervention at c.US$4,300 per disability-adjusted life year averted and US$3,700 per cardiovascular disease event avoided.

Delivering Eye Health Education to Deprived Communities in India through a Social Media-Based Innovation” by Chandrani Maitra & Jenny Rowley aims to develop understanding of the benefits of, and the challenges associated with the use of social media to disseminate eye health information in deprived communities in India.

Using a Social Media Based Intervention to Enhance Eye Health Awareness of Members of a Deprived Community in India” (open access) by Chandrani Maitra & Jennifer Rowley reports on a WhatsApp-based intervention to promote eye health communication in deprived settings. This research highlights the potential benefits of WhatsApp in increasing awareness on eye problems, amongst deprived communities where the disease burden remains very high.

DIGITAL WATER

Digital Innovations and Water Services in Cities of the Global South: A Systematic Literature Review” (open access) by Godfred Amankwaa, Richard Heeks & Alison Browne reviews the literature on digital and water in Southern cities.  It summarises findings to date on implementation and impact and sets out the future research agenda.