Empowering communities with digital access, content

Providing South African communities with affordable and reliable internet access is a well-known issue that must be addressed. But this is just the first part of a broader problem that requires empowering people to most effectively benefit from having access in the first place.

What people are accessing online is just as important as how they are accessing it.

Fundamentally, how can local communities maintain their own identities and deliver value to residents while leveraging all the information and services available from the internet?

This is according to Dr Melissa Densmore, coordinator of the Hasso-Plattner Institute Research School at the University of Cape Town (UCT), a senior lecturer in the Department of Computer Science, and a member of the UCT Centre in ICT4D. She was speaking at a recent Café Scientifique event hosted by UCT Research Contracts and Innovation (RC&I) and sponsored by leading international intellectual property law firm Spoor & Fisher.

Café Scientifique is a public science initiative that invites scientists to talk in laymen’s terms about their work.

“Instead of being reliant (and waiting) on service providers to roll out fibre and other sophisticated access technologies, communities must identify how best to use the infrastructure and resources they have to get connected. Establishing community-based Wi-Fi and letting the communities set pricing themselves is an alternate, and frequently more viable, approach to driving accessibility,” says Densmore.

For example, what is the point of public and private sector organisations creating employment portals if the unemployed cannot even access them in the first place? Most sites are targeted to donors and attracting interest in local investment instead of targeting the residents of the communities.

“Content creation becomes a key ingredient in this regard. We need to be aware of the resources in our communities instead of only looking outside them for solutions and value. This not only applies to creative aspects such as the arts and entertainment but to tradesmen and professionals as well. In this way, job creation is provided at a hyper-local level and communities can grow instead of seeing people move elsewhere,” adds Densmore.

She says that there is still a disconnect between those who provide access and how it is developed for communities to contribute to their own success and helping make the internet more diverse.

“How many mobile app developers are thinking local first or ensuring what they create are inclusive of all South Africans? It could be something as simplistic as showing how large an image is (and what it translates to in Rand terms) before downloading it. Combining the older (bandwidth-focused) sensibilities of when the internet first arrived in the country with the innovative thinking of the digital generation will create significantly more inclusive environment.”

Digital technology comes down to connecting people with one another. And yet, one of the biggest challenges is when messaging the next door neighbour, the access is managed through undersea cables, adding to the cost and complexity, instead of going direct.

“Having neighbours engage with one another free of charge is fundamental to creating a digitally-enabled society. This requires a paradigm shift where communities are put in control of their own access and content while still being able to tap into global information, products, and services. Service providers must therefore think less about delivering access on an individual level and more about delivering it to the community in its entirety.”

This is a discussion that is as much about changing business models as it is about empowering communities.

“We must ask ourselves how do we incorporate those bandwidth constrained users to access the internet more effectively via their mobile devices? This access is changing on an almost daily basis and communities must be able to take charge of what they need instead of being reliant on others to do so,” adds Densmore.

Together with the likes of David L Johnson and Josiah Chavula amongst others, Densmore has been involved in the development of a platform called iNethi (inethi.net), aimed at empowering communities by supporting local content and services reachable through local Wi-Fi access points.

In Ocean View, in partnership with OVComm Dynamic Cooperative, a community wireless network to allow residents to access local business information, community-based media, and open source resources like Wikipedia and Khan Academy videos for free is being established. With generous support from Sonic Wireless, OVComm will also be able to offer low-cost access to the internet to their members.

“Through this partnership and other iNethi deployments we are exploring how to foster local content creation and how to best design digital media for bandwidth-constrained communities. We hope that a community-centred approach will not only produce more locally relevant digital content, but one day lead to a more inclusively representative internet,” concludes Densmore.

Date published: 14 November 2019
Author: Spoor & Fisher

Tags: café scientifique internet access