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Towards a people-centred Internet in Africa

Since late 1980s when Internet first started to spread across the globe, it has evolved to become an essential tool for human kind.

Access to the Internet promotes economic growth, improvements in education and knowledge dissemination, and overall human development.
I joined a group of experts in San Francisco this past week to discuss new ways of creating a People-Centred Internet (PCI).

Vint Cerf, the American Internet Pioneer chaired the forum. Vint explained: “the purpose of our meeting is to explore new ways to make network infrastructure and applications work to improve the quality of life for many millions if not billions of people.

We face a forest of ideas and need to help each other navigate through many ideas - learning from one another as we share experience and insight.

We are interested in concrete steps that may be possible, embedding them in a longer term vision of plausible evolution.”

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Perhaps the question that comes into the minds of many is why it is necessary now to re-look at, and even re-tool, the Internet.

The growth of resources and value of services that are available on the Internet means that the inequality existing today between the connected and the unconnected is too big to ignore.

Further, Internet has enabled us to gather massive amount of data which, when analyzed, helps us to decode many mysteries and even develop predictive models that help us deal with what we previously thought was impossible.

In the field of medicine for example, big data is helping us understand disease patterns and how we can prevent such diseases.

Similarly in agriculture, we are now able to predict rainfall patterns which information, if it were at the fingertips of every farmer, we would change people’s lives for the better.

We take for granted some of the benefits that Internet has enabled. From time saving mobile money to lifesaving tele-medicine, Internet is changing people’s lives. And we can do better.

Without the Internet, economies like India and Philippines would not be where they are because Business Processing Outsourcing would not be possible.

New areas of opportunity like Internet of things (IoT) are emerging and will make it possible for human kind to collaborate in the hope of dealing with social issues like poverty.

While we should actively explore the new possibilities of IoT to enhance agriculture, aquaculture, and other applications to improve our living conditions, we must also remain vigilant regarding the protection of individual privacy and respect for human rights in the context of this technological revolution.

Real-time access to the tools and content of the Internet can help in our quest for more sustainable development, which is perhaps one of the reasons why the recently adopted United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) included a target to “significantly increase access to information and communications technology and strive to provide universal and affordable access to the Internet in least developed countries by 2020.”

The big task ahead is how to make it possible for every human being to have access to Internet. We must come up with new models of infrastructure that prioritize affordability.

This must be a collaborative effort to discourage policy makers from imposing taxes on broadband and hardware. It will perhaps make sense if all Internet infrastructure was to be considered a public good just like the road neatwork that does not discriminate any user.

This will require a paradigm shift on investments in Internet infrastructure. In Kenya for example, the public private partnership in the building of TEAMs cable and the nature of the open access terrestrial fibre, has enabled affordability of broadband.

Universities are among the key national institutions with the skills, equipment, personnel and mandate to generate new knowledge through research and education.

In order for African universities to help serve the goals of national development, they require the mechanisms and resources to build bridges between academia and policy leaders, and to provide opportunities for African researchers, educators and students to collaborate locally and internationally via the Internet.

This is what will bring us closer to the idea of PCI that in Africa could mean Ubuntu (the belief in a universal bond of sharing that connects all humanity).

Research from several sources show that women are underrepresented in Internet. To a large extent, culture plays a big role in this.

There is a need to encourage participation of women online, and equally important, for more women to design online environments that enhance their participation and are conducive to equal participation of all.

The writer is an associate professor at University of Nairobi’s Business School.

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