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Bridging the Digital Divide (TED Talk)

Bridging the Digital Divide (TED Talk)

The digital divide is a mother that’s 45 years old and can’t get a job because she doesn’t know how to use a computer. It is an immigrant that doesn’t know that he can call his family for free. It is a child that can’t resolve his homework because he doesn’t have access to information. The digital divide is a new illiteracy. Digital divide is also defined as the gap between individuals and communities that have access to information technologies and those that don’t.

Why does this happen? It happens because of three things. The first is that people can’t get access to these technologies because they can’t afford them. The second is because they don’t know how to use them, and the third is because they don’t know the benefits of wi-fi technology.

So, let’s consider some very basic statistics. The population of the world is nearly 7 billion people. Out of these, approximately 2 billion are digitally included. This is approximately 30% of the entire world population, which means that the remaining 70% of the world, close to 5 billion people, do not have access to a computer or the Internet.

Let’s think about that number for a second – 5 billion people. That’s four times the population of India that have never touched a computer or have never accessed the Internet. So this is a digital abyss that we’re talking about. This is not a digital divide.

Here we can see a map by Chris Harrison that shows the Internet connections around the world. What we can see is that most of the Internet connections are centered on North America and Europe while the rest of the world is engulfed in the dark shadow of digital divide.

Next we can see connections, city-to-city, around the world, and we can see most of the information generated is being generated between North America and Europe, while the rest of the world is not broadcasting their ideas or information.

What does this mean? We’re living in a world that seems to be having a digital revolution, a revolution that everyone here thinks that we’re part of, but the 70% of the world that is digitally excluded is not part of this. What does this mean? Well, the people that will be digitally excluded won’t be able to compete in the labor markets of the future. They won’t be connected. They’ll be less informed, they’ll be less inspired, and they’ll be less responsible.

Internet should not be a luxury. It should be a right because it is a basic social necessity of the 21st Century. We can’t operate without it. [applause] Thank you. It allows us to connect to the world. It empowers us. It gives us social participation. It is a tool for change.

So, how are we going to bridge this digital divide? Well, there are many models that try and bridge the digital divide, that try and include the population at large. But the question is: Are they really working? I’m sure everybody here knows “one laptop per child,” where one computer is given to one child. The problem with this is: Do we really want children to take computers to their homes, homes that have adverse conditions? We must also understand, that by giving a child the computer, we’re also transferring costs, very high costs, such as Internet connection, electricity, maintenance, software, updates. So we must create different models, models that help the families, rather than add a burden on them.

Also, let’s not forget about the carbon footprint. Imagine 5 billion laptops, what would the world look like then? Imagine the hazardous residue that would be generated from that. Imagine the trash. If we give one computer to one person, and we multiply that by 5 billion, even if that laptop is $100, then we would have $483 trillion. Now let’s consider we’re only counting in the youth, ages 10 through 24, that’s approximately 30% of the digitally excluded population, then that would be $145 trillion. What nation has this amount of money? This is not a sustainable model.

So, with this in mind, we created a different model. We created the RIA in Spanish, or in English, Learning and Innovation Network, which is a network of community centers that bring education through the use of technology. We wanted to increase the number of users per computer in such a way that we could dilute the costs of infrastructure, the cost per user, and that we could bring education and technology to everybody within these communities.

So let’s look at a basic comparison. The RIA has 1,650 computers. If we had used the “one laptop per child” model of a one-to-one ratio, then we would have benefited 1,650 users. What we did instead is we set up centers that have longer hours of operation than schools that also include all of the population. Our youngest user is 3 years old. The oldest is 86. With this, in less than 2 years, we were able to reach 140,000 users, out of which 34,000 have already graduated from our courses.

Another thing of “one laptop per child” is that it doesn’t guarantee the educational use of a computer. So, technology is nothing without that content. We need to use it as a means, not as an end.

So, how do we accomplish such a high impact? Well, you can’t just go into a community and pretend to change it. You need to look at a lot of factors. So what we do is we do a thing that we call urban acupuncture. We first start by looking at the basic geography of a site. So, take for an example Ecatepec. This is one of the most densely populated municipalities in Mexico. It has a very low income level. So, we look at geography. We look at roads, streets, the flux of pedestrians and vehicles. Then we look at income. We look at education. Then we set up a center there, in the place that’s going to heal the body, a little needle to change the city body. And there we go.

There are four basic elements that we need to consider when we’re using education through technology. The first one is that we need to create spaces. We need a space that is welcoming to the community, a space that is according to the needs of the children and of the elders, and of every possible person that lives within that community. So we create these spaces that are all made with recycled materials. We use modular architecture to lower the ecological impact.

Second, connection. By connection, I mean not only connection to the Internet. That’s too easy. We need to create a connection that’s an interconnection of humans. The Internet is a very complex organism that is fueled by the ideas, the thoughts and the emotions of human beings. We need to create networks that aid in exchanging information.

Third, content. Education is nothing without content, and you can’t pretend to have a relationship of only a computer with a child. So, we create a route, a very basic learning route, where we teach people how to use a computer, how to use the Internet, how to use office software, and in 72 hours, we create digital citizens. You can’t pretend that people are just going to touch a computer and become digitally included. You need to have a process. After this, they can take on a longer educational route.

Then fourth, training. We need to train not only the users, but we need to train the people that will facilitate learning for these people. When you’re talking about the digital divide, people have stigmas, people have fears. People don’t understand how that can complement their lives. So, what we do is we train facilitators so that they can help in breaking that digital barrier.

So, we have four elements. We have a space that’s created. We have a connection. We have content, and we have training. So we have created a digital learning community. There’s one more element, which is the benefits that technology can create, because it is not printed, static content. It is dynamic, it is modifiable. So, what we do is we provide content. Then we do training. Then we analyze the user patterns so that we can improve content. It creates a virtuous circle. It allows us to deliver education according to different type of intelligence and according to different user needs. With this in mind, we have to think that technology is something that we can modify according to human processes.

I want to share a story. In 2006, I went to live here. This is one of the poorest communities in all of Mexico. I went to film a documentary on the people that live off trash, entirely off trash. Their houses are built with trash. They eat trash. They dress in trash. After two months of living with them, of seeing the children and the way they work, I understood that the only thing that can change and that can break the poverty cycle was education, and we can use technology to bring education to these communities. Here’s another shot.

The main message is that technology is not going to save the world. We are, and we can use technology to help us. I’m sure everybody here has experienced it. What most technology is human energy. So let’s use this energy to make the world a better place. Thank you.

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