Data Surge across Global South Promises to Re-shape the Internet

By David South, Development Challenges, South-South Solutions

SOUTH-SOUTH CASE STUDY

The deluge of data gathered by the digital revolution underway in the global South continues to offer a significant economic opportunity. How this data is harvested will forge the successful Internet business models of the future.

As the Internet spreads its way further across the global South, many are forecasting this new surge in web users and the data they generate will radically reshape the way people engage with and use the Internet. Unlike previous generations of web users, most of these new users will be accessing the Internet primarily with mobile phones and other devices, rather than computers. Many will not be native English speakers.

Argentinian philosopher and digital publisher Octavio Kulesz says “the digital experiences undertaken in the South suggest that new technologies represent a great opportunity for developing countries … but on the condition that local entrepreneurs seek out original models adapted to the concrete needs of their communities.”

In a report for the International Alliance of Independent Publishers, Kulesz said we “must ask ourselves how useful it would be to reproduce the prototypes from the North in the South.”

According to the Cisco Visual Networking Index Forecast (2010-2015), by 2015, there will be 3 billion Internet users in the world: 40 percent of the global population. Internet Protocol (IP) traffic is growing fastest in Latin America, where it is forecast to grow by 50 percent from 2010 to 2015. Next are the Middle East and Africa.

There are already as many networked devices – tablets, mobile phones, connected appliances and smart machines – on the planet as people. By 2015 – the year of the Millennium Development Goals (http://www.un.org/millenniumgoals) – they’ll outnumber people by two to one.

The potential of the Internet revolution is especially compelling in Africa, a continent neglected for so long in the global communications revolution. The 10,000 kilometre-long East African Submarine Cable System (EASSy), connecting sub-Saharan Africa with Europe and Asia, has joined other cables from the continent. Gradually, the infrastructure is coming in to place to connect Africa properly to the world.

The first batch of Internet users came from the United States, home of the Internet which grew out of the US military’s Arpanet system (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ARPANET). This first wave of the Internet’s history was very much an American phenomenon. The priorities and content of the web were driven by the cultural and economic concerns of its American users. And the big brands of today’s web reflect this: Google, Facebook, eBay, Twitter, Yahoo, WordPress, to name a few.

As the web expanded across wealthy, developed nations in Europe, users mostly mimicked the priorities of the American approach, using the web to express themselves, be entertained, share files, access government services and sell and market products and services.

But the spread of the Internet across the global South is already showing itself to have a different character and set of priorities. One change is in the way people are accessing the web: through mobile phones and other devices, rather than through laptops and personal computers.

In the future, the trend is towards a global mobile world, in which the communications medium will favour video and audio over text, according to Fast Company magazine (http://www.fastcompany.com). Information is being shared across boundaries on a vast scale for the first time. People around the world are gaining access to data and information never available before, and all of it is nearly instantaneous.

Kulesz said countries of the South face a profound and difficult decision: follow the lead taken by the technology pioneers of the South, or try and replicate what was done in the North?

“Sooner or later, these countries will have to ask themselves what kind of digital publishing highways they must build,” his report said, “and they will be faced with two very different options: a) financing the installation of platforms designed in the North; b) investing according to the concrete needs, expectations and potentialities of local authors, readers and entrepreneurs. Whatever the decision of each country may be, the long-term impact will be immense.”

The costs of trying to replicate the technological infrastructure of the North makes little sense, when it is technologically possible to bypass this costly infrastructure with even newer work-arounds.

“Of course, it would be extraordinary to obtain 80 percent Internet penetration in Africa or make huge investments in infrastructure throughout the developing regions,” continues Kulesz, “but that may never happen. And in the event that it does occur some day, by then the industrialized countries will no doubt have made another technological leap, meaning that the disparity in infrastructure would still persist. So the most effective option is to start working right now, with what is available.”

New global magazine Southern Innovator (http://www.scribd.com/doc/57980406/Southern-Innovator-Issue-1), published by UNDP’s Special Unit for South-South Cooperation, captures how this process is happening, as the people of the global South re-shape the Internet to be their own and to meet their needs.

Resources

1) Southern Innovator: New global magazine first issue gives a snapshot of the big changes across the global South in mobile phones and information technology. Website: http://www.scribd.com/doc/57980406/Southern-Innovator-Issue-1

2) Cisco Visual Networking Index Forecast (2010-2015): The annual Cisco VNI Forecast was developed to estimate global Internet Protocol traffic growth and trends. Widely used by service providers, regulators, and industry influencers alike, the Cisco VNI Forecast is based on in-depth analysis and modelling of traffic, usage and device data from independent analyst forecasts. Website: http://newsroom.cisco.com/press-release-content?type=webcontent&articleId=324003

3) Digital Publishing in Developing Countries: A report by the International Alliance of Independent Publishers. Website: http://alliance-lab.org/etude/archives/date/2010/01?lang=en

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