Reaching Across the Divide
First Monday

Reaching Across the Divide: The Challenges of Using the Internet to Bridge Disparities in Access to Information by Andie Miller

Abstract
Over the past few years, the Internet has rapidly become part of the daily lives of most people in the first world. This trend in easy access to unlimited information resources for first world users mirrors the growing 'central-peripheral divide' in the developing world: the concentration of wealth in the major urban centres and the increasing marginalisation of people in the peri-urban and rural areas. The result of both trends is that the majority of the world's population, particularly on the African continent, has limited access to most information resources.

The Internet provides the opportunity to reach a broader cross-section of the virtual community of all those concerned with the issues of violence, crime, reconciliation, human rights and transformation, whilst at the same time, the challenge of resisting the (re)marginalisation and exclusion of grassroots constituencies who have limited skills and access to these resources.

The Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation (CSVR) is a multi-disciplinary South African non-governmental organisation. Drawing on the experience of making the CSVR's 13 years of research available online, this paper traces the balancing act that has been required in reaching across the divide, and details some of the design challenges that have presented themselves. It explores the phenomenon of "graceful degradation", and examines some of the challenges facing NGOs using this exciting new medium.

Contents

Introduction
A Brief History of the CSVR Web Site
Some Design Considerations
Conclusion

 

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Introduction

"The future's already happened, it's just unequally distributed."
- William Gibson

I think it's fitting that I begin this paper with a quote by science fiction writer William Gibson. I don't think Gibson, who coined the term "cyberspace" in his 1984 novel Neuromancer - a book which he wrote on a manual typewriter - ever dreamt what this word would come to mean in contemporary society, and just how everyday its usage would become in less than 20 years. Sadly it remains everyday, however, only to a 'select' few. A small minority of people on the planet who have access to the technology, and the skill to use it, come to be known as the "digerati". As Nolan Bowie, lecturer in public policy at Harvard University, reminded delegates at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Race in Digital Space Conference in April this year, "more than half the world's population has never made a telephone call".

The term "digital divide" is one which is often used. The sad irony is that the term is often used within a purely U.S.-centric context, referring specifically to the disparities in access to information and the growing underclass on the North American continent [1]. The United States has 36% of the world's Internet users [2], and less than 10% of the world's population is online [3]. Seldom is there consideration given to the majority of people in the so-called third world, who often don't have access to clean water, let alone communications technology. Sadly, many of these people are in our own country, with a still larger percentage on the rest of the African continent. As the often quoted observation from President Mbeki, which still holds true, goes: "There are more telephone lines in Manhattan, New York, than the whole of sub-Saharan Africa" [4].

Access to the technology and the availability of infrastructure to facilitate its use are undoubtedly the most important and first steps to narrowing the divide, but access alone is not enough to address the problem. There are numerous other factors that come into play in the quality of people's access, such as education and training, language and literacy, bandwidth, hardware and software, and even Web design. And it is the Web design aspect that I am going to address here.

Assuming that people have some, albeit limited, access to the technology, what does this mean for an organisation like the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation (CSVR), and why should it concern us in the development and maintenance of our Web site?

More than any communications medium in the past, the accessibility of material on the Internet remains dependent on the quality of access that people have at their disposal, and the level of literacy that they have in using these tools. In the print medium for example, once a publication has been edited, printed and distributed, the material that is received looks the same to everybody. On the Internet, by contrast, once material is published, it varies in appearance to every user. In some instances, font sizes can be altered by the individual user (assuming that the user knows how to adjust these settings), but there are many factors which are dependent on the speed and capacity of the computer, screen size, and external technical factors like bandwidth - this is the capacity of the transmission (telephone) line to send and receive data - which come into play.

There tends to be a danger of getting caught up in the excitement of what is possible on the Web, without adequately considering who the site is being designed for. In the case of the CSVR, the user base is broad and diverse, with different levels of access and skill. Will users, for example, be able to download large graphics? Do they have access to sound? Will they be able to navigate a complex interface? In many cases the answer is no, and a large percentage of our users risk being remarginalised, if we don't take these factors into account. So it has required a delicate balancing act from us, and the phenomenon of "graceful degradation" [5] has had to come into play. Simply put this means: 'what will users see, if they don't see what I intend them to see, and is this of good quality?'

 

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A Brief History of the CSVR Web Site

In 1996, when the CSVR was an independently funded research unit attached to the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits), the opportunity presented itself of having access to space on the WITS server, and technical support, at no cost. We realised that this was too good an opportunity to be passed up, so we set to work to establish a small site which outlined the work of the organisation and the services that it had to offer. The function of this site was primarily promotional in nature, and was in large part geared to publicising the work of the organisation in order to attract new sources of funding to allow us to continue our work. At that time CSVR staff members themselves had very limited access to the Internet, with just two computer terminals with Internet access shared between approximately 30 staff members. At that time the Centre did not have its own server.

Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation

It soon became apparent, however, that it was becoming increasingly dysfunctional for an organisation of this size not to have its own server in order to allow the Centre's researchers in particular, and staff in general, to have permanent access to the Internet on their desktops. At that point we resolved to expand the site to act as "a gateway to the virtual community of everyone concerned with violence, crime, reconciliation, human rights, transformation and peace education" [6], and began to include links to other organisations and resources, local and international, with similar concerns and interests. The site then began to act as a 'virtual library' and a key research tool for CSVR staff. An effort was made to bring together all of the resources that were available online that might be of use to staff in their work. The links page remains one of the primary sources of information on the site, and new links are added regularly.

The next major step was a decision to publish all of the Centre's 13 years of research on the Web site - approximately 350 articles and papers to date. Up to that point, we had been distributing the research by selling hard copies of the papers for a fee, which included a small mark up for administration, after covering the cost of printing. But as printing and postage became more and more expensive, it became apparent that this was no longer to the advantage of either the organisation, or its clientele, the majority of whom have very few resources at their disposal, and could barely afford the cost of publications, let alone the cost of postage or transport to the Centre's offices to purchase the publications.

We briefly considered selling digital versions of the publications via the Internet, but we realised that many of our clients have limited access to funds, let alone credit cards, so we decided to make the whole body of work freely available. By publishing the research online, our work is now more easily accessible to both the international community - including many parts of Africa and Asia, where public Internet access is becoming more widespread - as well as to members of the grassroots communities in which we work, who are able to obtain the material via computers at schools and community centres. The small amount of revenue that has been lost is more than made up for in contracts secured through the publicity about our work, and the knowledge that our material is now reaching further than ever before, particularly into formerly disadvantaged South African communities. We are also inviting more interaction from organisations, students and academics from other parts of the African continent, and this is important to us, if we are to play more than lip service to the 'African Renaissance'.

The experience of Rosey Seseng, the CSVR's Resource Centre Assistant, over the past year or so has been that while requests for information both via telephone, traditional post and e-mail have not decreased in any way, the walk-in clientele and the need to post publications have almost disappeared completely. In many instances when people have access to e-mail only, but not full Internet access, it has been possible to e-mail a text-only version of the publications list and subsequently the selected publications. It was particularly rewarding to be able to do this for a Rwandan women's organisation, who had come across the CSVR's work via a mailing list on conflict management.

One of the most gratifying responses that we have received this year as to how far our material is reaching, came from the Central African Republic:

"My name is Vincent Mbahawa Chefor. I am 23. I am a student in the English Language Department of the University of Bangui, Central African Republic ... I have been able to set an outline for my project "An Inquiry into the South African Post Apartheid Reconciliation Process from 1990 to 2000" thanks to some of your online articles." Personal communication to CSVR Executive Director, Graeme Simpson, 8 January 2001.

This has affirmed for us also that we are addressing the point raised by President Mbeki in his 1995 address to the G7 conference on the information society in Brussels:

"... we are also extremely interested to ensure that we are not mere importers and consumers of a predetermined content. Rather, we also want to be producers and exporters and therefore active and significant participants in the creation, production and formulation of content ... ." Mbeki, 1995.

In the very few instances where we've been approached for information by people with absolutely no electronic access at all, we have been able to print and mail the publications. The cost of postage has been considerably lower than in the past, when hard copies of publications were professionally bound, but consequently weighed more. All in all, both administration time and costs have been dramatically reduced.

 

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Some Design Considerations

The temptation, when designing a Web site, is to include all of the 'bells and whistles' one has access to, from animated graphics, to audio and video features. But what does this mean for Web users who - because of limited bandwidth, and dated equipment - will not have access to these features? In many cases it means dramatically increased download time, and inflated telephone bills. In many instances, when files take a long time to download, and the lines are poor, the connection has a tendency to terminate prematurely. This means that a user may be halfway through downloading a document, and then have to begin again, increasing costs as well as frustration. This does not mean I am advocating that organisations whose clients include a large percentage of low end users should not use these features. But it does mean that we need to be constantly weighing up the variables involved, in order to reach a compromise which accommodates both ends of the spectrum of access.

When dealing with graphics, for example, it is always advisable to create graphics of the smallest file sizes. When this becomes a choice between poor quality graphics, or larger file sizes, however, quality is of the utmost importance. In the case of a graphic which is a diagram situated within a research document, the decision involved is a choice between everyone receiving a poor quality image, or high end users receiving a good quality graphic, and low end users perhaps choosing to disconnect once the text of the document has downloaded. Under these circumstances the CSVR has opted for the good quality image, with the knowledge that the majority of users will have access to the text.

In the case of large graphics which serve a purely aesthetic, rather than informational purpose, the question becomes whether it is not better to leave the graphic out altogether. For example, there is a school of thought in Web design that advocates not having photographs on the front page of one's site at all, as these are often the worst offenders. Others believe that as long as all users have access to information while the photographs are downloading, this is not too serious a problem. A happy middle ground here really is to avoid having an overabundance of photographs on one's front page, in order to allow it to download as swiftly as possible, and to save photographs for subsequent pages.

It is also important to remember that in the early days of the Web, it was quite common for many users to switch off or 'disable' graphics. This may remain true for low end users who know that this is an option. So spending a lot of time creating beautiful graphics may even become redundant in some instances.

In many instances, access to documents/features that require 'plug-ins' are more difficult for low end users to download. Probably the most common of these plug-ins - or mini-software programs - is Adobe Acrobat. This program allows one to easily open documents saved in the Portable Document Format (PDF files). There are many advantages to storing documents in this format on one's Web site. Probably the most significant of these is that when PDF files are displayed, they are seen in exactly the format in which they were created. Converting documents from files created in a word processing program to PDF is also considerably faster than converting them to HTML - or Hyper Text Mark Up Language - the most common language of Web design. Other plug-ins that are fast gaining in popularity and used quite extensively, are more graphics and animation oriented programs such as Flash and Fireworks. Once again, there are some downsides to using plug-ins.

Firstly, there is often an assumption made by Web designers and their clients, that these plug-ins are freely available to everyone using the Web. And they would be right, if you have the hardware, bandwidth and expertise to download the software. For those with antiquated equipment, poor telephone lines and limited skill in how to use all of these tools, however, merely downloading Acrobat can be a source of frustration, and often result in a user giving up and going to another site for the information they require. The priority therefore is really to keep one's Web site as user-friendly and accessible to all as possible.

The Web, like any medium, also falls victim to trends, and it is not uncommon for new, visually attractive, yet relatively dysfunctional features to be adopted by Web designers, and remain in common use for a period of time. For users who are able to navigate their way through these poor design features, they can be merely irritating. But for users whose Internet literacy levels are limited, they can become very confusing, and sometimes quite dysfunctional. One example of this is frames, a feature which allows users to move to other Web sites while remaining in the frame of the Web site where they started. The problem with this is that the URL (Web site address) does not change in the address bar at the top of the page, and so there is no way for users to bookmark and return to subsequent sites without first entering through the original site. While at first this may seem like a good way of marketing one's organisation, and remaining in the user's eye, it can and often does have the opposite effect of alienating users, and even of making them feel manipulated.

Another very popular feature at present, but one which can be very confusing, is the development of the way that links are displayed. Probably the most unique feature about the Web, and the one around which it revolves, is the use of "hypertext", and the practice of linking documents to each other. The first thing that most people learn about the Web, is that if text is underlined, this means that it is a link on which you can click, and it will take you to a another related document. Recently, however, the practice of creating 'rollover' features on links has become popular. This often means that links are no longer underlined, but when you run your mouse over the text, it changes colour, thereby indicating to you that it is a link. This practice can be very confusing for new users with limited skills who have been taught that links are underlined, and it has the effect of changing the rules mid-game. The rollover feature can be fun and visually pleasing if your target market is highly Web literate, but it is inadvisable to use it when your market includes a potentially large proportion of low end users.

Likewise, while academic referencing conventions require that one underlines titles of books and journals in bibliographical lists, this can be confusing and frustrating on the web where a user expects these to be hyperlinks. So it is best to adapt formatting styles to the Web rather than publishing online as though one were working in the print medium.

It is also important, particularly with longer documents, to ensure that your design is 'printer friendly'. It is unlikely that anyone will read a 30-page document online. In this instance colour plays an important role. There was a trend not too long ago to create documents with white text on black backgrounds. Apart from being almost impossible to read, it consumes vast amounts of toner when printing, which is wasteful and expensive. So it is safest to stick to dark (if not black) text on a light background. Sometimes the design style being used can also result in a document appearing in full view on the screen, but part of the text being cut off when printed, so it is always important to ensure that your document prints properly and legibly.

Probably the most important consideration when designing a Web site for any user base is sustainability. If you include a particular design or content feature, it is important to bear in mind whether your organisation is likely to have the resources to maintain these aspects of the Web site. One of the experiences during last year's dot-com crash in the U.S. was that many of the larger sites which cost vast sums of money to establish were the ones which became unsustainable and had to close down, while many of the smaller, simpler sites continue today [7]. It is inadvisable to set up pages on your Web site which require daily or weekly updates, if you do not have the capacity to maintain these. No matter how well designed a site is, if the content is clearly out of date, it will appear unprofessional and an unreliable source of information.

The examples above are just some of the considerations that the CSVR has had to take into account in the design and maintenance of its Web site. There are many more examples that need to be considered. In time, it is likely that the CSVR will begin to sophisticate its Web site to some extent. It will remain important, however, to bear in mind the low end user. The important thing is to ensure that a large proportion of users are not excluded from the usability of the site.

 

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Conclusion

All 54 African countries finally have Internet access (Eritrea was the last to get connected in November 2000) [8], compared to only 11 at the end of 1996. While this clearly reflects real progress, it is very important that we don't misread this as more of a levelling of the global Internet playing field than actually exists. Many of these connections are just one Internet service provider (ISP) in the capital city only. And many who are 'connected to the Internet' have e-mail access only, not full access to the World Wide Web. We need also to bear in mind the observation made by Ian Henderson of the African Centre for the Constructive Resolution of Disputes (ACCORD):

"Global power structures are fast changing from a north-south split, to a centre-periphery arrangement of power, with power centres concentrated in the resource-rich north, but distributed also across the major cities of the south. The major urban power centres of the developing world are places where a middle class young person, whether Kenyan or Malaysian, may be indistinguishable from his New York brethren - wearing Nikes, clutching a cellphone and speaking in techno-babble. On the periphery in contrast, society continues to operate as it has for centuries, separated from the power centres by the seemingly impenetrable barriers of education, finance and access." Henderson, 1998, p. 25.

Some media theorists are more optimistic than others. Douglas Rushkoff predicted in 1997:

"Underdeveloped countries have the ability to leapfrog old technologies. India installs nationwide cellular and doesn't need an inch of copper wire. I think it will turn out that Europe and America were test runs of technologies that will be far better implemented in the Southern hemisphere." [9]

Nicholas Negroponte shared this view:

"In developing nations you have three advantages; the east/west, north/south divide between the information-rich and information-poor is bound to shrink. Intervention is required, but I have plenty of optimism that this will happen much sooner than people think. I believe this for three reasons.

Firstly, you don't need a chain of industrial steps like building blocks to import cement, to build roads, to make factories, to deliver primary materials - the world of bits needs little more than ether. Secondly, the telecommunications infrastructures of developing countries will evolve without the baggage of history - what ought to be digital will be, what ought to be fibre will be, what ought to be wireless will be - because it will all be new. Lastly the populations of these countries are very young and it is the young who gravitate so easily to this new world, almost as if it were in their genes." [10]

This is of course if the necessary intervention happens. Bruno Lanvin, however, cautioned in his Why the Global Village Cannot Afford Information Slums:

"Failure to make connections feasible for all could conceivably result in a dangerous situation in which only a critical mass of developing countries would upgrade to the global information economy; as soon as enough countries had done so to allow the North to generate the economies of scale and scope it expects, the rest of the developing world might be left to fend for itself, possibly worsening further the political climate in those countries." Lanvin, 1995, p. 209.

Let me return again to science fiction writer William Gibson, with whom I started. In his 1995 novel, Johnny Mnemonic, he drew a picture of a society in which the resistance movement, the Loteks, rise up violently against the Digerati, in a highly unequal society.

In 1996 at the Information Society and Development Conference in Johannesburg, then Deputy President Thabo Mbeki, almost echoed Gibson's words when he said:

"Without seeking in any way to evolve an apocalyptic vision, we must contend with the nightmare that could derive from the consequent rebellion of the poor against the rich on a global scale."

This seems almost prophetic when one looks at the global protests in Seattle, Quebec, Davos and Genoa.

The theme was explored quite startlingly by the BBC in their 1995 documentary series Visions of Heaven and Hell:

"Where technology is at work, where it generates wealth it will grow, change, flourish and benefit its owners. Where technology is passive, where it is tuned just to receive its presence will be blank. It will not set anyone free, this is the new apartheid. Apartheid not just between white and black and the rich and poor but also between those that seize technology and those that it ignores." Visions of Heaven and Hell: The Virtual Wasteland, video.

The television series looks at the potential emergence of a society, where wealth is controlled by an elite from behind their computers and security fences, who have no connection to the life on the streets of the masses, and the potential instability and violence that could develop as a result.

In the words of James W. Carey, Professor of journalism at Columbia University:

"Electronic high-tech industry apparently requires a benign human environment, less restrictive social legislation, and less militant labor unions. But these are less requirements than demands ... of the uppermiddle class to work free from the intrusion of the poor and disadvantaged." Carey, p. 117.

In order to avoid contributing towards increasing a growing underclass on the planet, and on the African continent in particular, it is the role of all involved in the NGO and development sectors to do all in our power to bridge this divide.

For those organisations directly involved in the IT sector, the role of providing access to the technology and infrastructures is clear. For those of us involved in the social sciences, however, what is within our power to do can seem less clear. An obvious first step is to make our content and information freely available on the Internet, and to make up the nominal fees that we would earn from these resources in other creative ways. Another important, though possibly less obvious, contribution that we can make is bearing in mind the needs and limitations of low end users in our Web design. End of article

 

About the Author

Andie Miller is Webmaster for the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation.
E-mail: andiem@worldonline.co.za

 

Acknowledgements

Thanks to the British Council, Department for International Development (DFID) and GreenNet for their assistance in the development of the CSVR Web site.

This paper was first presented at the South African Sociological Association (SASA) Annual Congress, Globalisation, Inequality and Identity, 1-4 July 2001.

 

Notes

1. The term digital divide is said to have been, if not coined, then certainly popularised by former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Telecommunications and Information, Larry Irving, in the landmark Federal Government survey series "Falling Through the Net", which he initiated. Irving was the first African American to head the Commerce Department Agency, and was appointed by President Clinton in 1993. See http://www.ntia.doc.gov/ntiahome/digitaldivide/.

2. Ipsos-Reid, 2001. "The Face of the Web II: 2000-2001."

3. In 1996 SA was cited in the Mail & Guardian, PC Review as being the 16th most wired country in the world. As of January 2001 we are listed as 27th by the Internet Domain Survey; see http://www.isc.org/ds/.

4. T. Mbeki, "South Africa and the Information Superhighway", statement to the G7 Ministerial Conference: Information and Society, Brussels, 25-26 February 1995; see http://www.gov.za/.

5. This has been described as "degradation of a system in such a manner that it continues to operate, but provides a reduced level of service rather than failing completely"; http://www.its.bldrdoc.gov/fs-1037/dir-017/_2479.htm. For more information on graceful degradation in Web design, see Dan Tobias, "Dan's Web Tips: Graceful Degradation," 16 December 2000 at http://www.dantobias.com/webtips/graceful.html.

6. CSVR Annual Report, 1999.

7. Nolan Bowie et al. "E-Race-ing the Digital", Race in Digital Space, Webcast of conference on race and new media technologies (University of Southern California and Massachusetts Institute of Technology), Cambridge, Massachusetts, 27-29 April 2001, at http://cms.mit.edu/race/webcast.html.

8. Mike Jensen, 2001. "African Internet Status" (May), at http://www3.sn.apc.org/africa/

9. Personal communication, 22 March 1997.

10. Interview with Nicholas Negroponte, 1997. "The effects of going digital," Intelligence (March).

 

References

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Nolan Bowie, 2000. "The Digital Divide: Making Knowledge Available in a Global Context," In: Learning to Bridge the Digital Divide. Paris: Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development.

Nolan Bowie, et al., 2001. "E-Race-ing the Digital Divide," Race in Digital Space, Webcast of conference on race and new media technologies (University of Southern California and Massachusetts Institute of Technology), Cambridge, Massachusetts (27-29 April), at http://cms.mit.edu/race/webcast.html, accessed 7 June 2001.

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Dan Tobias, 2000. "Dan's Web Tips: Graceful Degradation," (16 December), at http://www.dantobias.com/webtips/graceful.html, accessed 7 June 2001.

United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), 2000. Human Development Report, and at http://www.undp.org/hdr2000/english/HDR2000.html, accessed 7 June 2001.


Editorial history

Paper received 20 August 2001; accepted 21 September 2001.


Contents Index

Copyright ©2001, First Monday

Reaching Across the Divide: The Challenges of Using the Internet to Bridge Disparities in Access to Information by Andie Miller
First Monday, volume 6, number 10 (October 2001),
URL: http://firstmonday.org/issues/issue6_10/miller/index.html





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