During the course of the last 15 years, information and communications technology (ICT) indicators have become increasingly popularised and prominent in mainstream discourses. In the advocacy arena, indicators provide the groundwork for effective lobbying and policy-making at different levels of mobilisation. To address inequalities in access to ICTs – what is commonly referred to as the “digital divide” – it is essential to identify where there are inequalities, and how exclusion is manifested, in order to specifically target solutions. Some solutions may be purely technical, such as extending infrastructure to rural communities. However, indicators can also help policy advocates and policy-makers to assess how likely different communities are to integrate ICT into their work and social trajectories – what is commonly referred to as e-readiness. Indicators, while useful, are not neutral. This chapter considers ICT indicators and seeks to clarify practices around designing and using indicators for measuring progress towards a global information society.
A robust set of indicators is difficult to achieve; you have to have commitment across countries and stakeholders who agree that the exercise is useful. There also needs to be agreement on the indicators to be collected, which is a shifting terrain in terms of what is perceived as useful information. Traditionally, telecom sector indicators (and the collection of statistics used to construct them) have focused on physical infrastructure. This made sense in the historical context of monopoly provision of telecom services. There was only one service provider to collect information from, and there were only two classes of users (household consumers and business users). Common carriage guidelines meant that what was going over the “twisted pairs” was not an object of analysis, which merely focused on traffic data. The only experiential data of note were quality of service indicators, which actually relate to technical service provision rather than the personal level effectiveness of the call.
However, as is becoming increasingly evident, it is not terribly meaningful to study telecoms as stand-alone infrastructure. Communication technologies are very much intertwined with human capabilities and motivations. This becomes apparent with surprises in uptake such as occurred with mobile, prepaid and short message service (SMS), and more recently with wireless communications and internet diffusion. These examples illustrate the dependence of ICT infrastructure on social relations, as well as the need for ICT indicator projects to extend their inquiry beyond access to encompass usage and adoption, and also impact of the new technologies. Historically, and even today, ICT indicators overwhelmingly focus on infrastructure and connectivity – in other words, how many phones are in use, rather than who is using them for what. This chapter argues that we need to have a clearer picture of demand side conditions and use. Indicators that inquire into the nature of use and usage conditions will provide equally important information for informing policy decisions, and will certainly clarify the picture created by connectivity and technical components.
Finally, a word about divides and globalisation. Globalisation and technological change have opened up new paths for communication and information flows, but these are cut short by the dead-ends of “digital divides”. Economic and social divides have always existed and many argue that the prevalent technological divides of the early 21st century are predominantly an extension of already existing, historical exclusion. Especially in the context of the information society, divides are fundamental to our understanding and use of indicators. In essence, divides are really what indicators are about: assessing where there are people who have fewer opportunities to improve their lives or their family (or community) livelihoods, and have a lower quality of health, education and life than is deemed acceptable – as defined in international treaties and conventions. If we are not assessing how to bridge gaps, or to make even better bridges for such gaps, then we are likely assessing the terrain for provision of service strategies for those who already have access and are not marginalised.
This chapter is organised as follows: it begins with an overview of indicator sources, followed by a brief discussion of what indicators are, why we use them, and what they purport to represent. This in turn is followed by a consideration of the data that is used to make up indicators, and then a section which discusses indicators' inherent biases and unpacks some issues around their use. The chapter concludes with a call for further cooperation around indicators across the different stakeholder groups.