As the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) publishes the 10th edition of its flagship Measuring the Information Society Report, one of the report’s contributing authors, LSE’s Dr Ellen Helsper, explains how the understanding of ICT skills should change to better reflect the inequalities in the outcomes that people actually achieve from the use of ICTs.

The issue of socio-economic inequalities, both nationally and internationally, is high on academic and policy agendas. My research shows that inequalities in the ability and opportunities to engage with Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) exacerbate existing patterns of socio-economic and socio-cultural inequalities.

I have long pushed for more nuanced theoretical insights into the links between social and digital inequalities, and policy makers and stakeholders are starting to understand that we need this knowledge to figure out how to stop these spirals of exclusion of the most vulnerable in society.

In parallel, I have argued that efforts to improve measurement need to step up, because theory without reliable and valid data is unconvincing. As to the latter, we can finally see a shift in focus from simplistic issues of access and connectivity to more complex aspects of digital engagement such as skills and outcomes.

Measuring the (unequal) global information society

Today, the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), a UN-affiliated body based in Geneva, Switzerland, published the 10th edition of their flagship publication titled Measuring the Information Society Report. The publication is launched as part of the WTIS-18 where the global community reflects on the ‘Impact of telecommunications/ICTs and emerging technologies on social and economic development’. I worked with the ITU and Prof. Alexander van Deursen (University of Twente) to produce an in-depth report on the ‘ICT Skills for the Future’.

In the report, we argue for a broader measurement and understanding of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) skills. That is, for the inclusion of often unmeasured, ‘softer’ skills such as critical information literacy, collaborative and content creation skills, because it is the unequal distribution of softer digital skills in particular that relate to inequalities in the outcomes that people achieve from the use of ICTs.

These arguments stand at the heart of significant changes to ITU’s measurement of ICT skills which will reflect this broader range of digital skills. Following the work done with ITU the ICT Development Index (IDI) used by the World Bank and national governments to steer policy and interventions, will include, from next year, these direct measures of ICT skills, instead of using proxies, such as the level of education in a country.

The review of the existing research in the report revealed that there are gaps not only in the type of skills on which data is collected but also severe inequalities on where data on skills is generated.  Analyses of ITU data show a considerable gap in ICT skills between populations from developing and developed nations (see the graph below).

Figure 1: Distribution of skills in developed and developing countries, 2017
Note: Not all countries submitted data for all skill types (i.e. Ns vary) and for some countries data were used from previous years because no data were available for 2017.

There were serious issues with data quality and availability both internationally and for different generations, the lack of data for developing countries is particularly worrying. Closing this gap is vital, because we cannot base our understanding of digital inequalities on what we know from countries in the global North. High quality, context specific data is needed for the development of effective policies and measuring impact of new interventions.

In addition to improving the quality and reducing the gaps in ICT skills data collected, this should be linked to specific groups and sectors, because, as we stress in the report:

the utmost priority is to make digital skills policies in relation to gaps in the labour market and concerns about widening social inequalities more effective”.

To be able to effectively combat inequalities in increasingly digital societies, data collection, policymaking, and intervention design have to move beyond a focus on technical and simple navigational skills and incorporate softer skills related to interaction and collaboration, creation of diverse and positive content and critical information literacy as relevant to a number of contexts. Multi-stakeholder partnerships, in which not only best practices are shared but also lessons learned, and incentivising the reporting of issues in measurement and interventions are key. This will allow governments, industry, the third sector and other stakeholders to learn from one another and make steps to shaping a more equal digital future.

Broader context of the research for ITU

Overall, the 10th edition of the ITU Report explores global trends in use of digital technologies and access to the Internet (both upward trends), and describes patterns in ICT investments (large infrastructure investments are on the rise), revenue (varied depending on the state and region), and prices (downward trend). What distinguishes ITU’s conclusions in this year’s Report is that the organization firmly positioned digital skills at the forefront of the struggle for a more equitable and positive progress of our Information Society. These digital skills are vital for a) combating international and national inequalities related to education, innovation, economic growth, and other areas of everyday life; b) adapting to an increasingly complex digital environment that is currently being transformed by the rise of bots, AI, and polarizing fake content.

This article gives the views of the author and does not represent the position of the LSE Media Policy Project blog, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science.

About DiSTO

Dr. Helsper’s contribution to the ITU publication is part of the large internationally collaborative ‘From Digital Skills to Tangible Outcomes’ (DiSTO) project that she leads. DiSTO is an international, multi-year, multi-stakeholder project that develops and improves models and measures of people’s digital skills, digital engagement and outcomes of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) use mapping these onto social inequalities. The framework combines a quantitative survey tool, each section of which grew out of extensive academic debates, with qualitative measures. The framework’s measurements have been validated over time and used internationally (e.g. UK, Chile, Netherlands, US, Brazil) and in diverse populations (general population, digitally excluded, NEET population in the UK, etc.).

By focusing on what people are able to do online and with what outcomes, the DiSTO framework provides a unique entry point for understanding our digital lives. First, the DiSTO project develops a nuanced picture of digital skills by taxonomizing them and their outcomes along differ dimensions: basic to advanced, navigational, content creation, operational, and informational skills, and personal, educational and employment, social and cultural outcomes. Second, the framework focuses not only on one’s ability to perform actions online that count, but also on achieving tangible benefits and avoiding negative outcomes of engagement with ICTs. Given the analytical power of this intellectual endeavour, Dr. Helsper’s work has been informing both academic and policy debates nationally and globally.


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