IT-Intermediaries, e-Government, and the Digital Divide

Posted on January 13, 2011


In an important article in the current issue of the Journal of Community Informatics , Hungarian Sociologists Csótó Mihály and Szilárd Molnár examine the development of the “Information Society” in Hungary from the perspective of those who are being left behind in its development and the impact that this is having on innovation and development in Hungary as whole.  Their analysis and observations have relevance far beyond Hungary or even Europe and link quite directly into a similarly important newspaper article on the recurring Digital Divide among Afro-Americans and Hispanics in the US, by Jeffrey Washington of Associated Press and reprinted in USA Today  and the Washington Post among other places.

Csoto and Szilard’s analysis of Hungary points out “that the majority of the Internet user population has changed over to the solutions that are up-to-date in the domestic environment, and so the disadvantages experienced by those excluded from it have increased even more”. They estimate, based on the findings from research by the World Internet Project in Hungary that those who have been “won over” by the Information Society include approximately 50% of Hungarians. On the other side of this they estimate that, “Almost 50 percent of the adult population is digitally illiterate, and most of these excluded people have no direct contacts with the feature tools (computers, Internet) or with persons who use these tools in their everyday lives.”  This is an important observation in that it goes beyond a simple Digital Divide (DD) analysis to identify that those on the wrong side of the DD are in fact isolated and becoming more isolated from those who are on the “right” side.

Their analysis indicates that there are a number of significant social effects apart from increasing broad social divisions resulting from this DD as well noting that those on the “wrong” side are increasingly unable to access the benefits of Information and Communications Technologies (ICTs) including the Internet because they lack access to those who might either inform them of the benefits of ICTs, provide them with access to ICTs or teach them how to undertake access for themselves. What this has meant for Hungary according to the researchers is a rigidification in the boundaries of the DD and a significant loss overall to the economy as this 50% or so of the population is unavailable for work with ICTs which of course, in a modern economy is virtually all but the most manual of work activities.

They go on to suggest that the digital exclusion suffered by this large group of people leads in turn to a significant cultural, educational and social exclusion which then further reinforces the initial digital exclusion, creating almost impenetrable barriers and long term social difficulties. Thus while the digitally enabled are evolving and developing rapidly in an Information Society context those not similarly enabled are stagnating in their skill levels and overall cultural and social access.

The ICT sector of the Hungarian economy and a narrow, younger and more educated segment of the population is developing progressively and adapting to the opportunities provided by technological advances, while the state, our public administration and most of society is less able or willing to keep up. For the majority, new information and communication technologies mean destruction, retreat and the further weakening of social norms and communities. Meanwhile, the minority, recognizing the new opportunities and the creative power, are accepting the opinion that changing our life styles and habits and adapting ourselves, the old values are not only sustainable but can even be strengthened and new ones can be established… it is not surprising that these people do not simply own the feature tools of the information era but also make use of them in order to enrich their social, economic and cultural resources

In this context we should also examine Jeffrey Washington’s extended article on the “new digital divide”—

Increased access and usage should be good things, right? “I don’t know if it’s the right time to celebrate. There are challenges still there,” says Craig Watkins, an associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin and author of “The Young and the Digital.” He adds: “We are much more engaged, but now the questions turn to the quality of that engagement, what are people doing with that access.”

…blacks and Latinos may be using their increased Web access more for entertainment than empowerment.…mobile phones are more limited than computers: “Phones are more for entertainment right now. I don’t want to use the word uneducated, but I don’t think (customers) are 100% educated on what the Internet can do in your life. They just see you can have fun on it….Aaron Smith, a Pew senior research specialist, says there are obvious limitations on what you can do on a mobile device — updating a resume being the classic example.

Related to this, someone in a Digital Divide oriented Facebook group observed that no employer would ever hire anyone simply because of their” capacity to download an app”.

What these two articles together do, is to begin to define or give more clarity to the evolving nature of the Digital Divide in a world where there has been widespread progress towards inclusion in the Information Society and where cell phones are becoming the primary portal in accessing the Internet. In Hungary, the divisions forming the DD are becoming more rigid and more damaging to the long term national interest, in the US while superficially the DD is becoming less significant in large part because of the opportunity to access the Internet through cell phones, yet there is still concern that the opportunities and particularly employment and work related opportunities that Internet access makes available is not similarly available to those whose primary access is the cell phone and who don’t have parallel access through personal computers. In that sense, cell phone Internet access may provide the appearance of “digital literacy” without the substance!

This might be seen as the user side of what is being termed “shiny app syndrome”  Kevin Curry, for example, asked (at a recent eGovernment conference) a simple but important question: Are gov iPhone apps “empowering the empowered?” Given that such apps require an Internet connection and an expensive iPod Touch or iPhone, do they essentially add to a digital divide?

So, to triangulate 😉 we have a self-reinforcing DD forming among PC users; we have those accessing the Internet via cell phones losing out on many of the opportunities presented to PC Internet users; and we have (some) governments providing their services primarily to those using expensive mobile devices to the exclusion of other means of access. All of which is to suggest that rather than the Digital Divide going away it might better be seen as evolving and becoming even more rigid, more discriminatory and potentially much more damaging and exclusionary even while the opportunities for access become ever greater.

Into this mix our Hungarian colleagues have tossed an idea for a possible solution—they call it “IS Mentors”.

The IS-mentor[i] is a qualified and practiced supporter based in community access points who provides personal help to people in improving their life situations and life opportunities primarily through the use of modern ICT tools and network services. The mentors’ primary task is to help people otherwise unable to independently use the services provided by the Information Society, and who cannot exploit the opportunities provided by information and communication technology. The mentor could be the connecting link that brings the new services and opportunities of the digital world closer to the community’s requirements and cultural traditions and this could even benefit those who have not yet realized its advantages.

While the initial notion is that IS Mentors would work to provide a general interface between the citizen and the Internet, the notion could be extended to respond to the issues indicated both by Jeff Washington above and by Alex Howard discussing “shiny apps”—that is the IS-Mentor (another term that has been widely used is “infomediary” although the definition of this given in the community informatics context is rather different from that indicated in the more commercial environment)

In this, the infomediary or IS-Mentor would act as the interface between the provider of the electronic service and the end user, assisting the end user in taking advantage of the service by having access to and understanding the technology interface (and not incidentally being in a position to provide feedback to the service provider as to the preferred methods and design for making the service available to the end user). Of course, the IS-Mentor or infomediary need not be simply an individual, in many cases (including as discussed for Hungary) it would more likely be an institution which is providing mediating/linking services, support, training, and so on between citizens and those using electronic platforms to communicate with and provide services to them.

(Csótó and Szilárd in a private communication provide the following as an example of the kind of need which is rapidly emerging: “in Hungary farm subsidies need to be claimed electronically.   The vast majority of farmers (almost 80%) needed to be helped by the state extension service field workers to execute this task.”)”

This quite simple process is seen as providing the necessary link between those currently outside of the Information Society in Hungary and the technology infrastructure which is the rapidly evolving platform for public integration in Hungary (and one could argue elsewhere as well). One can also see how this approach could serve to provide an equivalent function for those in other societies where the technology services are evolving more rapidly than are the capabilities of many to absorb and participate as well as ensuring that the means are maintained for facilitating knowledge of and access to the broadest range of skill development as possible (going beyond pre-formed downloadable apps or commercially developed content to opening opportunities for developing employment skills required to participation and contribution to an Information Society).

Rather than the need for such intermediary services declining as society becomes more ICT saturated, in fact it is becoming ever greater as the numbers of those falling behind in the race towards ever shinier apps continues to pick up pace and momentum.

[i] The term – Information Society Mentor – was originated by Mátyás Gáspár. See details: