Gram Vikas calls for equal and efficient digital rights for rural communities at the DiSTO symposium


By GV News Desk

28 July 2023

Gram Vikas highlighted the magnitude of the digital divide, calling for rural communities to be considered co-creators and co-owners of solutions at the recently concluded symposium on digital inclusion.

The India chapter of DiSTO (From Digital Skills to Tangible Outcomes), led by The London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) organised the symposium, ‘Digital Inclusion is Empowerment in India’, with panel discussions spread over 24 & 25 July 2023.

Gram Vikas Executive Director, Liby Johnson, spoke at the panel on ‘Digital Inclusion Strategies for Marginalised Communities’, where he drew attention to the challenges of inclusion in rural India.

Localise solutions

Johnson underscored the need to tailor digital applications to suit rural communities’ specific needs and constraints, considering factors like limited connectivity and device access.

Drawing from Gram Vikas’ experiences working with indigenous communities in rural Odisha, he said that 4G connectivity continues to be an aspiration for the young population, with many villages still lacking even basic 2G connectivity. “The absence of 4G connections significantly hinders their access to information, education, and opportunities, widening the digital divide.”

The COVID-19 pandemic further highlighted the magnitude of this digital divide, especially when children couldn’t access devices or the internet for online education. “Children did not have access to digital devices, and there was no network where they had parents’ devices. We stepped in with some phygital model, setting up small networks in villages not dependent on 4G or broadband connectivity. Even that did not help, as children were deprived of what their urban counterparts were accessing.”

He underscored the need to tailor digital applications to suit rural communities’ specific needs and constraints, considering factors like limited connectivity and device access. He emphasised the need to consider digital as complementing existing systems and not the only solution.

“Unfortunately, where we sit, there is a projection that digital can solve a lot, particularly in education; that house of cards is very quickly falling, so that’s a great relief because some forms of exclusion will not be reinforced now.

Empowerment through technology must be designed

Noting that disempowerment caused by digital technologies has to be corrected by design and cannot be an afterthought, he said, “You cannot roll out some technology and say, “Oh, so many people are excluded, and what do we do now?”; so you end up providing second-class solutions for a group of people for who it could have been a first choice.”

Johnson commented on the pitfalls of the ‘dashboard governance’ system, which, while collecting data from rural communities, fails to provide them with agency or transparency in decision-making processes.

“Rural communities are data sources but do not have the agency as a contributor or user. Water quality data is taken, water level data is taken, NREGS attendance photographs and thumbprints are taken, but it never comes back. Particularly, the changes in NREGS in the name of efficiency, which I understand are more transparent for a particular group of people but communities on the ground do not see any transparency as a result of changes that have happened.”

Engage local communities in digital design and development

Johnson underscored the need for a digital environment where rural communities are not merely users at one end or data sources at the other but participants with equal and efficient rights.

Speaking about the possibilities of involving rural communities as co-owners and co-creators, he said, “There is an app called Public (a social video app for local information). When I travel to the interiors of Odisha, I see exponential growth in the use of the app, where people create content – this points to possibilities, which to include these people as co-creators in information related to social protection, job creation, addressing grievances, right to information, jobs, etc.”

People are drawn to be part of digital information sharing and using processes because it gives them a voice and the opportunity to be heard. Emphasising the importance of user specificity, Johnson said that ‘rural’ cannot be considered a single group for digital design and development.

“It’s about user specificity. For instance, farmers need access to weather forecasts, drinking water quality, or groundwater level data, but lactating mothers need different information.”

Platforms should create robust locally owned methods of inclusion, like involving key influencers from the community in content creation and allowing the excluded to be included, even without access to a device or being digitally savvy. “For instance, in a group of farmers, maybe two or three can use digital devices. How do we ensure that others in the group access information from them, thereby benefiting from the access?”

Other voices from the panel

Liby Johnson joined a panel alongside Arjun Venkatraman from Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Dr Akashi Kaul from Sambodhi Research and Communications Pvt. Ltd., and Dr. Sakshi Khurana from NITI Ayog.

Mr Venkatraman noted that the initial belief that digital solutions could solve all problems had given way to a more nuanced understanding of the complexities involved. The Silicon Valley credo of “build it and they will come” has proven effective for specific commercial goals but falls short in providing essential public services and promoting citizen rights.

He said digital technologies could create new categories of marginalisation. Factors like limited phone access and fear of potential risks, especially for women and young adults, can prevent certain population segments from fully utilising digital resources.

Traditionally, inclusion efforts focused on ensuring that targeted programmes reached the intended beneficiaries. However, the context of inclusion has become more central due to the COVID-19 pandemic, as digital access has become a lifeline for various essential services and communication.

Dr Kaul shared that indigenisation, equitable tech adoption, and robust measurement practices are vital components to ensure that digital solutions genuinely address the needs of specific communities.

She said that the success of digital initiatives heavily depends on the readiness of the technology itself. Even when stakeholders are willing to adopt a technology, if it is not ready for use, the entire pipeline can break down, leading to inefficiencies and potential setbacks in achieving project goals.

Dr Kaul spoke about “pilotisis”, a pattern of significant funding for pilot projects and new technologies but a lack of clear pathways for scaling up or sustaining successful initiatives. She said that the “pilotisis” phenomenon reflects the eagerness to experiment with new technologies without adequate consideration for long-term implementation and impact.

She said that measuring the impact of digital interventions presents unique challenges. Abstract concepts like empowerment and inequality are difficult to quantify, and the fast-paced evolution of digital technologies adds further complexity.

Dr Khurana highlighted the importance for economies to leverage the opportunities and skirt away the barriers evident for digital inclusion, especially for women and marginalised communities, and forging partnerships with the private sector and civil society to foster digital inclusion.

Dr Ellen Helsper, Professor of Digtial Inequalities at the Dept of Media & Communications, LSE, moderated the discussion.

Watch the discussion here (timestamp: 5:38:05 onward): https://lnkd.in/g73_yjC

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