In a recent study I conducted with the International Telecommunications Union (ITU)3 we operationalized the concept of the Digital Native and proceeded to count them across the planet. Criticisms of the Digital Native premise notwithstanding (and there are many) we argued that young Digital Natives are driving the adoption and inventing the future of information and communication technologies (ICTs) in many unlikely places across the globe. In Europe or North America almost everyone is online; and this is even truer for the young there. Meanwhile, the percentage of the population digitally networked in Africa and South Asia is low, however the proportion of youth adopters is relatively high: in some parts of Africa there are two or three online youth for every online adult.
Small levels of digital penetration are one explanation why large computing multinationals and research universities routinely ignore Africa and parts of Latin America and Asia. But a look specifically at these regions' Digital Natives reveals a collection of innovators and users spearheading some of the world's most exciting ICT advances. These Digital Natives are leading through rule-breaking lateral thinking but they also simply lead in their shear size. The number of global Digital Natives disaggregated by region shows Europe and North America as but small slivers of the worldwide pie (see Figure 1). A paradox looms: computing researchers and practitioners design for the Global North, but the shear numbers and opportunities for innovation are overflowing in the Global South.a
Nigeria is Africa's most populous country, a nation of enormous possibility and seemingly endless challenges. The deeply contested political environment has played out in a series of fraught elections. During the lead-up to national elections in 2011 the country seemed to hang on tenterhooks. Nigerian Digital Native activists, calling themselves the "Facebook generation," invented ways to use social media and mobile apps to help ensure a free and fair election. The Social Media Tracking Center (SMTC) and the Aggie social media aggregator software were results of this.b
The Aggie system, developed primarily at Georgia Tech, combs social media sources from Twitter, Facebook, Google+, Ushahidi, and other social media platforms. The data is streamed in real time to Aggie, which presents trends grouped around voting logistics, violence, political parties, and so forth. The SMTC team, based in Nigeria's capital city of Abuja, watched these trends (see Figure 2), detecting possible election irregularities or occasions of violence that warranted further attention. Reports categorized the incidents, which were relayed to the election commission, police, and other relevant stakeholders.
Approximately 750,000 reports were analyzed through the SMTC system during the three-week election period. Social media activity peaked during the April 16, 2011 Presidential election. When violence erupted in the North of the country, Aggie received nearly 50 reports a second. The system has been replicated for elections in Liberia, Ghana, and Kenya, with results that are only now being analyzed robustly5 though initial results show great promise.
Computing practitioners and researchers often design for the Global North but much of the action is in the Global South. The preceding case study demonstrates the energy of African Digital Natives driving opportunity and invention in the Global South. Young people in these contexts will continue to surface opportunity for exploration and invention, in areas such as:
Computing researchers and practitioners want to think outside of the box. That is easy: think outside of the continent! This column will push thinking beyond traditional borders to where the population, and the opportunities to innovate, both flourish.
Computing practitioners and researchers often design for the Global North but much of the action is in the Global South.
At the recent ITU Global Youth Summit, representatives of the world's Digital Natives called for more access and more invention. "The spread of information amongst young people can directly foster empowerment and innovation on a global scale," they wrote. "Health, civic engagement, online protection, environmental protection and economic success all depend on having unfettered access to knowledge which ICTs can extend to everyone."2 By following the lead of these Digital Natives, especially those coming from the Global South, we just might help them invent, and protect, our global future.
1. Best, M.L., Garg, S., and Kollanyi, B. Understanding and Rethinking Shared Access: How People Collaborate and Share Knowledge and Technologies in Ghanaian Cybercafés. Global Impact Study Research Report Series. Technology and Social Change Group, University of Washington Information School, Seattle, 2013.
2. ITU. BYND 2015: 2013 Costa Rica Declaration. ITU, Geneva, (2013); http://www.itu.int/en/bynd2015/Documents/bynd2015-global-youth-declaration-en.pdf.
5. Smyth, T. and Best, M.L. Tweet to trust: Social media and elections in West Africa. Presented at the Sixth International Conference on Information and Communication Technologies and Development (ICTD2013), Cape Town, South Africa, 2013.
a. Terminologies describing Africa, Latin America, and much of Asia have varied with the times. The "Third World" emerged from the Cold War, which is now as obsolete as the Soviet Union. "Developing world," though commonly used, seems pejorative and patronizing. The term "Global South" describes a collection of countries located mostly in the southern hemisphere, while "Global North" refers to what some have called the "developed world."
b. Many groups collaborated on this including Enough is Enough, the Shehu Musa Yar'Adua Foundation, the MacArthur Foundation, and other donors, as well as partners such as Georgia Tech and Harvard University.
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Concerning the statement "...large computing multinationals and research universities routinely ignore Africa...," I offer this counterexample - the Vodafone m-pesa project <>. This project and its micro transaction services deployed in African nations fit well into the widely advocated micro-entrepeneurial model of appropriate economic development.
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