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Reducing the Digital Divide

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Building strong National Societies:

BRIDGING THE DIGITAL DIVIDE

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

Strategy 2020 introduced the concept of National Societies that are internally strong and that play a full role as equal members of their International Federation.  To progress this, the Governing Board of May 2010 requested the Secretary General, as part of his agreed objectives, to “promote Federation-wide communications through best affordable technologies that bridge the digital divide and inform and connect National Societies to ensure mutual trust and belonging, and enhance productivity, knowledge sharing, collaborative working and outreach”.

Accordingly, we propose a model for bridging the digital divide.

The general objective of the digital divide initiative is to ensure that all National Societies are well-connected through information technology so that they function effectively as well as participate fully as members of the International Federation.

This model is situated squarely within a National Society development framework based on the notion that, to be strong and sustainable, they need to make the best possible use of available modern information and communications technologies, so that they are more accessible and influential, knowledgeable, efficient, productive, and collaborative.

The broad benefits for well connected National Societies are that they would be able to participate fully in an interactive, globalised world. This means that they could make full use of information which is available on the internet; they could access services and interact with service providers, and use all online tools offered by the Federation such as FedNet and DMIS. It means that they could participate fully in online discussions, knowledge sharing, planning and decision making, and be able to access easily the information necessary for them to fulfil their role as Federation members and in Federation governance. They would also be able to discharge their obligations on transparency and accountability through the Federation Databank and the Federation-wide Reporting System. They would also be able to assert their presence online, and promote themselves appropriately to gain influence and attract partners and resources.

THE CONTEXT AND OPPORTUNITY

National Societies cannot afford to be left behind by the revolution in information technology.

Institutions and individuals now have unprecedented and affordable access to the internet and also unprecedented capability to engage, interact, and influence in the global information environment. Standard business processes are now assumed to have a digital basis, and organizations, both commercial and non-commercial, interact with their clients, peers, service providers and even competitors through digital channels. The scope for collaboration and social activism is greatly enhanced with the huge increase in personal interconnectivity and online engagement brought about by the advent of social media. Today, online communities of shared interest can be initiated with an ease which makes common enterprise a global phenomenon as easily as it once functioned at the village level.  At the same time, telephony has first become mobile, exchanging its association with location for an association with individuals, and has then merged with the online world.

Information technology can have an enabling effect even in the most deprived regions. Mobile telephony has brought connectivity within the reach of a larger proportion of the (particularly urban) poor.  As computers have become cheaper and the skills needed to use them have become more widespread, governments and institutions even in the poorest countries have been able to benefit from the increased efficiency they can bring, as well as to be held to account by their citizens and clients. Online communications, particularly email, have hugely reduced the once prohibitive costs of regular, day-to-day interaction across international borders and between continents.

However, this revolution has not reached everyone equally. The most deprived communities including the poor or old have seen their relative deprivation increase as the rest of the world moves on. They do not have the knowledge and skills to work with the new technology and though costs have been falling, the price of equipment and connectivity is often highest in the poorest places in the world. This is the digital divide.

The Federation is in the middle of this dynamic change. National Societies in the developed world are benefiting from efficiency savings from more effective information technologies. Their finance, human resources, communications, volunteer management and logistics can l all be managed using computer systems. The worldwide web and online communications have made global information and knowledge sharing as a Federation incomparably easier.  Entirely unforeseen ways of using information in the humanitarian context have emerged, for example with crowd-sourcing of information after disasters, and resource mobilisation (especially when people are spontaneously moved to contribute when tragedy strikes). At the same time, much of our work is in the most deprived parts of the world, and National Societies at the front line of delivery to the most vulnerable are least equipped to benefit from new ways of working. This is the internal digital divide on which we are focused.

Additionally, there is often an inter-generational technology divide.  Even in rich countries, older people can feel overwhelmed by technological advances and become increasingly isolated in a world where the essential activities of daily living and interaction are conducted online. This is an opportunity to better engage our youth volunteers to work with their seniors in reaching across the digital divide to promote social inclusion.

THE CONCEPT

As we increasingly use information technology to accomplish our mission “to do more, do better, and reach further”, we must bridge the digital divide within our Federation. We must ensure that making services available online benefits all National Societies. We must ensure that where it is necessary to use modern technology to participate fully in the life of the Federation, the costs do not fall disproportionately on those with the least resources. We must use the power of our global network to bring these benefits to all.

We aim to help bridge the digital divide through:

· Identifying the minimum level of connectivity and online capacity required to participate fully in the Federation, and ensure that all National Societies are well connected;

· Create mechanisms to enable National Societies to increase their capacity in information technology in response to their own specific contexts and needs.

The requirements of National Societies vary widely depending on their individual situations and needs. Furthermore, the range of information technology solutions on offer changes and develops very quickly. The focus, therefore, is on strengthening and capitalizing on the capacities, adaptability and resilience of the Federation as a whole, rather than in developing individual solutions or systems. Introducing new technologies without boosting the general capacity of the National Society to manage them may weaken them in the long term, either through dependency on external assistance or through dependency on unstable or unsustainable tools.

The minimum required levels of connectivity and capacity in information technology are being identified along with National Societies capacity building assistance so as to ensure longer term sustainability. An important element of this is knowledge sharing: allowing National Societies with similar requirements to work together to identify and disseminate best practice, building a knowledge base of solutions and staff capacities.

Partnerships will be developed more widely with the corporate sector as a source of expertise and project funding, and with civil society technology groups for their local knowledge and ability to develop relevant solutions.

A specialist team has been created in the secretariat, uniting skills in information technology and National Society capacity building, to strengthen the use of these tools throughout the Federation and to provide particular assistance to those National Societies which are most in  need.

THE DIGITAL BRIDGING DEVELOPMENT PROCESS

An initial mapping of National Societies’  ICT capacities has identifying the following areas for intervention:

1. IT Training: some 76% of National Societies see this as the most important need as its impacts on all performance.  A knowledge divide exists between National Societies with high and low ICT Index;

2. Lack of IT Strategy and IT Budget: 67% of National Societies do not have an IT strategy and 74% report limited or no IT budget;

3. Top 5 differentiators between stronger and weaker NS: among the NS in lower income countries, the highest and lowest scoring ICT Index scores were separated by performance in the following areas: IT Strategy, Telecoms & Disaster Response Technologies, Internet Connectivity, Website, and Staff ICT Skills.

4. Each National Society has specific needs: Detailed follow-up and working agreements are required with individual National Societies in order to address these needs.

5. Fragmented Application Landscape: Limited use of applications in many functional areas (such as Volunteer Management).  Only one business application is used by more than 5 National Societies.

The secretariat’s own information technology strategy has been reoriented in line with this Federation-wide approach, and now proposes a set of programs specifically designed to address global needs. These include:

· a new focus on connectivity, as the enabling technology without which little else can be achieved, including specialist assistance and limited, targeted funding to allow National Societies to make the step to full connectivity;

· a program to assist small and medium National Societies, identifying standard capacity levels and providing them with a choice of tools and services to enable them to develop along with specific assistance to 15 National Societies in 2011 in an extended pilot and proof of concept;

· a program to identify the best applications already in use, enabling them to be made available more widely in a NS Technology Catalogue, allowing the Federation to benefit globally from the successes of individual National Societies;

· expanded support for e-learning and technology support, giving more control over the availability of the necessary skills, with collaboration platforms and training programs to support the development of a trained cadre of Red Cross Red Crescent technology specialists.

· through advisory and consultative services, encouraging National Societies to use technology at all levels of the IT Strategy Pyramid, including infrastructure, business applications, applications for program delivery and field support, and those most strategic technologies that directly benefit the vulnerable whom we serve.[1]

To free resources in the short term, the secretariat has de-prioritised internal technology projects until 2012 and existing systems will be progressively outsourced, allowing the secretariat to focus on providing services to National Societies. Outreach, through zones, will be provided to support NS who cross the digital divide, to ensure their long-term sustainability. These measures are allowing work to start immediately, but the program will require significant funding in the longer term.



[1]“IFRC Information Technology (IT) Strategic Plan”, published December 2010 and approved by the Global Senior Management Team in February 2011.

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This website is created with the support of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Cross Societies, in the framework of the Digital Divide Project. Site by Dan Valey

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