Friday, September 20, 2013

A Data Bridge over the Digital Divide

When Facebook and friends announced the creation of a few weeks ago, with the stated aim of bridging the digital divide in developing countries, some may have been tempted to compare it to past socially responsible initiatives by Microsoft (Unlimited Potential), Intel (World Ahead) and AMD (50x15). True, the aim is similar, and the new kid on the block suffered the same snide comments as their predecessors ("Sure, it'll help people, but it ain't bad for business, either"), but there's a notable difference, too. Microsoft, AMD and Intel struggled to offer solutions to developing-country consumers who had limited purchasing power while maintaining profit margins in mature markets. Emerging-market buyers felt they were getting a "dumbed-down" product, and mature-market consumers weren't happy that less expensive alternatives were not available in their area. is not likely to face this kind of reaction because it re-tools back-end elements that are invisible to consumers. The private companies, nonprofits and developers who comprise the coalition are trying to increase Internet access by compressing data, reducing costs and encouraging new business models. It would be hard to imagine an emerging-market user complaining that her data was compressed too much, or a mature-market consumer grousing that the companies he deals with don't have a business model that works well in Brazil.'s focus on data, together with the expanding applications of Big Data, and a new emphasis on Open Data, signal a shift in thinking from hardware and software to (you guessed it) data and bandwidth.

Initiatives such as and the Google and Cisco-sponsored Alliance for an Affordable Internet are good news for emerging market consumers, who are largely at the mercy of governments and entrenched market players when it comes to available bandwidth. It also has considerable upside for the development community. Cheaper and more efficient data transmission could significantly lower costs and allow for expansion of remote projects (think mHealth or eEducation). Further, development organizations (who had no influence, or interest, in hardware and software markets) can play a wide range of data-centric roles as brokers, purveyors, developers, generators and consumers of information. All efforts to bridge the digital divide are as welcome as new friends. But as anyone with a Facebook account can attest, some friends are more welcome than others.