Digital literacy for all

Published December 23, 2019
The writer is a financial inclusion researcher.
The writer is a financial inclusion researcher.

IN the Digital Pakistan Vision launched recently, Tania Aidrus, the head of the initiative, laid out the strategic pillars of the vision, namely — infrastructure, e-governance, digital skills and training, and innovation and entrepreneurship. Keeping in line with these pillars, the Ministry of Information and Technology is set to launch ‘Baytee’, a mobile application that acts as a consolidated portal for women empowerment related services delivery.

There have been many such pro bono public applications launches this year by the federal and provincial institutions in their pursuance of e-governance. Take for example, the ‘Mera Bacha Alert’ — a mobile application rolled out by the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government last month, similar to the internationally known ‘Amber Alert’ for the purpose of recovery of missing children in the province.

Facilitation and knowledge provision to citizens through information technology is no longer a novel phenomenon; it is a necessity in this digital day and age. However, it is one that depends on the possession of a smartphone, as do all the other citizens’ applications. The underlying premise being that ‘everyone’ has a smartphone these days.

Deprivation of deeper digital experience exists due to lack of ownership and accessibility as well as low digital literacy levels.

It is hard to ascertain the depth of the progress of the digital economy of the country when one looks at the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority’s recent indicators which tell us that as of October 2019 there were 163 million cellular subscribers meaning that the telecom penetration of the country is an impressive 77pc. Of these 163m, there are an estimated 73m subscribers of 3G and 4G technology; the remaining 90m then are 2G subscribers using feature phones and non-internet basic cellphone users. That’s a significant number.

Furthermore, the After Access 3.0 report (April 2019) released by LIRNE Asia, a regional ICT think tank states that Pakistani internet-enabled mobile owners are using less diverse range of applications sticking mainly to social media, voice and messaging apps, and that too at relatively low levels. It also reports that computer ownership was abysmally low at 2pc.

Adding to this conundrum, the Taking Stock: Data and Evidence on Gender Digital Equality report (March 2019) of the Japan-based United Nations University states that only 3pc of women in Pakistan are able to copy or move a file or folder on a computer. By comparison then, the statistic about nearly 30pc of poor Pakistani women that find it challenging to afford a digital device (phone or computer) does not come across as a shock.

All these point towards a deprivation of deeper digital experience due to lack of ownership and accessibility but also due to low digital literacy levels. It seems wise then that critical government messages such as warnings to register dual SIMs mobile phone sets by the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority or tax submission deadlines by the Federal Board of Revenue are relayed through SMS. Banks regularly send notifications about transactions or internet banking logins, also via SMS and customers have to navigate a set of instructions such as setting a pin code through call centre’s IVR systems. But they assume ‘everyone’ knows how to check and read these messages.

The manifestations of this assumption show up in the daily lives of the lower socioeconomic segments. Prepaid subscribers often find that value-added services have been automatically activated and charged. Mobile wallet users who could easily remit money or pay bills on their own free of charge instead ask branchless banking agents to conduct transactions at a fee. Beneficiaries of the Benazir Income Support Programme continue to be taken advantage of by middlemen who exploit their illiteracy.

The Digital Pakistan Policy launched in 2018 upon which the Digital Pakistan Vision builds, is comprehensive in its goals, some of which have been realised such as setting up computer labs at the Women Development Centres run by the Baitul Maal. The DigiSkills online learning portal launched under the policy offers massive open online courses (MOOCs) on employment skills on a self-learning basis.

Incubation centres in major cities have cropped up promoting tech entrepreneurship. Yet to be a part of a technological environment, one needs to have integrated skillsets of language, digital competency and cognitive abilities. In addition to literacy and numeracy, one needs to be able to read and write in English — there is no Urdu version of Microsoft office.

The policy does not take on basic digital literacy skillset building, presuming it to be a given. While it tackles exclusion due to poor infrastructure, the policy lags behind on individual access and accessibility to technological environments, not just by women but also by persons with disabilities (PWD).

The policy document mentions the establishment of countrywide tele-centres to bridge the digital divide that exists due to the inequitable ICT and internet access between income segments. A sustainable solution, this can be implemented by converting libraries into digital literacy centres, especially in smaller cities, towns and districts. These forlorn government institutions are frequented by students for exam preparations often due to lack of personal space at home; book borrowing has become a long forgotten utility.

Desktop computers and a steady WiFi or fixed broadband connection can easily turn a library into a partial digital literacy centre and a co-working space for startup incubations, if needed through public-private partnerships. Regular workshops ranging from mobile phone utilisation and internet usage to coding skills training could be held specifically for women and PWD who are usually absent from both libraries and tech spaces.

The Digital Pakistan Vision is expected to be translated into workable plans but it would indeed be reductive to believe that all that the supply side of e-governance requires is mobile apps especially when the general population is unable to fully use mobile phone functions. Digital inclusion can happen only when digital literacy reaches the grassroots.

The writer is a financial inclusion researcher.

Published in Dawn, December 23rd, 2019

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