Exclusives : ITU Focuses on Closing Digital Divide on WTISD 2021

ITU Focuses on Closing Digital Divide on WTISD 2021

Government representatives from across the globe commemorated World Telecommunication and Information Society Day (WTISD) 2021 by virtually discussing the topic of “Accelerating digital transformation in challenging times.” With the challenging times being the current COVID-19 pandemic, the focus was on the human element as much as on technology, though. 

Smart Cities for the People

Maimunah Mohd Sharif, Executive Director of the United Nations (UN) Human Settlements Programme, opened the event, hosted by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), a UN agency. Among other topics, she outlined the flagship People-Centred Smart Cities initiative, which launched in February 2020, before COVID-19 became a global pandemic.

“We believe cities are for the people and people are for the cities. COVID-19 has already showed the proof that people are very important,” she said. “So, first we would like to show our deep commitment to leave no one and no place behind.

“[The] basic mandate is to improve quality of life for people in cities[…] Smart cities need to use technology effectively to contribute to this goal. This requires a shift away from the smart-city approach, which is technology-supply-driven, towards one that is needs-based-driven. This is very important. The development of technology should be human-centered and consider the needs of the cities and communities.”

Sharif pivoted to the ever-present digital divide, arguing that until it’s addressed smart cities will fail to reach their full potential.

“Globally, 28% of all households lack an internet connection, and 37% lack a computer. Even in New York City, one of the world’s most developed cities, 1.5 million people still do not have broadband at home or on their mobiles. For people in developing countries, internet[…] access remains unaffordable,” she said. “The COVID-19 pandemic has made the situation much worse and cities across the world are becoming aware of the digital divide.”

Closing the Digital Divide

FCC Acting Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel was one of several high-profile speakers representing governments of six different nations: Azerbaijan, Ghana, Pakistan, Poland, Trinidad and Tobago, and the United States. She described how the FCC is tackling the divide, including the “homework gap,” referencing data that shows up to 16.9 million children in the U.S. lack reliable internet access at home.

“Last week, the FCC adopted rules to establish an Emergency Connectivity Fund program to provide our nation’s schools and libraries with more laptops and tablet computers, Wi-Fi hot spots, and the resources to bring broadband connectivity to help students who lack reliable internet access at home, but of course I don’t believe on this score the United States is alone,” she said. “According to a report commissioned by the United Nations Children’s Fund and the ITU, more than 2 billion children around the world, which is roughly 67%, also fall into this homework gap.

“So, as we explore opportunities to accelerate the decade of action, I hope we can all consider a worldwide effort to close the homework gap so every student can get connected for education.”

Trinidad and Tobago’s Allyson West, Senator and Minister of Public Administration and Digital Transformation, meanwhile spoke of her nation’s goals for the future. West said Trinidad and Tobago, like Ghana, which was also represented at the event, is pursuing an e-identity program to help identify citizens in need. In that context, she emphasised the need for interoperability between state agencies.

“What has happened traditionally is that each ministry has developed their ICT program individually and we have been insufficiently linked, and we saw that clearly during the beginning of the pandemic,” she said.” We are seeking to create a digitally transformed society within the next two years, because, as communities around the world have indicated, this unfortunately is not likely to be the last of our global challenges.”

Digital Acceleration at an Unprecedented Pace

In that sense, the pandemic has had a small silver lining. Robert Opp, Chief Digital Officer of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), argued COVID-19 has led to digital acceleration at an unprecedented pace, citing a statistic that the UNDP is tracking 250 digital responses in its country offices alone, excluding the independent efforts of governments and international organisations.

“Coming out of the COVID pandemic, we see more interest from governments in looking at digital transformation from a whole-of-society perspective,” he said. “All parts of the population, from national government to local government to all different areas, looking at marginalised groups and so on.

“We believe that not only is this a more efficient and effective way of approaching digital transformation, but ultimately one that tries to leave no one behind and we believe that there are a number of foundational types of investments to be made, foundational technology layers such as identity, payment infrastructure, and looking at key components like infrastructure, regulatory environments, innovation ecosystems, [etc.].”

Opp continued, saying the UNDP is working with the ITU to develop a joint facility on digital-capacity building as part of UN Secretary General António Guterres’ Roadmap for Digital Cooperation. He called the need for digital skills one of the biggest challenges in the way of digital inclusion, with the initiative seeking to create a multi-stakeholder network to help overcome the obstacle.

The May 17 WTISD event annually marks the anniversary of the ITU, initially established as the International Telegraph Union. The significance of the occasion was not lost on Rosenworcel, who actually opened her portion with a rallying cry of sorts.

“Looking at my fellow panelists I’m struck by the fact that none of the countries who are represented here, including the United States, were among the 20 countries who signed the International Telegraph Convention on this day in 1865,” she said. “I really think that’s a testament to how far we have come as a global community and I think this history is a celebration of all we can accomplish when we work together in the spirit of regional and international cooperation.”

The WTISD 2021 celebration took place as part of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) Forum 2021. The WSIS 2021 Forum runs the remainder of the week, until May 21. Additional details, including a complete agenda, can be found on the WSIS Forum 2021 website.

Feature image courtesy of cybrain (via Shutterstock). 




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