Time to shift from basic browsing to content creation - LIRNEasia CEO | Sunday Observer

Time to shift from basic browsing to content creation - LIRNEasia CEO

2 June, 2019
CEO, Lirneasia, Helani Galpaya
CEO, Lirneasia, Helani Galpaya

Information communication technology has become an integral part of society and the development of the sector is an indicator of a country’s progress in economic growth, CEO, Lirneasia, Helani Galpaya said.

“We have been conducting surveys to ascertain many development aspects with regard to socio economic concerns of the country and the ICT survey results are an eye opener for future policy decisions,” she said.

“People are keen on adapting ICT abilities, especially the younger generation. Therefore, we need to promote new technologies. It is necessary to embrace digital know-how and to connect to the rest of the world for a seamless journey towards the future,” she said in an interview with the Business Observer.

However, she said that the ICT survey which was based on maximising digital dividends, has concerns which need immediate attention to make it a fruitful tool for development.


Q. Can you provide an overview of your organisation?

A. LIRNEasia is a digital policy think tank working in the Asia Pacific region. The organisation conducts in-depth, policy-relevant research on infrastructure industries including ICT sectors. Its work extends to other sectors such as agriculture and health which can benefit the poorest citizens of the Asia Pacific. Through its work, LIRNEasia documents regional good practices and then disseminates independent, actionable knowledge to policy makers, regulators, service providers and the media. It has, on many occasions, contributed towards the removal of barriers to access ICT for the people of Asia.

Q. What is your role in its operational process?

A. I am the CEO. Other than the organisational aspects, I play a big role in setting the research agenda for the organisation, and obtaining funds to carry out research. During the course of the research, even though research managers and researchers in the organisation run the projects on a day-to-day basis, I get involved at strategic points of the research (for example, I might get involved in research design, or I might go to the field every now and then), to ensure that I’m sufficiently immersed in the data that we collect to understand the problems and identify potential solutions, and ultimately communicate it to policymakers, industry, and other key audiences.

Q. What are the types of research you conduct?

A. LIRNEasia’s research has evolved over time, mainly focusing on the enabling role that ICTs can play in improving peoples’ lives, particularly marginalised citizens of the Asia Pacific. Our focus was initially on ICT sector reforms, but over time we have also focused on the role that ICTs play in other sectors such as agriculture and disaster risk reduction. More recently, we have analysed big data from telecom networks to inform policy makers in the transportation and health sectors among others.

We are also exploring what role ICTs can play in facilitative independent living among people with disabilities. Through projects such as AfterAccess we are also trying to measure and understand the digital risks that people from the Asia Pacific (particularly the marginalised) face when coming online, and how they can be mitigated to ensure a safe and secure enabling experience when they come online.

Q. Can you elaborate on the latest research ‘AfterAccess’?

A. We already have information from telecom operators and other sources about things such as the number of mobile phone and internet subscriptions. This is essentially the number of SIM cards that are out there.

That number can (and does) include SIM cards in POS machines, in parking meters and in dongles. There are instances when this information is useful, but it is not ideal for making policy and business decisions which are meant to have the user in focus. One problem is that a small business owner (for example) can own a mobile phone with two SIM cards as well as a dongle, and have a POS machine, and the operators will count these as three different users when the fact of the matter is that this is actually one user.

The second problem with this data is that it doesn’t tell us whether this person is a man or a woman or young or old or rich or poor and it gives us absolutely no idea what this person is actually doing with the connection. So it becomes increasingly clear that the number of connections alone isn’t very useful information to anyone.

This kind of data says nothing about people who don’t use the internet – who they are and why they don’t use the internet.

The only reliable way to get information on who uses mobile phones and the internet, what they use it for, and who does not use the internet and why, is to talk to the people themselves. And talking to the people doesn’t mean you talk to any 100 people or any 10,000 people for that matter. You need to talk to a scientifically random sample of people and use a standardised questionnaire.

This is an extremely expensive exercise which is why it is hardly ever undertaken. But it should be. The findings will provide insights that we wouldn’t otherwise have, and allow businesses and policy-makers to make evidence-based decisions.

This is why we did the AfterAccess surveys.

EQUALS has recognised the AfterAccess surveys for its work in bringing the gender gap in mobile phone and internet use in the Global South, and declaring it winner in the Research category for 2018.

AfterAccess not only quantifies the difference between men and women in terms of mobile and internet use, but also quantifies the gaps between the rich and the poor, and the young and the old. The findings can tell you, for example, how likely is a 46-60-year-old to use social media, or mobile money, or any aspect which we have studied. This way, we can identify development priorities for each country.

The Asia surveys covered Sri Lanka, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Cambodia and Nepal.

In Sri Lanka we interviewed 2,017 people from 100 Grama Niladhari divisions in all nine provinces. We used sampling methodology that allowed us to say specific things about the country, about men, women, rich, poor and young and old.

The target population is aged 15-65 and the national-level data has a 95% confidence interval and a +/-3.3% margin of error.

What this means is that if we do the survey again and again, we will get the same findings 95% of the time, and the numbers we provide can have a mere 3.3% difference to the actual.

The full AfterAccess survey has data from 23 countries in Latin America, Asia and Africa, and includes data from interviews with 38,005 people.

The research was conducted with financial support from the International Development Research Centre (IDRC), Canada, the UK Government’s Department for International Development (DFID), the Ford Foundation and the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA).

Q. In your view, what are the issues, concerns and challenges that need attention?

A. There are three main sets of challenges we face as a country with regard to ICT. First, we have low internet use and smartphone use and large gaps in ownership and use across society (e.g., gender gaps). Second, those who go online are only browsing and not going beyond that to really see the economic and efficiency dividends that the internet provides. Third, there are a lot of concerns surrounding the potential harm and risk of digital connectivity.

Q. How can we address these?

A. The implied needs include greater smartphone ownership, more internet use and people shifting from basic browsing to become content creators, carrying out transactions online, and generally using mobile and internet services to improve their lives. Special focus on marginalised groups such as women in rural areas is needed. The policymakers and regulators have a role to play in ensuring a conducive and predictable regulatory environment for operators to invest and provide services at affordable rates.

Digital (and media) literacy initiatives are needed to ensure that more and more people become internet users. They have the right skills and knowledge to enable them to manage the harms/risks of being online while leveraging on the potential offered. But also ensuring analog complements to support digital services (e.g., e-commerce) are ready and functioning (e.g., logistics, customs, skills, payment systems) for these services to work well.

Q. What is the policy framework needed to develop the ICT sector?

A. We need to rethink the institutional arrangements that exist when thinking about what is needed for ICT development. We need to get away from the idea that everything ‘digital’ can be siloed into one single line ministry, and understand that ICTs are an enabler, for many sectors – agriculture, health, education.

The cross-cutting nature implies that many parts of government need to come together to formulate and implement policy in the ICT sector, but the private sector too needs to be involved, as they are the providers of services.

In the same way, we need to change the way that we think about certain issues, as being ‘digital’ problems, for instance if you take content regulation. Some think that content online should be regulated. However, we need to understand that content is content; why should content posted on Facebook be regulated any differently from content broadcast on television? We need to encourage broader thinking on topics such as this, as we go forward as a country.

Q. What regulatory measures will help social media to act in a responsible manner?

A. Regulation of social media is neither feasible nor a practical approach.

With the speed at which technological advancement is taking place today, legal and regulatory frameworks around the globe are struggling to keep up; even for platform providers (such as Facebook, Whatsapp) it is hard for them to anticipate how users will adopt and use them or for what purposes, let alone monitor the content being created and shared across it in multiple languages and social/political/cultural contexts.

In this regard regulating social media is not the answer. For instance one of the issues on everyone’s mind today, is fake news.

But one needs to take a step back and first understand that fake news is not a new problem, nor is it one limited to social media.

In fact what our data shows is that people have as much distrust in traditional media (newspapers and TV) as they do oin online sources such as social media. Broad based and long term solutions are an essential part in addressing such problems.

A part of this includes (but is not limited to) educating users, and creating a culture of ethical online behaviour. This involves direct digital media literacy training and awareness initiatives, but also ensuring these concepts are introduced at an early age formally through the school curricula.

Q. As far as your research is concerned, what is the Sri Lanka’s position compared to the rest of the selected countries?

A. Sri Lanka performs the lowest on ICT indicators among its economic peers. Seventy-eight percent (78%) of the population aged 15-65 own a mobile phone, beating India, Pakistan and other countries in the region.

But it is the lowest among its economic peers such as Argentina (91%), Ecuador (84%) and Guatemala (88%).

Forty-seven percent (47%) of the mobile phones were smartphones, placing Sri Lanka behind its poorer neighbours Nepal (52%) and Cambodia (48%). Sixty-three percent of Sri Lankans aged 15-65 said they had never used the internet.

This indicates again that the country performs worst among its economic peers and on a par with much poorer countries such as Cambodia (64%) and Nepal (66%).

The gender gap in mobile phone ownership (women aged 15-65 were 17% less likely to own a mobile phone than their male counterparts) and internet use (women aged 15-65 were 34% less likely to have used the internet than men) were again highest in Sri Lanka from among its economic peers.

Rural dwellers were also seen to be at a disadvantage, with the rural population aged 15-65 being 23% less likely to have used the internet than the urban. What seems to be the case in Sri Lanka is a certain ‘stickiness’ of South Asian norms.