A summary of Open Development

Robin Mansell presented a summary of the conclusions of the event Open Development: Exploring the future of the information society in Latin America and the Caribbean in her intervention at the IV Ministerial Conference on the Information Society for Latin America and the Caribbean. Robin Mansell is a Professor of New Media and the Internet at the Department of Media and Communications of the London School of Economics, and she was the keynote speaker at Open Development with the presentation Imagining the internet: Open, Closed or In Between. Her summary is as follows:

My comments draw on my ‘Renewing the Knowledge Societies Vision: Knowledge Societies for Peace and Sustainable Development’, a report prepared by myself and Gaëtan Tremblay for the UNESCO’s WSIS +10 Meeting in February 2013[1] and on my participation in the conference ‘Open Development: Exploring the Future of the Information Society in Latin America and the Caribbean’, sponsored by Fundacion Comunica and IDRC in Montevideo, 2-3 April 2013.

The term Open Development is gaining traction as a way of focusing attention of some of the key issues which will face policy makers as knowledge societies continue to develop in many different contexts around the world.  A key question is whether these societies will take advantage of the spread of digital technologies, networks and applications to develop open or closed communication environments or whether they will be a mixture of both.  If the preference in line with the goals of inclusive and equitable development that ensures respect for rights to freedom of expression and the right to a reasonable degree of privacy, then there is a key role for policy makers, the private sector and civil society to ensure that the balance which is struck is favours the achievement of those goals. 

  • There are several important reasons for a focus on open development in relation to changing information or knowledge societies.
  • Access to digital networks and services including the Internet remains a challenge in some countries and regions within countries. Although access is improving with the spread of wireless networks and mobile phones, there are still gaps and many users of mobile phones do not benefit from the advantages of high bandwidth or smart phones or tablets.
  • Even when access is achieved there are issues that must be addressed to develop strategies for inclusion. This requires much more than providing technical training. It extends to many forms of literacy including encouraging a desire to both produce and consume new knowledge. This means that strategies for inclusion need to be given a high priority.
  • Existing approaches to mapping and measuring the development of information societies focus predominantly on access to technology and on a limited range of technical skills. It will be essential to move beyond this if countries are to be able to assess and reflection on their success in building inclusive societies.
  • This will mean finding effective means of monitoring information society developments with respect to both private or closed Internet services and  open services which facilitate sharing and collaboration, and the balance between them in order to assess their potential to bring about positive social, political, economic and cultural change.
  • An emphasis on the user perspective on information societies will become increasingly crucial and this will require the development of
  • indicators and mapping tools which enable the user experience of information societies to be monitored.

In 2003 it was observed that “it is clear that the problems of collecting truly comparative data and making sense of them are huge …” (emphasis added).[2]  Indeed, the problems are huge and work needs to continue on the collection of existing data. However, resources need to be allocated to develop robust demand side or user experience data and this should receive as a high, if not a higher, priority as compared to ongoing initiatives that focus on the supply side, i.e. the technology access side.

To enable policy makers and other stakeholders to make sense of developments in the information societies of the Latin American and Caribbean countries with their many distinctive characteristics, it is important to monitor progress on several fronts.  The aim must be to discover which initiatives lead to success or to failure, and to ensure learning from diverse experiences of innovation in information societies in the LAC region.  The following summarises some of the priorities that can serve as guide to policy and practice in information societies that emerged from discussion during the ‘Open Development’ Fundacion Comunica/IDRC conference.

1)   Maintain an open public Internet in the LAC region in the face of pressures to offer closed, walled garden, or bundled online services

  • Seek a balance between the Internet as a closed and open space and pay particular attention to emerging hybrid or ‘in between’ developments. 
  • Understand that for some users, closed packaged and limited access services may be more attractive than paying for access to all available services and information. 
  • Map the specific strategies of Internet access providers in the LAC region.  This requires more than measuring the diffusion of mobile handsets, services, or computer based access and use. It means assessing how these strategies are affecting user experience.

2) Consider whether the new forms of Digital Citizenship achieved through online interaction are consistent with fully participatory democratic practice

  • Monitor whether States are developing interactive platforms which support collective action rather than individual voices. 
  • Insofar as external models taken from Europe and North America focus mostly on the individual citizen in relation to the State insist on developments in this area that are responsive to the history of social movements in the LAC regions which has long emphasized collective action. 
  • Recognise that the wide variety of models and ways of interacting with the State are not reflected adequately in current indicators and metrics for e-government initiatives.
  • Develop comparative studies within the region to map the particular experiences of different countries and compare them with other regions.

3) Entrepreneurship and Online Business – Ask whether new informal sharing ways of sharing using online services are filling gaps and meeting citizen needs that can, or should be, met by the formal economy or by the state

  • There is a need to measuring the growth of online service innovation that is taking place beyond the market in order to understand emerging forms of social innovation. 
  • Map the development of online solutions that address people’s needs (basic needs for food, housing, income, etc.) especially for those at the base of the pyramid, document effective bottom-up strategies, and move beyond measuring only network access.

4) Copyright and the Creative Economy – Acknowledge that this is likely to remain a contested issue.

  • Gather specific cases to demonstrate the impact of existing intellectual property rights legislation on local and LAC region contexts;
  • Map the different legal and policy approaches to creating a level playing field in countries in the region and
  • Use cases to assess the impact of policy and legislation on domestic creative industries, on scientific output and on the production of educational resources. 
  • Map the variety of ways in which countries in the LAC region are seeking to balance fundamental rights (freedom of expression) with the interests of the creative industry in copyright enforcement, e.g. what approaches to open content licensing are being considered and/or introduced?

5) Privacy

  • Map legislation in the LAC region aimed at privacy protection and its effective implementation bearing in mind that privacy itself is a concept that needs to be debated as networks become increasingly available to all stakeholders for multiple purposes. 
  • Monitor State actions to hold States accountable for the protection of their citizens’ privacy, but also private sector actors to ensure that their practices with respect to the collection and processing of information about citizens meets the standard expected of them.
  • Consider what sanctions are available for use against those who infringe on privacy, whether they are being applied where they do exist in the LAC region and whether they are effective. 
  • Undertake comparative research to understand how privacy policies in the LAC region with respect to data protection, individual protection from surveillance, and privacy intrusion arising from online advertising are being institutionalized by the State bearing in mind that legislation and regulation without the institutional capacity to implement cannot be effective.

By investing in developing consistent information about developments in all these areas it will be possible to move beyond ‘access’ to consider many of the critical issues that will affect how people and their communities experience their information societies in the coming years.  This does not mean abandoning work on, for example, the ICT Development Index (IDI) or partnerships working on the digital divide indicators and the sub-indices on access, use and skills that have been developed. It does mean paying more attention to the possibilities for users to learn, be creative and to improve their lives that are created by the ongoing developments in information societies.

In our ‘Renewing the Knowledge Societies Vision’ report for UNESCO, we said “It is essential to recall that knowledge societies are concerned with human development, not only with technological innovation and its impacts”. Access to information and networks is a basic requirement to create information societies, but it is not a sufficient requirement. Acquiring and applying knowledge implies understanding meaning and participation. Access to knowledge requires more than access to computers or mobile phones or even digital information. It requires learning and learning occurs through experience.

This means there is a growing need for more effective monitoring of the specific developments  in the LAC region with respect not only to access, but also to citizenship, intellectual property rights, privacy, and online entrepreneurship, because developments in all these areas will continue to affect the user experience of information societies. This is essential if stakeholders in the LAC region are to be able to understand how developments in these information societies are influencing culture, employment, health, political participation and the development of markets. The full potential of information societies will be reached only if the balance between closed, open, and in-between strategies for information society development is understood.



About the author: 

Robin Mansell

Robin Mansell is a Professor of New Media and the Internet at the Department of Media and Communications of the London School of Economics. She is an expert in new media, audiovisual policy, telecommunications policy, internet governance, and communication technologies. Her research is related with developing countries, North America, and Europe.