Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Research Bites: Universal Connectivity (information and communication technologies)

This post contains short summaries of research briefs broadly related to Information Technology and Communication. The research was carried out by Martin Chautari during 2014-2016. The homepage of the research is

Universal Connectivity in Nepal: A Policy Review

UC-related policies assume a levelling effect of the ICTs, and little consider that technologies are themselves socially constructed artefacts. They have provided a rationality for mobilizing public resources, for erecting new institutions and facilitating the sustaining of certain business interests, particularly that of the IT elite in Nepal. The solution lies in formulating evidence based UC policies while openly acknowledging the limitations of the technologies in mainstreaming the marginalized and vulnerable section of the population.

Stakeholders for Universal Connectivity in Nepal 

UC-related policies in Nepal should focus on developing the scientific and technological core and not simply on facilitating acquisition and diffusion of new Internet-based technologies. As a topmost priority, the design of digital ecosystem should address particularly ways to manage immense power demand. It should not be left as an issue belonging to another ecosystem or to be managed by yet another ministry. Past endeavours have sufficiently demonstrated ambitions to transform the country with diffusion of imported technologies have not worked.

Deliver Through Mobiles First 

Lack of benchmark studies such as on speed, penetration and price hinder setting achievable targets. But the real problem of ‘digital divide’ can only be dealt meaningfully by situating it in the context of broader socio-economic divide in the country. Widespread diffusion of the mobile phones provides an opportunity to direct, shape and fine-tune existing policies. Instead of leaning unreliably on the capacity-centric development model, Nepal’s IT policies need to frame ways to integrate user’s everyday experience of mobile phones into the drive towards universal connectivity.

A Regression Analysis into Nepali ICT's Energy Consumption and its Implications

Even with the most lenient assumptions regarding the behaviour of the ICT sector, it is a significant consumer of energy at the national level. The chase to parallel the energy demands of the transportation sector will see gains when large data centers are established to support e-governance, e-commerce and other data intensive always-online services. An energy audit of the ICT sector along with large scale studies on the context of technology has to be done simultaneously for Nepal.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

ICT and Development – Is there a connection?

The idea that Information and Communications technologies (ICTs) are instrumental in national development has become the faith of the policy circle in the last decade.  It is upon this premise that a robust ICT infrastructure would lower communication and transportation overheads, catalyze creative activities and eventually catalyze development activities. The impact of ICT on economic growth in the industrialized nations has been deeply explored and heatedly debated as an academic topic. Yet we are no closer to a formula linking characteristics of ICT technologies, their experience and inclusive development. The idea that ICT connects to growth is still a hypothesis. It remains unproven on scales, replication and its universality. There are several criticisms on the findings of ICT and Development (ICTD) literature, specifically in context of the economically least developed countries (LDCs).

There is a methodological criticism of the ICTD research, which is applicable to a wider range of empirical research. The major findings are based on the statistical technique called regression analysis and on a concept known as ‘p-value’. There have been critiques of the empirical paradigm from the very beginning. The mainstream empirical research relies heavily on the notion of p-values because it makes quick inferences possible, without necessitating a thorough understanding of the underlying phenomena. Researches that employ p-value without well-reasoned scientific argument are available in a significant volume. Owing to misuse and misinterpretation in the social sciences and psychology research, the American Statistical Association floated a notice in 2016 that inferences based on the p-value should not be used specifically in the policy making processes. A leading journal of psychology has completely banned the use of p-values.  The ICT research needs to be re-examined from the newer perspective; a perspective that does not rely on the short-cut of p-values.
There are other methodological issues regarding the findings of ICTD research. As the ICT and economic growth relation has been examined chiefly on the dataset of the industrialized OECD countries, one can also raise doubts regarding the generalization of the results to the LDCs. Similarly, the reliability of dataset is in the LDCs is itself questionable. For instance, the MIS reports of the Nepal Telecommunication Authority claim a hundred percent penetration of mobile phones, which clearly is an overstatement. 

Besides the doubts on the methodology of ICTD research, several socioeconomic arguments can be provided that cast doubts on the universality of the “ICT for development” phenomenon. I will state a few. The strongest argument is regarding the affordability of Internet. A popular criterion considers that an Internet connection affordable if its tariff is within the five percent of per capita income. This criterion renders even an entry level Internet unaffordable to a vast majority of the Nepali population. The slow economic growth creates a pessimism that broadband would remain unaffordable to the majority of Nepalis in the decades to come. The proponents of “ICT for development” would argue that investments in ICT will eventually boost the economic growth and Internet will be affordable to the masses in the LDCs. But such a miracle has not been observed. The World Bank mentions that the benefits of ICT are not observable in the countries that lack so-called ‘analog compliments’ for a digital economy, i.e. the triplet of favorable business climate, strong human capital, and good governance. Imprecise as these terms are, they nonetheless imply that the relation between ICT and development is far from being universal. 

Another criticism on the relevance of ICTD research to the LDCs is based on the interdependencies of the critical infrastructure. The dependencies between critical infrastructures are observed during both the development and execution phases. The underdeveloped roads have posed challenges to Nepal Telecom’s ongoing project of laying optical fibers in the mid-hills. On the execution phase, a fully fledged usage of ICT demands a robust electricity infrastructure as it prerequisite. A research by Martin Chautari has shown that the Nepali ICT has already become a significant consumer of electrical energy despite Internet penetration is still low in the country.

One could argue that the ICT infrastructure can be run on imported electricity or diesel based generators. However, a dependence on imported energy would widen Nepal’s trade deficit. The trade deficit would also rise due to the import of ICT goods and related repair and maintenance materials as Nepal does not produce them. Thus any would-be benefit of a Nepal wide ICT infrastructure has to be seriously analyzed and contrasted with the trade deficits incurred by ICT goods imports.  Such an analysis has not been done hitherto by the policy makers.

My intention is to convey that ICT is not a mystical mantra that cures the illness of the society; the findings of ICTD research are based on several controversial methodological assumptions and socioeconomic premises.  It is despairing that the popular media has been highlighting the one sided version of the ICTD research. The views of the critiques also require acknowledgements.  In summary, investments for national ICT infrastructure should be preceded by a series of thorough investigations at the user end. “ICT for development” could be a target, but it is not an accepted principle.