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Philip Leverhulme Award: Internet Geographies

I am extremely happy to report the news that I have been awarded one of the 2016 Philip Leverhulme prizes!

I hope to use the resources offered by the Leverhulme Trust to extend my research into information and internet geographies.  This line of research asks who and where is made more powerful and given more voice by the new digital layers of place that augment the places that we live in, and who and where tends to get silenced and excluded. In previous research we have seen some of the ways in which the digital can amplify and strengthen those already in global informational cores. But, as ever more people get connected to the internet, we need to know more about what sort of change we’re seeing over time.

Going forwards, this will mean hiring a postdoc trained in some flavour of computational social science/ GIS/ big data/ quantitative geography to work with me  I’ll be posting a job ad soon, but in the meantime please get in touch if you’re interested in working with me on such topics.

It really is a massive honour to have this award and to have the opportunity to use it to further some of our ongoing work. None of this would have been possible without the help of some of my brilliant and  smart collaborators over the last few years. As part of the immediate group of researchers that I’ve supervised at the OII, I’ve had the luck to work closely with Sanna Ojanpera, Nicolas Friederici, Amir Anwar,  Isis Hjorth, Alex Wood, Chris Foster, Stefano De Sabbata, Ralph Straumann, Heather Ford, Joe Shaw, Nisa Haji Ibrahim, Devin Gaffney, Charlotte Smart, Caludio Calvino, Ahmed Medhat, David Palfrey, Richard Farnbrough, Ning Wang, Tessy Onaji, and David Peter Simon: all of whom have played an important part in designing, carrying out, and publishing our scholarship. I also have a broader network of collaborators that I’ve also had the fortune to directly research and publish with: Matt Zook, Monica Stephens, Taylor Shelton, Ate Poorthuis, Bill Dutton, Bernie Hogan, Vili Lehdonvirta, Helena Barnard, Tim Waema, Charles Katua, Casper Andersen, Shilad Sen, Andrea Ballatore, Grant Blank, Scott Hale, Taha Yasseri, Illhem Allagui, Andrew Boulton, Jaz Choi, Han-Teng Liao, Felix Akorli, Grace Illah, Claude Bizimana, Havard Haarstad, Ralph Schroeder, Greg Taylor, Matt Wilson, Jeremy Crampton, Stann Brunn, Sean Gorman, Eduardo Lopez, Iginio Gagliardone, Emmanouil Tranos, Jim Thatcher, Dorothea Kleine, Richard Heeks, Padraig Carmody, and Rina Ghose (apologies if I have missed anyone out).  

Just typing out that list of names made me realise how truly incredible the last few years have been, and what a privilege it is to get to work with so many people from such a diverse range of backgrounds. And this list doesn’t even include all of the other people who have helped along the way (such as the ever-helpful support staff at Oxford).

I didn’t intend for such a long post about this award, but once I started to write it became clear that there is no way to say ‘thanks’ for this award without thanking all of the people in my network who actually made it possible.

Mark

The Impact of Connectivity in Africa: Grand Visions and the Mirage of Inclusive Digital Development

My colleagues Nicolas Friederici, Sanna Ojanperä, and I have recently finished a paper in which we analyse ‘Grand Visions’ of how Internet connectivity affects development in Africa. In the paper, we contrast these visions with the actually available empirical evidence to support those claims. You will be able to read our full conclusions in the paper below:

Friederici, N. Ojanperä, S., and Graham, M. 2017. The Impact of Connectivity in Africa: Grand Visions and the Mirage of Inclusive Digital Development. Electronic Journal of Information Systems in Developing Countries. 79(2) 1-20. 

We show that the evidence base to support the claim that Internet connectivity has a vast positive or “transformative” impact on development in Africa is thin. More worryingly, once we see the techno-determinist and modernist assumptions at the core of many visions, visions of rapid development precipitated though ICTs might not just fail to achieve their goals (even on their own terms), they could actively undermine those very efforts in a world of scarce resources.

Here are some excerpts as a preview of the paper:

Development has always grappled with why some people and places have much more than others. Yet much of that conversation is lost within contemporary discourses of ICTs and development. As states and organisations rush to develop policies and plans to build drones and balloons, lay fibre-optic cables, and find other ways to connect the disconnected, much is said about the power of ICTs to positively transform the world’s most underprivileged people and places.

This is because ‘self-evident’ discourses of connectivity, like modernist visions before them offer a powerful, aspatial and ahistorical teleology (Graham et al., 2015). This allows policymakers to point to new technological fixes instead of focusing on how the political economy of any given context works to allocate power and wealth.

Visions and aspirations of transformation through connectivity are thereby able to drive concrete government projects and development funding. Hardly any dependable aggregate figures of funding and subsidies are available; many development actors are not accountable to tax payers (such as philanthropic organisations) and thus do not disclose their spending. Heeks (2009) uses official development assistance data as a proxy and concludes that ‘hundreds of millions of US dollars per year are invested in [ICT for development] projects; and that tens of billions of US dollars per year are invested in… infrastructure.’ The World Bank, as an example of a large development organisation, spent US$4.2 billion for ICT programming from 2003 to 2010 (Independent Evaluation Group, 2011), and is currently investing about US$1.2 billion in grants and loans for regional connectivity infrastructure programmes in Africa (Navas-Sabater, 2015). Rockefeller’s digital jobs programme, as an example of an initiative without infrastructure investments, provides US$100 million across Africa. Irrespective of how we measure the specifics, it is clear that huge sums have been, and continue to be, invested in the area.

Admittedly, it is impossible to establish a direct, causal connection between the discourses we have outlined and the myriad decisions that go into such ‘digital development’ spending. Still, our analysis highlights the ubiquity and assertiveness of discourses that are optimistic about the impacts and potentials of connectivity. It is clear that the productive power of these discourses provides a fertile ground for the argumentation of actors seeking to set up connectivity infrastructure, run Internet-related development projects, or sell equipment and services connected to the agenda (see (Graham, 2015) for an example of how Kenyan ICT firms strategically deploy visions of changing connectivity). As just one example, in a recent presentation, the World Bank summarized the rationale for investments in a fibre network in Central Asia in unequivocal terms: ‘Improved Internet connectivity = Economic benefits’ (Navas-Sabater, 2015, p. 4). Such a simple rationale can only be credible if the audience is sufficiently credulous, and this credulity is what discourse produces.

Discourses of development have always produced and reproduced the very objects of their ‘concern’ (Escobar, 1995). We can take a lead from Ferguson’s (1994) prompt to ask ‘what do aid programmes do besides fail to help poor people?’ Our worry here is not just that the significant resources invested in connecting Africa’s disconnected will be wasted. It is rather that the Grand Visions of connectivity will themselves lead to an exacerbation of the very things that they purport to solve. For instance, by framing inequality as something that can be effectively tackled with more connectivity, we might take away focus from the structural economic processes bringing about widening inequalities. What is worse than a developmental intervention not working is believing that an important issue has been effectively addressed when it, in reality, clearly hasn’t.

It is possible that contemporary Grand Visions of connectivity are truly reflective of a promising future for ICTs and economic development. But it is equally possible that many of those visions are hugely overblown. The current evidence base is mixed and inconclusive. We therefore need to ensure that we do more to ask the organisations and entities who produce Grand Visions to justify their claims, refusing that it is self-evident that ICTs will automatically bring about development.

(Cross-posted from Mark Graham’s blog.)

Related work:

Graham, M. 2015. Contradictory Connectivity: Spatial Imaginaries and Techno-Mediated Positionalities in Kenya’s Outsourcing Sector. Environment and Planning A 47 867-883 (pre-publication version here).

Graham, M., Andersen, C., and Mann, L. 2015 Geographical Imagination and Technological Connectivity in East Africa. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 40(3) 334-349. (pre-publication version here).

New paper: "Barriers to the Localness of Volunteered Geographic Information"

Some colleagues (Shilad Sen, Heather Ford, Dave Musicant, Oliver Keyes, Brent Hecht) and I have put together a paper for CHI on Barriers to the Localness of Volunteered Geographic Information. The paper asks important questions about both the geographies of information, and the factors that explain those geographies:

Localness is an oft-cited benefit of volunteered geographic information (VGI). This study examines whether localness is a constant, universally shared benefit of VGI, or one that varies depending on the context in which it is produced. Focusing on articles about geographic entities (e.g. cities, points of interest) in 79 language editions of Wikipedia, we examine the localness of both the editors working on articles and the sources of the information they cite. We find extensive geographic inequalities in localness, with the degree of localness varying with the socioeconomic status of the local population and the health of the local media. We also point out the key role of language, showing that information in languages not native to a place tends to be produced and sourced by non-locals. We discuss the implications of this work for our understanding of the nature of VGI and highlight a generalizable technical contribution: an algorithm that determines the home country of the original publisher of online content.

You can access a copy of the paper here:

Sen, S. W., Ford, H., Musicant, D. R., Graham, M., Keyes, O. S. B., Hecht, B. 2015 Barriers to the Localness of Volunteered Geographic Information. CHI 2015 (pre-publication version here).

And you can also watch a screencast (excellently narrated by our own Heather Ford) of our forthcoming interactive map tool:

(cross-posted from Geonet – Investigating the Changing Connectivities and Potentials of Sub-Saharan Africa’s Knowledge Economy)

Reflections on the Inclusion in the Network Society workshop

Chris Foster and I have just returned from the inspiring meeting on ‘Inclusion in the Network Society’ that was put together by IT for Change in Bangalore, India. 

The meeting brought together a diverse activists and scholars from every corner of the world to critical think through who (and what) increasing digitally-mediated connectivity is actually empowering. The contributions were often heartfelt and inspiring, and grounded in deep domain knowledge and research.   

The final day also led us to attempt to think through what a shared research agenda might look like. We split into four groups and were tasked with attempting to congeal our efforts into only five questions. My group’s efforts are listed below (thanks to Sumandro Chattapadhyay for making sure we noted them all down). This is our first draft, and will be both reworked by the IT for Change into a more coherent form and combined with the questions produced by the three other groups (who were all tackling somewhat different issues)

  • what is [X] in the context of an inclusive network society?
  • who creates, controls, captures, and gains social and economic value in digital networks?
  • what systems and structures, at different scales, constrain or enable communities and individuals living the lives they have reason to value?  What transformations count as emancipatory inclusion? How do we transform systems and structures to achieve those goals? And how do we ultimately work towards something that might look like an inclusive network society?  
  • what are the power structures, configurations, and geographies of voice and representation; and under what institutional conditions do these voices and representations lead to claim-making?
  • what do the institutional landscapes of data regimes look like, who control them and how are they controlled? How can these regimes be made accountable, and under what kinds of ethical frameworks?
The full agenda should be published soon, and many of the papers can already be accessed at IT for Change website (Chris and I have uploaded ours). The organisers will also soon be uploading videos of presentations and subsequent discussions for people who weren’t at the meeting.