Monday, November 28, 2011

Why is the Digital Divide so important, and what can you do about it?

Last week I had the honor of speaking at the Youth Action and Volunteering Development meeting on the day before the opening of the 18th biennial session of the IFRC General Assembly in Geneva.  My topic was "Why is the Digital Divide so important, and what can you do about it?"  Here is an expanded version of my brief remarks:

We are all aware of the digital divide in our world: those who have free access to information and the tools to make it useful for us, and those who do not.  In a recent study, we found that this divide exists in our Red Cross Red Crescent Movement.  We have an internal divide that makes it difficult for us "have equal status and share equal responsibilities" –from our very principle of universality that we so value.

Why is the digital divide so important?  I think there are three reasons.  First, information through the Internet is the great leveller; it allows all of us to learn and discover in the same school, so to speak.   Second, we have seen how with the access to technologies, the last can become first, and the first can become last.  This is the other side of levelling the field.   But the third is perhaps the most important: it is about the opportunity to lead.

Why work on the digital divide?  Because you have the opportunity to lead and to help others to lead, and be a part of this great conversation we call the Internet. This is perhaps the greatest volunteer work we can do in the digital age as digital citizens.

What can you do about it?  How can you help bridge the digital divide?  Rather than give you a specific assignment or recipe, I want to challenge you with five broad principles. Think of these as the three D's, an O and an M.

1)   Dream big 
2)   Do the homework 
3)   Dare to remove obstacles
 4)   Seek and stand on Others' work 
5)   Mash-up pieces in new ways

First, dare to dream big.  I have found that the successful efforts come from the many tries and the audacious attempts.  Take for example the Microsoft Imagine Cup competition story.  College students from over 200 countries compete each year.  I’ve been a software design judge for three of the past four years. I view this as part of my giveback to the community of IT workers in nonprofits (and beyond).  The Imagine Cup is about the IT workers of the future who focus on software that can have an impact on achievement of the Millennium Development Goals, the context for the competition.

These are big dreams.  This year, 400,000 students registered for the competition; 3,000 made it to the country competitions, and 400 of the best went to New York to compete in the finals for 27 awards.  These are the best of the best ideas.

In one week I saw more innovation than in years before.  Why is that?  These students have no business knowledge, no marketing experience, no money, and little time.  But they also have no sense of limitation.  And it is this last one that makes all the difference in world.  They dare to dream about what technology can do.  These are your peers.  Your dreams can be every bit as big.

Second, do the homework.  Think about how to make solutions sustainable, to cover their costs and deliver a valuable service to customers.  Mohamed Yunus talks about services for the poor that are economically sustainable, and which produce social good as their profit[1].  This means thinking through the basic business case for your idea.  Interestingly, only one team in the twenty I saw in New York at Imagine Cup this year did this homework. 

Third, dare to remove obstacles.  The story of the frogs illustrates this in an interesting way.

Story of the Frogs[2]

"Once upon a time there was a bunch of tiny frogs who decided to stage a climbing competition. The goal was to reach the top of a very high tower. A big crowd had gathered around the tower to see the race and cheer on the contestants.

The race began...

Honestly, No one in crowd really believed that the tiny frogs would reach the top of the tower. The crowd yelled statements such as:

"Oh, WAY too difficult!!!”

"'They will NEVER make it to the top.”

"Not a chance that they will succeed. The tower is too high!”

The tiny frogs began collapsing. One by one. Except for those, who in a fresh tempo, were climbing higher and higher.

The crowd continued to yell, “It is too difficult!!! No one will make it!”

More tiny frogs got tired and gave up. But ONE continued higher and higher and higher. This one wouldn’t give up!

At the end everyone else had given up climbing the tower. Except for the one tiny frog who, after a big effort, was the only one who reached the top! THEN all of the other tiny frogs naturally wanted to know how this one frog managed to do it?

A contestant asked the tiny frog how he had found the strength to succeed and reach the goal? It turned out that the winner was DEAF!"

The moral of the story?  Turn a deaf ear to the “nay-sayers,” those who say it can’t be done,   those who point to all the obstacles.   Just do it.

Fourth, seek Others' work. This is just plain old good engineering. Find those who have solved some of the problems and stand on their shoulders. Don’t fall victim to the “not invented here” syndrome. Seek out the good work and build on it. Your mantra should be “no solos.”

Our new Technology Catalogue is built on this premise. We believe there is more to gain in discovering others’ technology successes in the Movement than in building our own. We have discovered over 850 applications the process. This requires what I call “headquarters humility.” It also means being open to “good enough” solutions.

Fifth, mash-up pieces in new ways. One of the top three contestants in Imagine Cup was the team from Jordan. They took a WII receiver and duck-taped it to a PC monitor. Then they took apart a TV remote control and mounted the diode on a baseball cap. Finally, they developed a program so the WII tracked the motions of the baseball cap and caused the cursor to move on the screen. With a pause, the cursor clicked and selected an item.

No big deal, right? Except the paraplegic women who had lost the use of her arms and legs told us in a video how she had gained her life back[3]. This system allowed her to create Facebook entries and keep in touch with friends, and dial cell phone numbers in her address book to communicate with family. She had her life back. That’s the power of software.

The interesting footnote is that they didn’t create anything new. They took existing pieces off-the-shelf and put them together in a new way. The creative may be in the combinations of the existing. That’s a powerful principle in technology.

So I challenge you today to think about how you can dare to dream big, do the homework to make it sustainable, dare to remove obstacles, seek and stand on others' work and mash-up pieces in new ways. If you lead by doing this, you just may change the world!


"The postings on this site are my own and don't necessarily represent positions, strategies or opinions of any of the organizations with which I am associated."

[1] Muhammad Yunus, “Social Business,” December 25, 2007,
[3] See the video of this woman’s testimony on YouTube, here:


  1. So happy I came across your blog! It's been way too long since I've been privy to your vision and inspiration. Can't wait to share frog story with my kids; although based on the can-do spirit they all exhibit, I may be preaching to the choir. (This old woman learns most from her young.) But first, I'll watch the woman's testimony video...

  2. Thanks Christine. Always good to hear from you. Let me know how the frog story works out--and yes, turning the learning upside-down is part of the message. We are ever students!