|IsICTometrics *: Toward an alternative vision and process|
|Presentación del proyecto | Documentos y Enlaces|
Professor Michel J. Menou
RICYT & Observatório das Ciências e das Tecnologias (OCT),
Measurement of intangible goods and phenomena is fraught with material and much more conceptual difficulties. As information and ICT pervades most aspects of society, the availability of meaningful indicators becomes an ever more vexing problem.
Early attempts in the information economy school tried to adjust existing socio-economic measures to the "new" reality by separating primary and secondary information industries and activities from those related to tangible goods. Others tried to actually measure information flows. Many assembled a mix of socio-economic indicators deemed to point to key aspects of the transformations taking place or the supposed characteristics of an "information society".
In the past few years attention has been focused on the spread of ICT, and of the Internet in particular, giving birth to a variety of indicators or "models". They all are geared in first place to the state and evolutionary trends of the infrastructure, with a more or less comprehensive definition of the latter, e.g. including or not human resources and information stocks. In second place many are also considering information use, possibly including the circumstances of use. Because we see their focus in the ICT themselves, we call these efforts "ICTometrics". They might rather be called "TachICTometrics" so much they are concerned with the relative speed of diffusion of ICT at the expense of other aspects.
The evolution human societies are undergoing is however much more complex and far reaching than the simple availability and use of a set of technologies. We contend that ICTometric indicators need to be selected and adapted in consideration of the social relevance of the phenomena they point to. Social relevance itself cannot be left to preconceptions of the elite or dominant actors. A participatory mechanism should be put in place with a view to link development priorities of the communities with the eventual contribution of ICT to their achievement and devise the corresponding indicators. The same mechanism should allow for an ongoing application of the indicators and their confrontation with realities and perceived changes so that they can be fine tuned, or discarded. An important feature here is the appropriation of the indicators by those who are experiencing the transformations under way, as opposed to the common imposition of indicators by intellectual or social authorities. We call this effort "IsICTometrics" for Impact on Society of ICT.
Whether or not ICT are revolutionizing societies, actors and especially the people supposed to enjoy its unprecedented benefits should be able to have their say in the process of policy formulation. To that end they need to have instruments and methods that allow them to judge what is occurring. This is the purpose of the methodological component of the Olistica project (http://funredes.org/olistica).
1. Who needs information society " measures " and what for ?
In their pioneer effort toward measuring what was then called the "information economy" in the U.S.A., Porat and Rubin (1977) insisted that reaching a fair understanding of the nature of this economy, how it operates and affects the traditional sectors was an urgent need in order to possibly prevent damages as has been the case with the industrial revolution.
It is quite interesting to note that they were not heard. On the contrary, interest for national accounts that would reflect the information economy progressively vanished. To some extent the information economy itself vanished as subject of interest until the "new" information and communication technologies (ICT) and singularly the Internet brought the latest "revolution".
ICT are proclaimed by the industries that sell them, by governments wanting to look modern and by most categories of stakeholders who use them without really mastering them as the major force that is transforming contemporary society. The hype is so strong and widespread that one is tempted to ask, as I do regularly, whether there has been any thinking before the computer, and if there could be one without it. On that last question, the fragility of networked computer systems raises serious doubts.
The ancients were satisfied with good presages from the gods and their supposed blessing witnessed by successful accomplishments. As Paul Valéry once pointed out, the Romans were finding more valid ideas in the stomach of their sacrificed chickens than we do in our calculations. Nevertheless, in an age dominated by science and technology it is important that policies and decisions appear to be based upon rational reasoning and effective weighting of all factors.
The demand for, and use of, indicators of the information society comes in first place from politicians in government and the information sector. In part as a necessary ingredient to policy formulation, but also in view of their easy exploitation in political discourses. Announcing that "this government has doubled the number of Internet users" or "thanks to our policies, this nation is number one on the continent for Internet use" has become very trendy. Other stakeholders, like civil society organizations, should be no less interested in using such indicators, though from a different angle, e.g. to show the evolution of the outspoken digital divide, or to call for more support. The actual contribution of indicators to the formulation of policies is far from established judging from the contradictory applications they usually have (e.g. a strong Euro boosts the European economy vis a vis the US one which nevertheless is declining each time the US one is facing problems) and more drastically their lack of significance beyond ideology and propaganda. A frequently heard statement like "All schools are/will be connected to the Internet" may relate to an infinite variety of realities which have no straight connection to improved education.
Organizations that are responsible for promoting or operating the application of ICT are usually primarily interested in data related to the level of use of the various facilities, the shift among those facilities, or the perceived quality and usefulness of the service, that is clients satisfaction. The consequences of the use of the services appear to be a more remote concern. This is natural for commercial organizations like Internet Service Providers whose turnover or number of subscribers is per se an indication of positive outcome, for them. It is more intriguing for intra-organizational applications: the substitution of corporate records centres by Intranets does not show by itself any increase in accessibility, usability or relevance of the stored information. The substitution of electronic to paper forms may result is some more flexibility in filing them, but more often than not passes the burden and cost of printing over the end user, would it be only for being able to provide evidence if so required. Organizations that provide information services, or support them, have been more concerned with the value of their activities for the communities or entities they are serving, probably because of their persistent frustration with their image and support. As a matter of fact the research programme on the impact of information on development undertaken by the International Development Research Centre of Canada (IDRC) was in part prompted by such a concern (M.B. Stones Foreword in Menou 1993, p. x). The more recent spread of ICT seems to have brought a new credo: ICT are good in themselves, but how good are they and at what are they best?
Scholars are perhaps more genuine in their desire to have relevant sets of data that could fairly describe the features of the on-going revolution and thus be in a position to understand it, or even possibly model it. Even though some do not hesitate to make ICT the main vital energy that lies behind all patterns of contemporary societies. Since scientific enquiry requires much time and effort for uncertain results, and results which may not provide the kind of answers dominant socio-economic forces expect, it is not surprising that it has so far been quite limited.
In spite of their distinctive realms and purposes, all three drives are in fact facing the same challenge. How long the basic military principle "Dont understand what you do but do it quickly" can be applied and yield positive results? Learning how to best harness ICT is a concern which is progressively spreading across all constituencies of stakeholders. The Global Knowledge Partnership considered during the second conference on Global Knowledge Development (Kuala Lumpur 2000) a proposed transversal program called Learning and Evaluation Action Program (LEAP). Action has been slow and limited ever since toward its implementation but signs of interest and commitment appear more and more frequently (see http://www.bellanet.org/LEAP).
2. Available measures and their limitations
In an earlier review (Menou 1985) we distinguished between physical and social measures of information. We further suggested that the latter could be divided between sectoral and global studies. In the first group one could identify distinctive topics such as kind of information, institutions or services, communication techniques or messages, technology used. In the second group one could find at that time five approaches: the production and consumption of information, channels of information, impact on social change, policy implications, and indices. There might now be a need for a sixth category in this group, economics. It is quite fascinating to note that the first indices, such as the "Informationalization index" produced some thirty years ago by the Research Institute of Telecommunications and Economics in Japan were indeed composite indices trying to capture all facets of the phenomenon. Recent attempts proved rather reductionist in comparison.
ICT cannot be reduced to the Internet in spite of the overwhelming place it occupies in the studies and commentaries. Telecommunication services, television and radio, computer systems are certainly part of the picture as are the traditional communication technologies which are only in part switching to, or superseded by, ICT, such as snail mail, newspapers, books, printed material of all sorts, all sorts of artistic expression, and speech. The number of visits to the virtual Louvre has no social significance unless it is compared to the number of visits to the material one, and possibly the relationship between the two figures are known. Unfortunately non-digital communication seem to be systematically overlooked. As a matter of fact a major drawback in present models and "measurements" lies in the fat that they do not localise the phenomena observed within a particular space, probably on the assumption that there would be a unique "cyberspace". However, as long as that space will be inhabited by human beings it will coexist with a sphere of analog communications (Menou 2000).
We have to deal with a relatively complicated universe which is tentatively summarized in Figure 1 below. In order to observe and interpret it we have so far three types of tools: economic indicators in particular national accounts, human development and social indicators, a few information indicators and ICT infrastructure indicators.
Fig. 1 The universe to be considered
Economic indicators continue to be used in order to depict key attributes of countries even though they are all but appropriate. A few attempts have been made at devising composite indicators that would more accurately represent what was called, before the recent NASDAQ fall, the "new economy". The "Technology project" of the Progressive Policy Institute in the USA and its new economy indices are a good example of such an effort (http://www.neweconomyindex.org/). In another direction Schware and his World Bank colleagues (Schware 1998) managed to combine Internet use data with economic models with a view to support policy formulaton. The differences between the image provided by macro-economic indicators and the one given by information specific measures are far from negligible, but still not sufficient to invalidate the use of the former (Borko & Menou 1982) nor to offset the intricacies of building and winning acceptance for the latter. Nevertheless it is possible to build adhoc system of indicators which can eventually provide a more fine tuned, or rather tuneable, basis for analyzing the status of information as was shown by the Informationalization index or the Index of Information Utilization Potential. The debate around the accuracy of national accounts in market versus centrally planned economies has vanished with the latter. One cannot forget however that most economic measures omit everything which is not directly related to the economic performance. There is no way with existing tools to balance for instance the energy output or cost per kWh equivalent with the cost of the resulting pollution, or the number of Km/passenger in suburban commuting with the number of hours/passengers lost in it.
Technology eventually allows for producing some factual data which can provide a rather striking view of some issues, even though it relies upon very sharp simplifications. An example is shown in figure 3 which offers a quite suggestive overview of the so-called digital divide, based upon electricity consumption. If the stupidity of some policies can be said to be intergalactic, there is unfortunately no machinery to capture it in the same way.
Fig. 2. A reconstructed image of the global digital divide from NASA earth observations at night
Social indicators are a most needed ingredient into the kind of analyses we are aiming at, even though many are not too happy with their quality. A major drawback lies in the fact that the features considered in most schemes are only remotely, if at all, related to the use of ICT. An interesting example of their potential application can be found in the project Social Impact of the Internet carried out by the Department of sociology of the University of Maryland (www.webuse.umd.edu/sdaweb/) which is linking data from a basic social survey with Internet use data specially collected from the same sample. Another promising attempt can be found in the adaptation of social quality indicators to the information society as proposed by Berman and Phillips (Berman and Phillips, 2001). They consider information input, process, outcomes and impact related to so socio-economic security, social inclusion, social cohesion and empowerment at the level of large communities, i.e. nations, and at the level of specific communities within the former.
The few early attempts at devising information specific indicators were mentioned earlier. They might still be applied after an updating of their contents to reflect the evolution of ICT. A somewhat similar tool was proposed by Mansell and Wehn (1998) with their footpath. However pretending to depict such a complex reality as a "knowledge society" with only 5 parameters may appeal only to a TV news presenter. Most of the attention has been caught by the fascination for the spread of the Internet, not to say the race for being at the forefront in the group of similar countries. The focus is thus very much on ICT infrastructure, even though concern for such issues as quality might surface some how (e.g. OECD 1998, Press 2000). An even more diversified picture was tentatively drawn in the set of indicators developed for the USAID Leland Initiative (US NAS 1998a). It eventually allowed to produce some fine tuned analyses (Daly 2000) even though they were closely aligned with the specific objectives of the program. Even if there is no doubt that the program did influence the evolution of the countries which benefited from it, it might look a bit too simple to conclude that it occurred only because of it.
A more recent development whose outcome will be interesting to watch is the series of E-readiness assessments supported by the InfoDev program of the World Bank. There is for the time being one framework publicized under that very label by the Center for International Development at Harvard University (http://www.readinessguide.org). Its architecture lies on 5 facets: network access, networked learning, networked society, networked economy and network policy. This apparent comprehensiveness should not offset the fact that instrument is primarily geared at judging readiness for the new economy. Bridges (2001) has undertaken a comparative analysis of assessment schemes and methods geared at or usable for E-readiness assessments. The efforts underway for several years now in order to develop assessments methods for specific ICT endeavours, such as telecentres, are struggling to escape the mere infrastructure and use areas and reach the deeper seas of impact but it is probably too early to say how successful they might be. Among the promising future developments one may also mention the preparation of a framework for assessing the Role of ICT in development carried out under the auspices of the Canadian International Development Research Centre.
Most of these instruments are fraught with an excessive, when not exclusive, focus on ICT infrastructure. They are eventually further biased by concerns for the development of e-commerce, not so much as a means to improve the welfare of the developing countries than as a prospect of new markets for the industrialized ones. Some try to get closer to social effects or even social transformations. The social needs, especially as perceived by the people, are however mostly absent. If our concern is not GDP growth but Gross National Happiness, as we once contended (Menou 1995) there is still a long way to go.
3. Constraints in conducting assessments
The picture here is particularly sad since it does not seems that much change has occurred over the past thirty years. Most basic ingredients for effective work are missing as pointed out in a recent workshop (US NAS 1998b). In many instances, in part because of the limitations discussed below, but also because of the lack of tested and reliable methods and because of their particular conditions, studies are so specific that comparing their results and even more cumulating them is hardly feasible.
In first place we still lack a general representation, if not theory, of the overall information and knowledge cycle. Most key concepts remain vague and are used in an inconsistent manner. It is quite striking for instance that one never knows at first glance what studies or news of the Internet are talking about.
In second place, partly as a consequence of what precedes, data, in particular statistical data, are in scarce supply, of poor relevance and solidity if not dubious quality, especially when it comes to ICT applications. Attempts at introducing non tangible activities and products into the standard classifications and national accounts have so far failed. In many instances hard data are produced by opinion pools whose universal legitimacy is questionable. ICT themselves add to the difficulty. It is for instance almost impossible to figure out the number of individual users from the number of Internet accounts, since this may vary according to times and places from one to several hundreds (Menou 1999). Furthermore one account or point of access does not always correspond to actual use, as was shown with the Minitel. International comparisons are especially difficult as a consequence. It should also be noted that many data compilation are proprietary or else not freely accessible with the effect that only rich organizations can afford to buy them.
A more insidious drawback is the too often tacit reference to the individualistic consumption model of the "more advanced" societies. Not only collective use does exist at present but it may well be more appropriate or reasonable in many instance (Menou 2001). It is also somewhat astonishing to hear of the "importance and urgency" of IP v6 whose main accomplishment will be to allow refrigerators in the North to be connected to the next Supermarket orders service while millions of people don't have access to a public phone. Another aspect of ideological imposition is the again tacit assumption that ICT being new is progress, thus intrinsically good while any "progress" can only be judged by the balance between its positive and negative aspects. The link between actual needs and industry offerings becomes more and more tenuous as can be witnessed with mobile telephony which allows thousands who have nothing to say to say it loudly in public places. More generally the fact that all analyses are conducted within, or in front of, a single dominant ideology of international market liberalism is seriously biasing them. Either they stick to the established vulgate or they will be rejected by the key stakeholders.
The tools and procedures for the assessments as well as their results are meant for specialists. The public is only exposed to the interpretations made by key actors in the techno-structure or the media (which are directly or indirectly controlled by the former). In the 80's, without much supporting evidence, it was claimed that the creation of new jobs through ICT will largely offset the number of those made redundant. Yet we saw a huge unemployment wave, which obviously was not due only to the spread of ICT. The same artificial euphoria about job creation in the ICT sector was spread again a few years ago when the dotcoms were flourishing, and vanished even faster when they became the shortest way to unemployment benefits, when the latter still exist. Concern for the role of ICT has grown in many sectors but nevertheless many organizations of the civil society still believe they have more pressing issues to deal with which are in no way connected to ICT. Creating conditions for an effective participation in the appraisals is all but an easy task. The more since the relative novelty of ICT and their constant change makes it very difficult for all actors and observers alike to focus on their effects, or signs of likely impact, as opposed to their actual use.
A last but quite annoying drawback results of the desperate quest for straight linear causality that would explain the results of the most complex social interactions with the more simple, or rather simplist , reactions. For instance "more capabilities to support e-commerce brings expansion of small and medium enterprises". Common sense and some scientific evidence establishes that moving from situation A to situation B, which themselves are quite complex realities, requires the interaction of a great number of factors. The questions are in fact:
Another common expression of this idiosyncrasy is the attempt at demonstrating the effect of a particular policy or programme when obviously the latter is only one among the many factors that lead to the observed situation.
4. An alternative approach
We call IsICTometrics the set of principles, ethical standards, general rules for the organization, construction and utilization of schemes geared at the assessment of the social consequences of the application of ICT. It is still at an incipient stage, even though it is based upon lessons learned in works carried out for many years. In this section we describe principles and intentions.
As a key feature of Olistica (Pimienta, 2001), it is meant as a tool for facilitating the collective learning among stakeholders about the social value of ICT and related policies and their compliance with the essential requirements of sustainable and responsible human development. While the monitoring of the transformations taking place should be undertaken as early as possible, much more time will be required before social impacts of ICT could be observed and appraised by stakeholders. More than achievements, such as for instance growth in the number of community networks, we feel that what really matters is to understand the process of such growth, the factors which inhibit or facilitate it. The conventional focus on performance, rankings, competitive advantage, etc. is not part of our design principles. Comparisons are only considered as an added facility, if not a requirement, for highlighting the characteristics of a particular situation. They may also, at a later stage be used as an argument in advocacy, but have then left the domain of analysis.
A first set of basic assumptions behind IsICTometrics is that schemes for analysis or "measurement", and indicators, of the "information society" should be transparent, modular, flexible and coherent. They should be able to represent all the facets of the information or learning society. They should be understandable and significant for all stakeholders. This means in practice that the criteria and "measures" or indicators should be validated by representatives of the beneficiaries or stakeholders. This has been a key feature of the so-called preliminary framework for information impact assessment devised in the first phase of an IDRC international research program on this very subject. (Menou 1993, 2000b) which proved quite difficult to implement in the particular circumstances but can be regarded as a fundamental requirement. It is striking that most indicators currently used in economic and even social policies are artificial constructs. If anyone would probably agree that a life expectancy of 30 years is not very exciting, there is no evidence that one of 100 years is for everybody, but as a testimony of the "power of modern medicine" which is only of interest to a particular lobby. The assessment schemes should be amenable to adjustments and adaptations in view of particular situations or concerns but preserve both their internal coherence and comparability across these adaptations. The Olistica project is imposing a special constraint in this respect since the observations and interpretations will be carried out in an open and participatory fashion within a decentralized network.
Another set of basic assumptions is that schemes for analysis are nothing more than representations and interpretations. They can be useful for taking a sharper look at issues, formulating hypotheses, seeking explanations, especially non conventional ones. In other words they are an aid to reflection. Some would hope they are an incentive to "parallel thinking". But they are not, nor should ever become, magic formulas for decision making. The passion for "more, faster, better than the others" is leading to aberrations. One may well for instance seek 100% of the population with an Internet account, that would put a country or community in an unbeatable position in this respect. It is not certain that babies really need that, nor that many adults actually want it. This target can be achieved by having organizations like the postal service providing an address to anyone. But there may be no corresponding evolution of the network so that the addresses are not usable in practice. Any similarity of the above example with an actual situation is purely coincidental.
IsICTometrics should include:
The above premises imply that the construction of a single, universal tool is not likely to occur for a long time, if not simply inappropriate and excluded. In any case it is assumed that one will begin with a series of discrete tools, or "IsICTometers", that will be tried in conjunction with the various themes and locales in which the Olistica project will be involved. These have been initially defined, on the basis of the discussions during the Mistica (http://funredes.org/mistica) project, as being a possible combination of:
When appropriate other general assessments might be undertaken as part of the Olistica project and assessments or indicators schemes available elsewhere may also be tried, would it be only for comparative purposes. Eventually they may be subject to ad hoc adaptations that would aim at reconnecting them more accurately to the related social phenomena. For instance the number of web sites per 1000 population is quite inappropriate as a measure of content production in a country with 30% illiteracy, but if measured per 1000 literate population it could become more interesting. The above set of tools will be complemented by a systematic documentation of the lessons learned in their production and application.
The construction of IsICTometrics will be a collective and iterative process over a long period. An initial impulse will have to be given which will encompass the following steps:
After this initial "push" it is hoped that the various observers groups will be able to carry out the further iterations by themselves leaving the project coordination with the task of consolidating their experiences.
Even though it is often referred to the "social vision" of ICT is rather diffuse and vague up to now, being roughly equivalent to "Useful for the public at large. Period". Obviously each group of stakeholder can easily present its case as being aligned with such a vision. The more so at a time when the confusion of genres is becoming a rule and untruth is the corner stone of institutional communication. Revisiting this concept and tentatively articulating it in a more specific and practical way will obviously be the first challenge in the building of IsICTometrics.
This work may begin by extracting from policy documents and their commentaries as well as from the various studies and assessment tools dealing with ICT and related areas such as information or innovation, the themes and objects pointing to social benefits. This would result in a list of general themes which can further be translated in specific issues in relation to the appropriate impact areas. Another possibility is to ask representatives of the various groups of stakeholders what would be the characteristics of a better society, or what is should be, or not be for them to feel better off. A matrix as outlined in Figure 3 below could be used in order to compile the information which can be gathered from a variety of sources such as documents, key informants, focus groups or surveys. It should be stressed that irrespective of the methods used for collecting the primary data, the content of the matrix will have to be validated by representatives of all stakeholders groups. Along the process, any conclusion from one step will have to be validated in the same way. Alternatively the criteria used for formulating these conclusions should have been validated by representatives of all stakeholders.
Figure 3. Matrix of impact issues to be investigated
For instance, it is commonly asserted that ICT, especially the Internet, are essential for life long learning. By the way this notion is one of the fuzziest of the "post-modern" era since learning is co-substantial to life. It testifies of the unique ability of marketing and communication creators to turn common sense into nonsense. Let's assume that nevertheless, life long learning has been earmarked as a significant achievement. One could list in each impact area the more critical issues or factors that are preventing effective life long learning and/or conversely those which would allow to say that it is very easy . Each identified issue can be allocated a relative priority level, e.g. adequate program offerings are more important that their low cost. One can then pinpoint what positive and/or negative effects ICT can have in relation to the alleviation of the identified limitation or in taking advantage of the strengths. Having done this for all the important characteristics of society, one may be in a position to select among them those which appear to be more able to show the critical role of ICT. One will then be able to proceed with specific investigations about the particular aspects and/or set up mechanisms to monitor them with a view to verify if the positive or negative effects which were expected actually occurred. At this stage the matrix in Figure 3 can be transformed into the one shown in Figure 4 below.
Figure 4. Matrix of observed ICT effects
Ideally each line in the matrix should be translated into a pair of indicators that could signal positive and negative evolutions. If, as it often occurs the possible indicators appear to be far too abstract or remote from the phenomena one wants to depict, it may be sufficient to rely upon short statements describing both the positive and negative effects and cross check with a panel if they are perceived as more or less true. A series of judgements of this kind over a certain period of time, complemented by supporting facts, whenever possible, could provide a solid enough basis.
The observers team will proceed with the analysis of the matrices and draw the conclusions they feel appropriate. These findings will then be organized and prepared for an effective presentation before representatives of the various groups of stakeholders. Its only after they have validated the conclusions that the latter can be considered as "definitive". Our aim is not however to produce analyses per se but to produce analyses that can effectively be used by the stakeholders, more specifically the organizations of the civil society, in articulating their positions and proposals for socially responsible ICT policies and developments. The quality of the latter and their eventual success will be the criterion for judging the effectiveness of IsICTometrics.
As a conclusion
The task ahead is clearly a complex and difficult one. It can only be accomplished if there is a wide and effective cooperation among all those concerned. Olistica, and its methodological components is a cooperative project. All those who share our concerns and wish to contribute are most welcome. More than the final product, our concern is with the process and the empowerment of civil society in the ICT policy debates. This is especially critical when forces of the techno-structure are imposing an unprecedented propaganda in support of their particular views.
The empowerment process can not rely only upon the appropriation of IsICTometrics. Indeed the observation of the policy making process, at all levels, and of its outcome, policy documents shows that everybody is struggling with the basic concepts and seeking suitable signposts and perspectives. The amount of imitation, testified by the sources and examples quoted, among countries of the same league and worst of the "North" by the "South" is quite frightening. The construction of an open educational resource and appropriate educational tracks in this area is also a critical need which is unfortunately not being attended to. One may wonder if it is purely incidental. Nevertheless we would also like to call for a mobilization of the available expertise in order to try and fill that gap.
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* This is an adaptation into English of the original Spanish neologisms IsTICómetria and IsTICómetro coined by Michel Menou and Daniel Pimienta.
Olistica: Presentación del proyecto | Documentos y Enlaces