I recently read a Google blog post entitled Information Poverty that highlighted how detrimental lack of access to information is to quality of life and development. A couple notable quotes:
According to the Kenya Poverty and Inequality Assessment released by the World Bank this year, 17 million Kenyans or 47% of the population were unable to meet the costs of food sufficient to fulfill basic daily caloric requirements. The vast majority of these people live in rural areas and have even less access to the information that impacts their daily life. Data on water quality, education and health budgets, and agricultural prices are nearly impossible to access.
The right information at the right time in the hands of people has enormous power…Where does [the] money go, who gets it, and what are the results of the resources invested? The power to know plus the power to act on what you know is the surest way to achieve positive social change from the bottom up.
There are a lot of possible ways to measure a population’s access to information, including internet connectivity, mobile phone proliferation, or mass media market penetration, but also literacy and education, or the presence of libraries and universities. While many indicators and rankings are available, I don’t believe that any global index exists that compresses available data together into a single Global Information Access Index.
The United Nations, namely the UN Statistics Division, tracks country data to measure development progress. The World Bank collects and calculate development indicators largely based on economic factors. A host of other organizations have created their own tools to read in publicly available data and summarize and present it in more useful ways. My favorite example of this is Gap Minder World, which let’s you graphically manipulate country indicators over time. The International Telecommunications Union is the closest I’ve seen with its Digital Access Index (only 2003 data publicly available), described as:
The Digital Access Index (DAI) measures the overall ability of individuals in a country to access and use Information and Communication Technology.
The DAI ranks countries using 8 categories: telephone & mobile phone subscribers, price of internet access, bandwidth, broadband internet subscribers, literacy and education, and total internet users.
The DAI is a great start, but it is still lacking. For example, the DAI cannot adjust for information-restricting policies in China. Libraries and library usage are not considered. Index does not allow for the huge marginal returns that can be gained when a society that has little information access installs a single internet-connected computer. Distribution of information sources is crucial.