"Can access to information create more socially and economically inclusive societies? ....[H]w can we capitalize on the strengths of the information society to help combat poverty and inequality, make governments more transparent and accountable, improve gender equity, increase youth's social and economic participation, and promote civic life in our communities?"
Development and Access to Information (DA2I) is a joint project between the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA) and the Technology & Social Change Group (TASCHA) at the University of Washington Information School that aims to demonstrate how A2I and libraries contributes to the achievement of the United Nations (UN) Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). (In 2015, the UN's Member States made A2I a specific target under Goal 16 and also incorporated it elsewhere in the 2030 Agenda.) This report is the first in a series of annual DA2I reports that will monitor the impact of A2I on a number of relevant SDGs and related targets. The overall objective of these reports is to bring together different voices to show the importance of A2I, in all its dimensions, in promoting more socially and economically inclusive societies. In order to accomplish this, this report establishes a baseline of A2I indicators - in the areas of infrastructure, social context of adoption, capabilities of use, and legal and policy environment - to track progress over the lifespan of the SDGs Agenda (2015-2030) and examines the different ways in which A2I and libraries are contributing to advancing the SDGs, focusing specifically on the priority areas identified by the High Level Political Forum in 2017.
In providing a conceptual backdrop, the report explains that a "rights-based approach to information access recognizes that access is only one aspect of the human right to be informed; other dimensions (the ability to create, use, understand, and share) must also be considered before the right can be exercised. We argue, as the Association for Progressive Communications does for ICTs [information and communication technologies], that the right to information affects all other rights as well. Human rights are all interdependent and indivisible."
In that context, the report explores the role of libraries as agents for sustainable development. As noted here, if adequately supported in terms of connectivity, resources, and legal frameworks, libraries can make a real contribution to development by providing A2I. At the global level, they support research that allows for better decision making in governments and in international organisations. At the local level, they intend to provide a safe, community-focused space for users to access and put information to work in a meaningful way. Furthermore, libraries can be an incubator for partnerships between different stakeholders at a local level, drawing on their own understanding of their communities' needs in order to deliver meaningful access to information.
The report demonstrates that meaningful access to information requires 4 key elements:
- Information and communications access infrastructure - As a means of allowing people to find and share information, the internet will undeniably be central to achieving Goal 16. However, this promise can only be delivered if the necessary infrastructure is in place, and if people have the devices necessary get online. While half of the world's population do have the possibility to get online, achieving internet connectivity targets for 2020 remains ambitious, and affordability remains an important issue. Access via mobile devices is likely to play a major role in economically poorer countries, which has implications for the way in which information is accessed by their populations.
- A positive social context for use - Locally relevant content needs to be available, in local languages. Without this, there will be less reason to go online in order to learn or seek information. It is already clear that levels of use of news and similar sites remain lower in developing countries than in developed ones, where more local content is available.
- Sufficient capabilities in communities and their members - It needs to be legal to create and access information in the first place. The majority of the world's internet users still face restrictions to their freedom of expression and right to seek information. In addition, there is still a gender digital divide, due to a mix of cultural and skills-related factors.
- A favourable legal and policy landscape - Even when there is physical connectivity and relevant content, this is meaningless if users are unable to apply it to real-world problems. They need the skills and attitudes necessary to find and use existing information, and create new information they can share with their communities. Yet it is in the economically poorest countries that the ability to use productivity-enhancing digital tools is least developed.
The above set of baseline indicators (see Appendix 3 for a glossary of indicators) is designed to help track progress in each of these fields over time. Individual chapters of the report focus on
- A2I for Sustainable Agriculture [SDG2]: How A2I can help end hunger and promote nutrition - Getter information can support farmers throughout the cycle, from choosing which crops to grow, which techniques to use, and when and at what price to sell their products. As an often-isolated population, with strong local characteristics, the need to tailor access to needs is particularly important. The Global Open Data for Agriculture and Nutrition (GODAN) initiative envisions a global data ecosystem, produced and used by a diverse set of stakeholders, that would address challenges such as those data ownership, privacy, and security. With climate change leading to less predictable weather patterns, the gains in resilience and productivity that can come from improved access to information are part of the quest to end hunger. As noted here, A2I doesn't need to be high-tech: The Hia Chai Rice Seed Centre in Thailand uses information wheels made of cardboard to make information about when to sow and harvest accessible. The project has led to yield increases of 10%.
- A2I for Better Health [SDG3]: How A2I can help ensure healthy lives and promote well-being - " If we regard health and well-being as a fundamental human right, and securing healthy lives and promoting well-being for everyone, at every stage of life, as one of the key conditions for our future prosperity and sustainability, then attention must be paid to where, how, and by whom information is accessible. Correctly mobilized, information empowers us to make better decisions about our own health and the health of others, and creates the potential for research and innovation to transform health for all. It helps us set goals and hold ourselves and others to account for their delivery. Libraries play a crucial role in every part of this ecosystem as organizations that vouchsafe the quality of information and provide routes to ensure that access is open to all, and as community spaces that enable people to access information and share ideas safely." Among the examples provided are that of Rural Education and Development (READ) Global, which has created a network of 91 rural health libraries across Nepal, Bhutan, and India, serving a potential audience of 2.3 million people. READ centres provide health information resources on a range of subjects, including personal hygiene and sanitation, food and nutrition, disease prevention, and reproductive health. A critical factor in READ's success, highlighted by a 2013 evaluation, has been the provision of specialised services and "dedicated safe spaces for women to gather, share information, and learn from each other." This has led to benefits in terms not just of levels of information, but also the self-confidence to apply this knowledge, contributing to a self-reported 80% increase in the empowerment of female users and an increase of 68% in their decision-making power regarding family planning and healthcare issues.
- A2I for Gender Equality [SDG5]: How A2I empowers women and girls - Women in particular stand to benefit from improved A2I, both in terms of taking their place as equals in economic and civic life, and in fulfilling more traditional roles in their families and communities. This chapter looks at the benefits of increased access to information for girls and women as well as the ways in which this access can benefit society as a whole. It examines the numerous obstacles that females face in many realms in their quest for information. For instance, in many situations, they have not had the same educational opportunities as men, and need additional support in getting online and making use of the resources available. The chapter then provides examples of best practices in information provision for and utilisation by girls and women, with particular emphasis on the multiple ways in which libraries in less developed countries are assisting gendered access to information. Namely, in male-dominated societies, libraries may indeed be the only place where they can access the technology and training necessary, as in the case of Chile's network of some 400 library-based infocentros. (Offering free public non-commercial access to the internet, infocentros are women-friendly, as opposed to cybercafés, where majority of directors and users are male. The centre becomes a meeting place for women where they use their social resources for information empowerment.) The chapter concludes with recommendations to ensure the contribution of improved and increased access to information toward the achievement of SDG5; for instance, support development of mobile education.
- A2I for Sustainable Infrastructure [SDG9]: A2I as a fundamental pillar for innovation, infrastructure, and industrialisation - Once information is made accessible, it can become the raw material for new ideas, products, and services. The experience of the Human Genome Project shows that openness is a driver of, and not a threat to, investment in innovation. Similarly, enhancing access to, and use of, information around infrastructure is providing solutions to congestion and poor quality of life in the world's cities. Libraries are described here as an essential part of the information ecosystem. With their mandate to acquire, preserve, and give access to information, they are also essential to innovation. "However, while the opportunities are enormous, there are still many challenges. People need the skills to manage information, including helping them to distinguish reliable information sources from those of dubious quality. They need access to the internet because most information is now digital; and they need to have it in a format that they can assimilate and understand. Moreover, there will be no slowdown in the explosion of information and data in the foreseeable future, presenting even greater potential benefits, but also exacerbating the issues of how to navigate and extract value from vast quantities of content....[W]e need to foster the enabling conditions that will formalize and embed access to information into all sectors of society by implementing the appropriate policies, infrastructures, and capacity building activities. These components are central for ensuring the unimpeded flow and uptake of information over the long term."
"In all of these areas, access to information can create a virtuous circle. An information-empowered society is better placed to create and share data which can further drive improvements in agriculture, health, economic empowerment, efficient infrastructure and innovation. But delivering meaningful access itself will need to be a team effort. Laws, regulations, investments and infrastructure will need to align, and global, national and local efforts will need to be coordinated. A well-supported librarary sector will play a major part in delivering success." Specific suggestions for the road ahead for development and A2I shared in the report include: "Continue to track progress of the indicators for which this report establishes a baseline; invest in libraries as partners for reaching development goals; and, at the government level, embrace the inalienable right of access to information and include it in policy, programs, and services."
TASCHA website, August 11 2017. Image credit: TASCHA