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#DataLiteracy is the vehicle to a technological utopia – so why aren’t we talking about it?

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It goes without saying that technology has become an entrenched feature of contemporary lifestyle. Modern technology now defines the way individuals conduct their daily routines and interact with one another. We instinctively call on devices to deal with our problems. Our queries are instinctively fulfilled by Google. Our social interactions are all conveniently organized. Our appetites are satisfied with the touch of a button. Technological is our instinctive solution to most problems, writes Joe Oakes.
What strikes me is that no one seems to know if they like it or not. I hear so many speculate the impending doom of an Orwellian dystopia following mass technological change – an opinion which they tweet off their smartphone whilst riding in an Uber. It’s almost as though we have some higher conscience that wants us to fight the technological revolution – but after a long day of work and a testing week, we’d rather scroll twitter and passively watch semi-funny videos than engage this philosophy.
Many are worried that in doing so, we are consigning ourselves to monotony. Commercialized networking platforms in particular demonstrate less concern for altruism or individual prosperity as much as they do with screen time. Various psychological tactics are successfully employed to achieve to cement our engagement.
This view of the world is interesting and worth consideration. But it seems desolate and narrow. It misses some of the great benefits that technology provides for us. For us middle-class millennials of the UK, technology offers the time to pursue your interests, running the errands that you just don’t have time to.

With regard to political discussion and debate, social media is the most influential technological development. Facebook and Twitter now serve as people’s number one news source, and with an increasing influence. The young are particularly reliant on these sources for information - 82% of 16-24s consider the internet as their go-to. The impact on political participation is debated but apparent. There is no denying the engaging capacities that social media offer.

Most scholars recognize that social media opens people up to opinions that they may not have otherwise seen – particularly psychologists who point to the necessity of technology in empowered societies. By opening up the scope of opinion, we reduce the risk of a one-dimensional thought process. One need only to look to China, where the CCP’s forceful management of social media is one of the biggest threats to any shred of democratic libertarian values.

Any publishing must be approved by government officials, Western platforms are mostly banned, and the government are even coming after internet cafes. A free, open media is instrumental in preventing such a fate in the West.

Disagreement and diversity is therefore hugely valuable for maintaining liberal democracy. While many perceive social media as a vehicle for echo chambers and restricted opinion, there is a handful of evidence which suggests that social networking sites expose users to alternative viewpoints. Whether or not your timeline is decorated in such a way will depend on how you understand these issues and how you chose to approach it.

The power of social media to innovatively join people across divides is inspiring – and a trend which is in worryingly short supply. But it would be wrong to forget what it does to bring together those who already share interests. Groups and forums online successfully bring unite people whose passions overlap, allowing users to discuss and advance their hobbies. On a more personal level, individuals who feel marginalized or isolated in their particular community can experience the value of reaching out to others who are in the same boat. Social media have a wonderful ability to give a voice to those who feel voiceless.

I am a strong believer in the empowering capabilities of social media, but I am not blind to their problems. Given its status as a provider of information for the masses, their difficulties are associated with the method by which this information is delivered, and its quality. It is now much harder to identify what constitutes our timeline and what we can really trust.

In a time of print press, identifying sources and their angles was much easier. One could pick up a copy of any newspaper, and immediately understand where it was coming from, what was motivating it to publish what it was. Now, the line is blurred. The myriad of opinions and sources online are offered by individuals or organizations which we hardly know, whose thoughts are now much more far-reaching. Understanding the reasons behind people’s comments or tweets is much harder, and it becomes harder for us to contextualize their standpoint. Without this, evaluating the information they offer becomes nearly impossible.

Acknowledging how your sources got on to your timeline in the first place is also essential. As most social media platforms are commercialized, they prioritize relevance over significance. If these platforms can keep engagement on the up, then their worth as a platform increases, followed by their advertising revenue. They just ask that instead of paying, you offer up all available information about yourself. As a result, the first posts you see are the ones that reflect your data most intimately, and therefore pique your interest and keep you wanting more.

More often than not, the posts you see most of will tend to be from the people you already agree with. The result of this is an increasing focus on popularity rather than quality. Deciphering the legitimacy of a claim or an individual making one is particularly hard, given that its so easy to manufacture or sensationalize statements. Popularity as a key determinant of quality has given rise to the phenomenon of fake news and inflammatory reporting. We come to analyse the posts we read based on the number of retweets they receive, or the following of the ‘publisher’. Bullshit rides this wave right to the front pages.

When things move so quickly, we don’t have the time to work out what’s right and what’s wrong. We can’t always run a line of enquiry into the truth of every claim. This all seems so trivial. How do we know who to trust if not the most popular source? Where should I get my information from?

Many people have suggested regulation of these platforms, and the motion has made its way to the floor of the commons on a number of occasions. But for all the popularity of this movement, it seems to ignore the quality of social media which I’ve outlined. If we regulate the media itself, we risk losing so much of the benefits that we are desperately in need of – not to mention the threats to freedom of expression.

We must now turn our attention to digital literacy as a solution. Learning how to utilize, evaluate, publish, share and write are, like elementary literacy, not naturally developed. They need to be taught. The significance of encouraging people to learn this cannot be understated. If we can increase society’s understanding and manage their misuse of these platforms, the need for regulation as good as disappears, and we can focus on maximizing the empowering potential of these sites.

A report published by Demos suggests that young people are most in need of this education. The report identifies that they are by far the most confident users, but also the most easily misled. They do not fact check their information, they are unable to find the right information, and are unable to recognize bias. As the biggest users of social media, and the future of politics, it is essential that these individuals are geared up to manage its nuances. As the nature and the demands on these media change and develop for years to come, the young must not allow themselves to be misled, nor to inadvertently mislead others.

The government claims to be switched on to the problem. The most recent significant investment was in 2015, when they launched an £85 million programme in digital skills training. Their policy paper makes important reference to the inclusive capabilities of digital literacy which they intend to implement through the library system and the NHS.

But the Demos report suggests that a lack of teaching is one of the biggest reasons behind the data literacy problem in the UK. Around one third of students actually receive tuition, and 55% of teachers believe that their students are not sufficiently equipped to manage the dangers.

Technology has permeated into all elements of our lifestyle and our politics, and it will continue to do so. The banality of technological processes and social media as a form of political engagement means that its impacts have become easy to overlook. Many people, particularly the young, assume that navigation of these technologies is inherent and straightforward – but that is simply not the case. The impact of misuse is vast and detrimental.

We can take one of two paths. Individuals and governments can switch on to the impacts of increased data literacy, and we can accept all of the fruitful benefits that technology has to offer. Alternatively, we can complacently ignore these issues, and open the door to inflammatory news production and empty rhetorical debate. As threats to liberty and equality come in thick and fast, it is our prerogative as a society to lay the fundamental groundwork to be able to fight them off.

Broadband

Time for the #EuropeanUnion to close longstanding #digital gaps

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The European Union recently unveiled its European Skills Agenda, an ambitious scheme to both upskill and reskill the bloc’s workforce. The right to lifelong learning, enshrined in the European Pillar of Social Rights, has taken on new importance in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. As Nicolas Schmit, the Commissioner for Jobs and Social Rights, explained: “The skilling of our workforces is one of our central responses to the recovery, and providing people the chance to build the skillsets they need is key to preparing for the green and digital transitions”.

Indeed, while the European bloc has frequently made headlines for its environmental initiatives—particularly the centrepiece of the Von der Leyen Commission, the European Green Deal—it’s allowed digitalisation to fall somewhat by the wayside. One estimate suggested that Europe utilizes only 12% of its digital potential. To tap into this neglected area, the EU must first address the digital inequalities in the bloc’s 27 member states are addressed.

The 2020 Digital Economy and Society Index (DESI), an annual composite assessment summarizing Europe’s digital performance and competitiveness, corroborates this claim. The latest DESI report, released in June, illustrates the imbalances which have left the EU facing a patchwork digital future. The stark divisions revealed by DESI’s data—splits between one member state and the next, between rural and urban areas, between small and large firms or between men and women—make it abundantly clear that while some parts of the EU are prepared for the next generation of technology, others are lagging significantly behind.

A yawning digital divide?

DESI evaluates five principal components of digitalization—connectivity, human capital, the uptake of Internet services, firms’ integration of digital technology, and the availability of digital public services. Across these five categories, a clear rift opens up between the highest-performing countries and those languishing at the bottom of the pack. Finland, Malta, Ireland and the Netherlands stand out as star performers with extremely advanced digital economies, while Italy, Romania, Greece and Bulgaria have a lot of ground to make up.

This overall picture of a widening gap in terms of digitalization is borne out by the report’s detailed sections on each of these five categories. Aspects such as broadband coverage, internet speeds, and next-generation access capability, for example, are all critical for personal and professional digital use—yet parts of Europe are falling short in all of these areas.

Wildly divergent access to broadband

Broadband coverage in rural areas remains a particular challenge—10% of households in Europe’s rural zones are still not covered by any fixed network, while 41% of rural homes are not covered by next generation-access technology. It’s not surprising, therefore, that significantly fewer Europeans living in rural areas have the basic digital skills they need, compared to their compatriots in larger cities and towns.

While these connectivity gaps in rural areas are troubling, particularly given how important digital solutions like precision farming will be for making the European agricultural sector more sustainable, the problems aren’t limited to rural zones. The EU had set a goal for at least 50% of households to have ultrafast broadband (100 Mbps or faster) subscriptions by the end of 2020.  According to the 2020 DESI Index, however, the EU is well short of the mark: only 26% of European households have subscribed to such fast broadband services. This is a problem with take-up, rather than infrastructure—66.5% of European households are covered by a network able to provide at least 100 Mbps broadband.

Yet again, there’s a radical divergence between the frontrunners and the laggards in the continent’s digital race. In Sweden, more than 60% of households have subscribed to ultrafast broadband—while in Greece, Cyprus and Croatia less than 10% of households have such rapid service.

SMEs falling behind

A similar story plagues Europe’s small and medium enterprises (SMEs), which represent 99% of all businesses in the EU. A mere 17% of these firms use cloud services and only 12% use big data analytics. With such a low rate of adoption for these important digital tools, European SMEs risk falling behind not only companies in other countries—74% of SMEs in Singapore, for example, have identified cloud computing as one of the investments with the most measurable impact on their business—but losing ground against larger EU firms.

Larger enterprises overwhelmingly eclipse SMEs on their integration of digital technology—some 38.5% of large firms are already reaping the benefits of advanced cloud services, while 32.7% are relying on big data analytics. Since SMEs are considered the backbone of the European economy, it’s impossible to imagine a successful digital transition in Europe without smaller firms picking up the pace.

Digital divide between citizens

Even if Europe manages to close these gaps in digital infrastructure, though, it means little
without the human capital to back it up. Some 61% of Europeans have at least basic digital skills, though this figure falls alarmingly low in some member states—in Bulgaria, for example, a mere 31% of citizens have even the most basic software skills.

The EU has still further trouble equipping its citizens with the above-basic skills which are increasingly becoming a prerequisite for a wide range of job roles. Currently, only 33% of Europeans possess more advanced digital skills. Information and Communications Technology (ICT) specialists, meanwhile, make up a meager 3.4% of the EU’s total workforce—and only 1 out of 6 are women. Unsurprisingly, this has created difficulties for SMEs struggling to recruit these highly-in-demand specialists. Some 80% of companies in Romania and Czechia reported problems trying to fill positions for ICT specialists, a snag which will undoubtedly slow down these countries’ digital transformations.

The latest DESI report lays out in stark relief the extreme disparities which will continue to thwart Europe’s digital future until they are addressed. The European Skills Agenda and other programs intended to prepare the EU for its digital development are welcome steps in the right direction, but European policymakers should lay out a comprehensive scheme to bring the entire bloc up to speed. They have the perfect opportunity to do so, too—the €750 billion recovery fund proposed to help the European bloc get back on its feet after the coronavirus pandemic. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has already stressed that this unprecedent investment must include provisions for Europe’s digitalization: the DESI report has made it clear which digital gaps must be addressed first.

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Upskilling for life after #Coronavirus - Commission launches new digital competence guidelines

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Today (13 July), the Commission launches new guidelines to help educators, employers and recruiters ensure Europeans are equipped with the digital skills to thrive in the post-coronavirus world of work. The DigComp at Work report and its Implementation Guidelines include practical steps, key actions, tips and online resources to make best use of the EU's digital competence framework (DigComp) along the ‘employability path' - from education to sustainable employment and entrepreneurship. Innovation, Research, Culture, Education and Youth Commissioner Mariya Gabriel (pictured) added: “These past months, social distancing has transformed the way we connect, research and innovate at work - and we need to equip people with the right digital skills to continue working like this.” Support for managing the digital transition are at the heart of the European Skills Agenda. The Commission will take this work forward in the autumn when it presents an updated Digital Education Action Plan alongside a communication on building the European Education Area. DigComp will play a role in supporting the work of countries, companies and social partners to support the development of digital competences. The case studies in the report showcase practical examples of the development of the digital competences, and the Implementation Guide offers specific guidelines, examples and useful resources for the use of DigComp. More information on the JRC Science Hub.

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EU launches a €10.5 million call for projects in #Cybersecurity

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The Commission has launched a new call, worth €10.5 million through the Connecting Europe Facility (CEF) programme, for projects that will work on stepping up Europe's cybersecurity capabilities and cooperation across member states. In particular, they will work in various areas, such as on co-ordinated response to cybersecurity incidents, cybersecurity certification, capacity building and institutional co-operation on cybersecurity matters, as well as co-operation between the public and the private sector.

Internal Market Commissioner Thierry Breton said: “Supporting concrete projects in the area of cybersecurity helps advance innovative technologies and solutions in a targeted way. The call launched today will contribute to strengthening our resilience against cyber threats, in line with our digital ambitions in Europe and our overall strategy comprising the Cybersecurity Act, the NIS Directive and the Cyber Blueprint Recommendations.”

The deadline for applicants to submit their proposal on the 2020 CEF Telecom Calls web page is 5 November 2020 and the allocation of grants is expected to be announced as of May 2021.More information on the new call is available here. More information on the EU's actions to strengthen cybersecurity capacities is available in these questions & answers, while EU-funded cybersecurity projects can be found here. 

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