Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Digital Labour and Development


The picture above was taken in Pasig City in the Philippines. The poster advertising free wifi is symbolic of the changing connectivities of a country in which more than 30 million people are now Internet users. Whereas the advert on the the left is symbolic of how many in the country have harnessed those new connectivities: setting up business process outsourcing (BPO) firms and performing digital work.

This, however, is a relatively old story and there are millions of people around the world working in the outsourcing sector.

But, in the last few years, we have seen some important changes. The rapid growth of online freelancing, digital work, and microwork is undoubtedly changing the landscape of digital work: creating jobs in people's homes and internet cafes rather than in the kinds of offices full of BPO firms in the photograph above.

These changes could be seen as an important moment in the trajectory of global development: offering millions of skilled and unskilled workers in low-income countries access to jobs. But many concerns also exist. Not only are workers placed in potentially precarious positions, they also are potentially enrolled into new digital sweatshops with little opportunity to upgrade their positions.

It is in the context of those very different ways of understanding the intersections between digital labour and development, that my colleagues Helena BarnardVili LehdonvirtaIsis Hjorth, and myself are embarking on a 30-month project to understand contemporary virtual production networks.

We are focusing on three countries in Southeast Asia and three in Subsaharan Africa, asking the following questions:

  • What is the overall landscape of virtual production networks in Sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia?
  • What factors explain the network structures that we see?
  • How are these networks changing over time?
  • Who benefits from SSA’s and SEA’s virtual production networks?
  • How do observed changes differ from public, political, and academic discourses surrounding potential effects?

We are using a combination of quantitative (using log data from work platforms) and qualitative (six months of fieldwork) methods and plan to regularly release and share our findings.

Changing connectivities are undoubtedly profoundly influencing the landscape of digital work: enabling new flows, new networks, and new geographies. By studying virtual production networks in some of the worlds economic peripheries, we hope to ultimately understand who benefits and who doesn't from these new forms of work.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Introducing GEONET: studying Sub-Saharan Africa's knowledge economies

I’m happy to announce the launch of the new GEONET project: studying ‘Changing Connectivities and the Potentials of Sub-Saharan Africa’s Knowledge Economy.’

This five-year project, funded by an ERC Starting Grant, aims to understand the difference that changing connectivities are having on Sub-Saharan Africa’s emerging information economies.
For a full introduction of the project, and associated team members, please head over to the Geonet site to take a look: geonet.oii.ox.ac.uk

We have a great group of researchers assembled, and I'm looking forward to seeing what we can accomplish over the next few years.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Reflections on the Inclusion in the Network Society workshop

Chris Foster and I have just returned from the inspiring meeting on ‘Inclusion in the Network Society’ that was put together by IT for Change in Bangalore, India. 

The meeting brought together a diverse activists and scholars from every corner of the world to critical think through who (and what) increasing digitally-mediated connectivity is actually empowering. The contributions were often heartfelt and inspiring, and grounded in deep domain knowledge and research.   

The final day also led us to attempt to think through what a shared research agenda might look like. We split into four groups and were tasked with attempting to congeal our efforts into only five questions. My group’s efforts are listed below (thanks to Sumandro Chattapadhyay for making sure we noted them all down). This is our first draft, and will be both reworked by the IT for Change into a more coherent form and combined with the questions produced by the three other groups (who were all tackling somewhat different issues)
  • what is [X] in the context of an inclusive network society?
  • who creates, controls, captures, and gains social and economic value in digital networks?
  • what systems and structures, at different scales, constrain or enable communities and individuals living the lives they have reason to value?  What transformations count as emancipatory inclusion? How do we transform systems and structures to achieve those goals? And how do we ultimately work towards something that might look like an inclusive network society?  
  • what are the power structures, configurations, and geographies of voice and representation; and under what institutional conditions do these voices and representations lead to claim-making?
  • what do the institutional landscapes of data regimes look like, who control them and how are they controlled? How can these regimes be made accountable, and under what kinds of ethical frameworks?
The full agenda should be published soon, and many of the papers can already be accessed at IT for Change website (Chris and I have uploaded ours). The organisers will also soon be uploading videos of presentations and subsequent discussions for people who weren’t at the meeting. 

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Our paper at the Network Inclusion Roundtable: Geographies of Information Inequality in Sub-Saharan Africa


Chris Foster and I have had the opportunity to participate in the Network Inclusion Roundtable: organised by IT For Change in Bangalore.

Our short paper, titled 'Geographies of Information Inequality in Sub-Saharan Africa' is available at this link.

The paper is a beginning to think about what connectivity means to inclusion in the ‘network society.’ Connectivity certainly isn’t a sufficient condition for inclusion and equity, and we need to ask whether it is a necessary one.

We point to connectivity as an amplifier: one that often reinforces rather than reduces inequality. We therefore need to move towards deeper critical socio-economic interrogations of the barriers or structures that limit activity and reproduce digital inequality. The categorisations developed in the paper offer an empirically-driven and systematic way to understand these barriers in more detail.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Hashtags and Haggis: Mapping the Scottish Referendum

Reposted from our work over at Floatingsheep...

The past weeks have been quite eventful in Scotland as a monumental election unfolds. Everyone wants to know, which way will the Scots vote? While we here at Floatingsheep certainly don't have the answer or power to predict the referendum, we thought it might be interesting to see the geographic dimension of how Scots (and the rest of the world) are tweeting about a fundamentally geographic decision [1].

We pulled data from DOLLY from the last month and a half for a number of hashtags and terms that we thought might be helpful in taking the pulse of Twitter discussion around the independence referendum. Most obviously, we collected the hashtags #VoteYes and #YesBecause due to their association with the pro-independence movement, and the hashtag #NoThanks because of its association with anti-pro-independence sentiment [2].

We started by comparing the prevalence of 'no' (i.e., pro-union) hashtags versus 'yes' (i.e., pro-independence) hashtags the global level. In the map below, orange indicates a greater prevalence of 'yes' tweets and purple indicates that there are more 'no' tweets. Perhaps the most interesting thing here is that we can see the United Kingdom swing towards a 'yes' vote, which has, for the most part, appeared to be the underdog in more conventional polling leading up to the referendum. Then again, most of Western Europe, along with Thailand and Australia, also have a general preference for 'yes' tweets. Oddly enough, the United States is the staunchest defender of the union, based solely on it's massive preference for 'no' tweets. Strange for a country that yearly celebrates its breaking away from Mother England

Comparing 'Yes' vs. 'No' Tweets at the Global Scale

Looking closer at the UK, we can see that much of Scotland has a roughly equal number of tweets in support of both the 'yes' and 'no' positions -- reflecting the contentious and hotly-contested nature of this referendum. But the Central Belt in particular -- where a lot of actual votes will be coming from, as it is the most densely populated part of the nation -- swings heavily towards 'yes'. The English, on the other hand, seem very much inclined towards pro-union or anti-separation tweeting.

Comparing 'Yes' vs. 'No' Tweets in the United Kingdom

To take an alternative look at support for the different positions, we mapped the percentage of each of the three hashtags that originates in each of the administrative sub-regions of both Scotland and the UK as a whole. The Highlands and parts of the Central Belt again show up as strong bastions of 'yes' votes.

Percentage of Referendum-Related Tweets from Different Regions

But seeing as we're interested in doing more than just mapping distributions, the next question is how are we to put all of this into context? The only proper place to start is, of course, with the Queen. The map below illustrates those places which also tend to have higher-than-normal levels of tweeting about the Queen (in orange) and those places that are tweeting less about the Queen than might usually be expected (in purple), based on a baseline measure of tweeting activity. Sadly, the whole country seems to be ignoring her. Apart from Glasgow, that is. In the interests of not upsetting an 88 year-old lady, we have chosen not to explore these tweets in any more detail.

Tweets referencing "Queen"

Building on this, we also explored the geography of references (using the same method described above) to something inherent in most people's definitions of Britishness: tea and crumpets

We see an all-around tea-depression; hardly anywhere is particularly pro-tea at the moment, truly a shocking state of affairs. The British are clearly not being their usual selves, and for their sake we're glad the referendum will be over soon, regardless of the outcome. Scotland, in particular, has average tea counts that are low by historical standards.

Tweets referencing "tea and crumpets"

This analysis would, of course, all be meaningless unless we mapped the geographies of a range of uniquely Scottish phenomena: haggis [3], kilts and Nessie. Still using the same method as above, the map below shows without a shadow of a doubt that Scotland is destined to become it's own nation.

Tweets referencing "haggis", "kilts" or "Nessie" 

The Scots are tweeting about these topics at a greater-than-usual rate, while their southern neighbors remain distinctly uninterested. If ever there were an indication that these nations are divided by more than just a line on a map, we see that manifested in the topic of people's Twitter conversations. In short, the Scottish referendum is not just simply about "yes" or "no" but seemingly touches on much more fundamental questions of ovis-based cuisine, men's wear and mythological creatures.

So even if the 'no' votes win out in and the Kingdom remains united, the geographies of haggis related tweeting (along with a few other things) has revealed that these are two very different nations, indeed.

--------------
[1] In case you don't know what Twitter, is we refer you to the Scots Wikipedia page on the subject, which states: "Twitter is an online social networkin service an microbloggin service that enables its uisers tae send an read text-based messages o up tae 140 characters, kent as 'tweets'".
[2] Perhaps we could have simplified this phrasing, but then we would have lost the chance to type "anti-pro-independence", which is a lot of fun. Anti-pro-independence. Anti-pro-independence.
[3] Normally the Floatingsheep collective avoids conversation about sheep heart, liver, and lungs that are boiled in a sheep stomach. But we made an exception this time.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Society and the Internet - Introduction now available online


The introduction to our new book: 'Society & the Internet' is now freely available online. You can download it at this link.

The introduction provides a survey of some of the most pressing issues in Internet Studies and outlines how the book tackles them. 

As a reminder for anyone interested in purchasing the book, you can use the codes at the bottom of this post to get 30% off the list price. You can also request a free inspection copy of the book if you are planning on adopting it as a teaching tool.

Monday, July 28, 2014

AAG 2015 CFP - From Online Sweat Shops to Silicon Savannahs: Geographies of Production in Digital Economies of Low-Income Countries


From Online Sweat Shops to Silicon Savannahs: 
Geographies of Production in Digital Economies of Low-Income Countries

AAG Annual Meeting, Chicago, April 21-25, 2015

Organizers:
Mark Graham, Nicolas Friederici, and Isis Hjorth University of Oxford

Throughout the early 21st century, Internet and mobile phone access in developing countries has skyrocketed, and today the majority of people on the planet are connected through information and communication technologies (ICTs). Yet, while basic ICT access is increasingly level across income groups and geographies, production in the global digital economy is still, and maybe increasingly, dominated by incumbent multinational technology corporations or fast-scaling web startups. These businesses tend to roll out their products (with some local adaptation) across the globe, but maintain their coordinating and creative activities in places like Silicon Valley, Tel Aviv, or London, exploiting both agglomeration and dispersion economies in digital production (Malecki & Moriset, 2007; Moriset & Malecki, 2009).


How does digital production in low-income countries fare in the face of this dominance? Policymakers and the private sector in several low-income countries (especially in Sub-Saharan Africa) have set out to transform their economies through ICTs, explicitly emphasizing local digital production. Two sectors that are often seen as promising are (1) low-skill/cost-competition, such as business process outsourcing and digital microwork, and (2) high-skill/entrepreneurial innovation, such as startups developing and commercializing mobile and online applications.


However, what are the concrete and realistic potentials and possibilities for low-income countries to become important hubs for digital production? What are palpable economic outcomes of Kenya’s status as the “Silicon Savannah” or Lagos as the “Silicon Lagoon,” and who are the winners and losers of local ICT entrepreneurship and innovation? Do ICTs really deliver economic inclusion and employment to remote geographies and low-income groups, or are we witnessing the rise of online sweatshops that further enhance exploitation of vulnerable populations?


This session will explore these themes, encouraging contributions from a variety of perspectives. We invite authors to consider digital production in low-income/developing countries through lenses such as:

  • Empirical or theoretical perspectives on digital production and its (uneven) geographies
  • Discourse around digital production and its promises and risks
  • Distributions of value creation and extraction across actor groups (winners/losers)
  • Tensions of scaling versus local adaptation in digital production, in application to geography and inclusion/exclusion effects
  • Uneven production geographies within countries, in particular, differences and divides between rural/peri-urban/urban clusters
  • Socio-demographic analyses of economic actors engaging in digital production
  • Case studies of low-skill/cost-competition digital production (e.g., business process outsourcing, microwork, etc.)
  • Case studies of high-skill/entrepreneurial innovation in digital production (e.g., mobile/online applications startups, technology innovation hubs)
  • Analyses and recommendations for local and international policy pertaining to digital production

To be considered for the session, please send your abstract of 250 words or fewer, to: mark.graham@oii.ox.ac.uk, nicolas.friederici@oii.ox.ac.uk, and isis.hjorth@oii.ox.ac.uk

The deadline for receipt of abstracts is October 1 2014. Notification of acceptance will be before October 7. All accepted papers will then need to register for the AAG conference at aag.org. Accepted papers will be considered for a special issue or edited volume edited by the organizers.
 


Malecki, E. J., & Moriset, B. (2007). The paradox of a “double-edged” geography: local ecosystems of the digital economy. In The Digital Economy: Business Organization, Production Processes and Regional Developments (pp. 174–198). New York, NY: Routledge.
Moriset, B., & Malecki, E. J. (2009). Organization versus Space: The Paradoxical Geographies of the Digital Economy. Geography Compass, 3(1), 256–274.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Final Project Report: Promises of Fibre-Optic Broadband in the Kenyan Tourism and Tea Sectors

My colleagues Professor Timothy Waema and Charles Katua at the University of Nairobi have recently finished a report describing and summarising some of their research into the effects of changing connectivity in the Kenyan tea and tourism sectors.

You can find the full report below, and we would welcome any feedback that you might have:

Waema, T. and Katua, C. 2014. The Promises of Fibre-Optic Broadband in Tourism and Tea Sectors: A Pipeline for Economic Development in East Africa.

The report comes out of our larger project looking at 'development' and broadband internet access in East Africa. In the next few months, Chris Foster, Nicolas Friederici, and I will also be releasing reports looking at changing connectivity in the tea and tourism sectors of Rwanda, and the implications of changing connectivity on Kenya and Rwanda's Business Process Outsourcing sector.


Friday, July 18, 2014

AAG 2015 CFP - Digital Connectivity, Inclusion, and Inequality at the World’s Economic Margins

Digital Connectivity, Inclusion, and Inequality at the World’s Economic Margins
AAG Annual Meeting, Chicago, April 21-25, 2015

Organisers:
Mark Graham and Chris Foster, University of Oxford

We are in the throes of a global transformation of digital connectivity. Over six billion people have access to phones and two and a half billion people use the internet. Meanwhile, governments, international organisations, and corporations are developing plans, projects, and policies to connect the remaining disconnected. Fibre-optic cables, laptops for every child, and drones, balloons, and satellites all beaming down internet access are just some of the strategies being actively planned to bring connectivity to the rest of the world in the coming years. 

As we approach a situation in which almost half of humanity is online, we need to explore the difference people expect connectivity to make at the world’s economic peripheries. Will connectivity amplify or deepen economic inequalities? Should we expect empowerment, inclusion, and opportunities; or further exploitation and extraversion?

This session brings together papers that seek to explore the differences that connectivity makes, and can make, in the contemporary international division of labour and on-going global shifts in economic flows. It will critically explore ‘Bottom of the Pyramid’ networked capitalism, and the opportunities, struggles, and alternatives that it underpins. It will also facilitate a space for research that addresses the central question of ‘who benefits and who doesn’t from the increasing networking of the world’s population?’

Potential topics include:

  • Discourses around connectivity, inclusion, and exclusion in the Global South
  • ICT and development policies and who they ultimately benefit.
  • Changes to global value chains or production networks
  • Opportunities for upgrading or disintermediation
  • Empirical or theoretical engagements with the idea of ‘connectivity’ and the roles that it can play amongst the world’s poorest
  • Contemporary or historical treatments of the links between connectivity and inequality
  • Alternative ways of imagining or envisioning connectivity at the world’s economic peripheries
  • Case studies of global ‘body shopping’, digital work, or bottom of the pyramid capitalism
  • Policies and initiatives for digital connectivity which support inclusion and reduced inequality

Submission Procedure:

To be considered for the session, please send your abstract of 250 words or fewer, to: mark.graham@oii.ox.ac.uk and christopher.foster@oii.ox.ac.uk

The deadline for receipt of abstracts is October 1 2014. Notification of acceptance will be before October 7. All accepted papers will then need to register for the AAG conference at aag.org. Accepted papers will be considered for a special issue or edited volume edited by the organisers.

Monday, June 23, 2014

The new Connectivity, Inclusion, and Inequality research group

Some of my OII colleagues and I have just formally launched a new research group in order to cluster and congeal some of our overlapping research and interests on the topics of connectivity, inclusion, and inequality (CII).

The CII group specifically aims to understand the differences that ICTs and changing connectivities make at the world’s economic peripheries; to uncover who the winners and losers are; and to critically consider what ‘development’ is, and should be, in a hyper-connected age.

Please head over to our new CII website in order to learn more about what we're doing.