Data needed on digital inequality, says poverty researcher

Internet access should be the same for people in cities and rural areas, says a researcher.

PETALING JAYA: A former academic has urged Putrajaya to start measuring “digital inequality” in order to better bridge the divide between those who have access to the digital world and those who have not, including the urban poor and those in rural areas.

Denison Jayasooria, who studied urban poverty, said this would allow the various federal and state administrations to plan ways to bridge the gap and allocate development funds where money is needed.

He was commenting on a call by a Sarawak assistant minister for the federal government to ramp up efforts to develop internet infrastructure in rural areas.

“Digital inequality is strongly linked to educational inequality, and this applies to everyone from children to adults,” said Jayasooria, who was with the Institute of Ethnic Studies at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia.

“The government can set a minimum wage so you can earn enough to survive. But without equality in education, if you are earning the minimum wage, the potential to grow in your career will be limited.”

He said education today is not limited to formal teaching but includes knowledge and skills which can be learnt online.

He said Malaysia had introduced a multi-dimensional poverty indicator to measure poverty in terms of education, health, living standards and income, each with 11 indicators.

“But none of these measures the digital divide. They do not measure how deprived people in rural areas and the urban poor are when it comes to access to the digital world.”

Jayasooria said measuring the digital divide would enable federal and state governments to better ensure access to rural areas and the urban poor.

“In Kuala Lumpur, you might have good internet coverage but a family living in a low-cost flat might not be able to afford internet connection or have a spare phone for their child to use for learning,” he said.

“Internet access should be the same.”

He called for a decentralised approach to the matter involving local authorities, community organisations and volunteer groups.

“Instead of giving a fat contract to a corporation to supply tablets or develop infrastructure, the government should get social enterprises and NGOs to lead the charge and work with local communities to implement tailored initiatives.”

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