The problem of digital inequality during a pandemic

Chairman of the Kyrgyz Internet Society (ISOC) Talant Sultanov told how the pandemic affected digitalization in Kyrgyzstan during the round table: “The pandemic of digitalization. How the coronavirus has affected business”

The pandemic tested the EAEU countries in difficult conditions to what extent they were ready to respond to challenges, including digital ones. Kyrgyzstan, it seemed to me, was better prepared than it could have been expected. This happened because the digital agenda has been a priority for the country for several years.

The topic itself began to develop in 2017-2018 with the program “Taza koom” (clean society) and transformed into the program “Digital Kyrgyzstan”. The negative effects of the pandemic were felt by both states and businesses. However, the activation of digital technologies in parallel has opened up three possibilities for reducing digital inequality: the possibility of access, use, and maintenance. How were they used in the Kyrgyz Republic?

The first initial one is the possibility of access. Although many people had to go into quarantine, not all remote work was set up, access to the network was configured. Even if there was an Internet connection, there was no way to access devices – computers, smartphones.

Moreover, civil servants who went to remote work could not fully function, and therefore they still came to their workplaces to put signatures on paper. There are few positive effects here.

The second possibility is the possibility of convenient use. Even if users have the Internet, there is a device at home through which they can access the Internet, then how convenient were the services and applications that were developed during the pandemic? An interesting aspect is how usability has allowed the government to become closer to citizens. We now have senior officials conducting surveys via social networks about what policies to pursue or not to pursue. This is an indicator of how flat the government is becoming, the hierarchy is disappearing.

The third possibility is the possibility of maintaining and continuing all these initiatives. When the pandemic began, many online services were launched. However, if we try to check their relevance today, many sites have simply stopped functioning. All these three possibilities so far only show how digital inequality is becoming even wider and deeper. And in order to reduce this digital gap, it is necessary to take urgent measures. Here, the private sector and business in general in the country play an important role. But business stops where there is no profitability, profit. Then the state picks up, but the state also has a certain budget, beyond which it cannot go. At the moment, the government is implementing the Digital Central Asia – South Asia project, which plans to connect every locality in the country to broadband high-speed Internet.

Then the local population, and in particular, the Internet community should pick up the idea. I will focus on the things that our online community does in order to address the designated opportunities. We are currently implementing a project called Ilim Box. Let me remind you that earlier the Ministry of Education of the Kyrgyz Republic took measures to provide all schools of the Republic with network access. The department was able to organize the connection of all schools, except twenty, which are located in the most remote, mountainous areas of the country.

We regard this as a challenge for our community, and before a full-fledged Internet is held, we decided to come to these children with a “box of knowledge”. Such a device allows you to access all educational resources without an Internet connection. Children and schoolchildren will be able to use educational content without going online, because somewhere in the country there are still no funds to access the network.

As for usability, at the second stage of the project, we are already developing Ilim Box 2.0. This is an educational portal where all the necessary data on the field, now relevant in the Kyrgyz Republic, were collected. We did it in a more friendly format than it usually happens with educational platforms, because it is difficult to keep children’s attention when there is competition with YouTube and entertainment portals.

Therefore, educational digital resources should be interactive and accessible to young children. However, digitalization as a whole brings various challenges that we must address both at the country level and at the level of the Eurasian Economic Community. The first challenge associated with digitalization is the protection of personal data. During the first wave of the pandemic, there were several cases when private data of citizens fell into open access.

The second aspect is the legal field. In our country, the implementation of many things could be facilitated if the right laws and regulations were developed. For example, local residents of remote areas can collect resources, money, and specialists can provide people with knowledge. However, they still need to get various licenses, access to radio frequencies, which is almost impossible for a rural resident.

If the government facilitates these conditions, then digitalization in its general sense for residents of the most remote regions will be much faster, easier and cheaper. Another aspect is the sharing of infrastructure. When a new road is being laid, it may be excavated again in a few weeks or months to lay some kind of pipe. In this regard, it would be possible to develop rules for the use of infrastructure. If a road is being built, an Internet cable and other communication should be laid there at the same time – this will facilitate the work, shorten the time.

The third challenge is digital skills. The goal of digitalization is to connect the very last mile, the most final user. In addition to connectivity, it is important to help the residents of the countries get digital skills so that users can work effectively on the network.

The event was held within the framework of the international information and educational project “Eurasian Bridge”.