Reflections on the Habitat Jam: Leaning Tower of Babel?

Monday, 12 December, 2005 - 10:49

The recently held Habitat Jam was not just another high tech branding bonanza that showed up the well known gaps in the digital divide.

The recently held Habitat Jam was not just another high tech branding bonanza that showed up the well known gaps in the digital divide.

Rather it highlighted divisions in global priorities as, quite ironically; Africa featured prominently in the list of countries registering for this Internet discussion that sought to interrogate problems experienced by urban slum dwellers around the world. But overall, participation was low.

Hosted by the UN-Habitat in partnership with the Canadian government in the run up to the World Urban Forum that will take place from 19-23 June 06 in Vancouver, the Habitat Jam was a 72 hour discussion that took place from 1-3 December 05 on the World Wide Web. The aim of the online event was to generate global discussion and debate about urban slum problems in addition to themes such as access to water, safety and security, the environment, humanity, financing and governance.

The organizers hoped to get a record 100,000 people talking about critical challenges facing a rapidly urbanizing planet struggling to cope with largely unplanned for pressures on the infrastructure and resources of the world’s cities fuelled by poverty induced migration.

In the end, participation in the Jam turned out to be limited and skewed. The final tally revealed 25,706 registrations from 196 countries --- and registration was skewed sharply towards the top ten countries that made up 74% of the final figure.

Predictably, the highest participation came from Canada (6,321 registrations) and Kenya (3,796 registrations) as both these countries are home to the Habitat Jam’s hosts.

The Jam results present interesting contradictions in relation to traditional digital divide trends. Africa, widely known to have the poorest ICT infrastructure in the world, featured four times in the list of the top ten countries. As noted above, Kenya recorded the second highest number of registrations, fourth was Senegal (1,534 registrations), sixth South Africa (1,265 registrations) and ninth Tunisia (450 registrations). No doubt the hosting of the World Summit on the Information Society in Tunis had some influence on Tunisia’s high ranking in this event. However, in general, African countries appeared frequently on the overall list of registered countries.

This outcome is surprising. One expected more participation from countries with greater Internet access as social exclusion is a standard condition of life for the urban poor in the developed (and developing) world. Without a doubt, urban slums have become the hotbed of rebellion against marginalization as demonstrated by the recent French riots.

Likewise, placed third in the Jam, was America with 2,722 registrations. A disappointing turnout if one considers that more than 200 million Americans have access to the Internet and a serious concern in light of the socio-economic plight of America’s urban poor, emphasized quite strongly in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Furthermore, the conflicting interests between medium and matter in the Habitat Jam raise important issues for consideration as this online discussion tended to prejudice participation from its subjects. There is little evidence that organizers made any revolutionary attempts to include the urban poor in the event.

There was clearly better organisation for the Jam in Canada and Kenya, but the South African experience highlights chaotic planning, which may have been the case in other parts of the world as evidenced by the overall low turnout.

Local civil society coordinating agency, Planact was roped in at the last minute, literally a week before the event, to mobilize South African participation in the Habitat Jam. Planact made some attempt to set up an Internet café to increase participation from more community oriented civic agencies and disadvantaged individuals. Planact managed to pull together a total of eleven computers in four Johannesburg venues with volunteers assisting people to log on.

Nevertheless, the spontaneity associated with online interaction is not a foregone conclusion in a developing country context where lack of access translates directly to lack of experience. In order for people to engage competently and participate meaningfully in the discussion, a great deal of prior sensitization and training should have taken place well in advance.

Moreover, having a strong offline communications strategy is a critical determinant of participation in online events, particularly in places where there is no established culture of online usage. In South Africa, the Habitat Jam was conspicuous by its absence in the offline media. Apart from a full page advertisement in a national weekly newspaper, which appeared on the second day of the Jam, there was no media build up to the event. Thus, just a tiny fraction of the almost 5 million Internet users in South Africa participated in the event.

Moreover, there were clearly obstacles to participation related to the kind of Internet connectivity that participants had. For example, logging on through his home dial-up connection, Cape Town based Development Action Group senior staffer, Warren Smit found that it was fairly easy to register for the event, but that his connection consistently dropped the safe pages where the actual blogging took place, making it impossible for him to actually participate. Smit also observed that the “How to Jam” 924kb PDF file was quite slow to download on his dial-up connection.

Participants using ADSL connections appeared to be more successful. Daniela Niederman, an architect from Switzerland and volunteer at DAG connected to the Jam using the ADSL connection at DAG’s offices. She provides some interesting feedback about the content value of the experience. According to Niederman, it was time consuming to follow the discussions as one had to open, read and then close each person’s contribution. This was exacerbated by the fact that there were many blogs to wade through, for each topic. Niederman contends that although some contributions were in-depth and useful, many were not and there was a great deal of repetition. In her view, the moderation of this online discussion could have been better.

Nevertheless, it would seem that the Habitat Jam had the most value for people who actively contributed to the blogs. Clive Felix, the Director of Port Elizabeth based NGO the Urban Services Group, had a fairly positive experience. Felix logged onto the “Humanity and the Future of Cities” discussion, which received 700 contributions. According to Felix, this forum elicited various comments from many participants. Felix appreciates the fact that people responded to his blogs and has even gone as far as initiating e-mail communication with a participant from Uruguay.

Ultimately, the Habitat Jam was an important event that needed to take place as it facilitated communication within a community of practice scattered around the globe. Nevertheless, it would seem that there was some distinction between registration and participation in the Jam. The registration rate of African participants is not a true indicator of African participation. This is especially relevant in light of high broadband connectivity costs on the continent, and in South Africa in particular. Effective African participation in the online environment will only be achieved if obstacles to wide scale broadband roll out are removed, such as, in the South African case the telecommunications monopoly that is artificially keeping broadband prices high.

Finally, as the economic success of emerging economies is increasingly being linked to their information infrastructure, it becomes critically important to remove obstacles that prevent an inclusive Information Society as increasing numbers of studies suggest an association between the digital divide and socio-economic strife. 

By Fazila Farouk, Deputy Director - SANGONeT. Copyleft. 2005. SANGONeT. Permission is granted to copy, distribute and modify this document. Please provide an acknowledgment to SANGONeT.

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