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Mapping schools globally to enable internet connectivity

Press Release 15 Jan 2020 - 15:36 SAST

Mapping schools globally to enable internet connectivity

Press Release 15 Jan 2020 - 15:36 SAST

By Martin Schaaper, International Telecommunication Union

A recent training programme in Jolly Harbour, Antigua and Barbuda, sought ways to identify and map the location of a learning institution and the level of internet connectivity available.

The training programme showed what it takes to put schools on a map, from a technical perspective, and the available tools and software.

The ProjectConnect training was part of GIGA, a partnership launched by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the UN specialised agency for ICT and UNICEF, the UN Children’s agency. The project aims to map the connectivity of all existing schools as a step towards ensuring that every school is connected to fast and reliable internet.

Announced during the UN General Assembly meetings in September 2019, this initiative wants to ensure that every child is equipped with the information, skills and services they need to shape the future they want in the digital era.

The latest data from ITU indicate that up to 3,6 billion people remain offline, with the majority of the unconnected living in least developed countries where just two out of ten people are online.

However, it is not just about networks and prices. Access to the internet must also be able to empower those online. As such, the connectivity must deliver content that is relevant, accessible and empowering.

Connecting those offline is one of the biggest development challenges facing many countries, especially those in the developing world. It will require multi-stakeholder collaboration, a rethink of existing telecommunication regulatory frameworks and policies, sustained efforts to lower the cost of handsets, broadband and the development of innovative infrastructure financing mechanisms to extend existing networks to the unconnected populations.

One way to start connecting those still offline is to roll out broadband networks to all schools. Schools are at the centre of most communities the world over and can be transformed into digital centres, not only for students, but also for the surrounding communities.

Before embarking on laying cables and masts and rushing to provide computer hardware to connect the schools, it is important to establish precisely where the schools are located and the challenges that need to be overcome.

At the training, attendees used mapping software such as such as OpenStreetMap, Maps.ME, and Mapillary and later went on a hands-on exercise to map schools in and around Jolly Habour. During the exercise, they collected all of the relevant school attributes, including the name of the school, administrative district, geographic location, school level (primary or secondary), type of ownership (public or private), student and staff population, availability of internet connectivity, type of internet connectivity and availability of computers for learning purposes. They also conducted a speed test in the computer labs to verify the speed and latency of the internet connectivity.

The workshop, which was organised by UNICEF in collaboration with the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States (OECS), drew participants from Antigua and Barbuda, Dominica, Montserrat, St. Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, the British Virgin Islands, Anguilla and ITU.

“This is the first regional school connectivity mapping workshop that we’ve organised with the aim of building local capacity on how to collect and maintain data around internet connectivity in schools,” said Naroa Zurutuza, project connect lead at UNICEF. “This data will allow us to identify gaps and will be the foundation to work with governments and internet providers and build a common bid for connectivity that will ensure that all schools in the Eastern Caribbean region have access to the internet.”

The GIGA initiative comprises four pillars:

  • Map connectivity of every school and use it to show where connectivity demand is, and use new technologies like artificial intelligence (AI) to create a real-time map of school locations and their connectivity level.
  • Finance a Common Bid that aggregates connectivity demand in schools (pooled across multiple countries) and creates a cost-forecasting model to make connectivity more affordable.
  • Connect every school to the Internet and create a monitoring system to oversee the level and quality of connectivity delivered by service providers.
  • Empower young people with skills by investing in, and scaling, open source solutions that – with connectivity – will be available to children, teachers, and administrators.

With 3.6 billion people unconnected, digital exclusion is a huge barrier to social and economic development. Not only for young people deprived of 21st-century skills, education and opportunities, but also for their communities and entire societies. This makes partnerships to support the work of digital inclusion on a global scale even more important.