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Mapping schools worldwide to bring Internet connectivity: the ‘GIGA’ initiative gets going featured image

Mapping schools worldwide to bring Internet connectivity: the ‘GIGA’ initiative gets going

Recently, I participated in a training programme to learn ways to identify and map the location of a learning institution and the level of internet connectivity available.

Held in Jolly Harbour, Antigua and Barbuda, the training provided a great learning experience to understand 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 unique partnership launched by ITU, the UN specialized agency for information and communication technology and UNICEF, the UN Children’s agency. The project aims at mapping the connectivity of all existing schools as a step towards ensuring that every school is connected to fast and reliable internet.

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Announced during the UN General Assembly meetings in September 2019, it is the vision of this initiative 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.

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. The 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 undoubtedly 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.

However, it is not just about networks and prices. The 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.

I believe that one innovative 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.

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However, 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, we 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, we 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. We also conducted a speed test in the computer labs to verify the speed and latency of the Internet connectivity

The workshop, which was organized by UNICEF in collaboration with the Organization 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 organized with the aim of building local capacity on how to collect and maintain data around internet connectivity in schools,” says 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.”

Joshua Vernor, Information Systems Manager for the Ministry of Education, Innovation, Gender Relations & Sustainable Development of Saint Lucia, noted that the workshop was an eye opener, especially in terms of the digital technologies and software already available to map schools.

Mapping the exact location of each learning institution in Antigua and Barbuda need not be a tedious exercise. The island nation with a population of just over 100,000 has about 71 schools.

The country is already making great strides in providing high-speed connectivity especially to secondary schools. In contrast, a number of primary schools lacked connectivity and where it existed connectivity speed was very poor.

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“This initiative will enhance access to information as well as promote the use of technology in the provision of education and management of our learning institutions,” said Sisera Simon, Head of the OECS Commission’s Education Development Management Unit.

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 (ISPs).
  • 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.

It is important that we put together innovative partnerships to support the work of digital inclusion on a global scale. Photo: Courtesy of Ericcson, a GIGA partner.

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