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The digital gap, the reflection of social inequality in the “Intelligent Bogotá” program

The capital city of Colombia, Bogotá has a program in place known as Intelligent City for the management, control, and monitoring of different urban ITC activities. These technologies often work in alternate spaces different from land-based systems i.e. underwater cable, satellites, and cyberspace, therefore people think they have no implications over the space of the city.

Even when numerous activities, places, goods, and services have migrated to these dimensions and virtuality has provided the city flexibility, some continue to rule out and underestimate the idea that these technologies may have on the city setting.

This is why the research project of Universidad Nacional de Colombia (UNal) Systems and Computer Engineer, and M.Sc. in Urbanism, Juan Pablo Neira Ceballos focused on showing, that contrary to what people think, ICTs do impact the land use planning and setting of the city; and the physical manifestations of such influence are evidenced through the analysis of ITC infrastructure, its industry and use of these tools from part of the community.

Read more: The challenges of universal access to the Internet in Latin America (in Spanish)

According to Neira, his project –based on the network urbanism theory– hoped to fill a void in urban studies regarding the city and ICTs. Therefore, he searched for the implications of these technologies in the territory, which, beyond a simple intelligent red light or facial recognition cameras, show a digital gap, which is no more than the reflection of the social inequality of the city.

Infrastructure for privileged areas

The research project includes three levels, the first is related to the ITC infrastructure, which includes internet cabling, and radioelectric stations, among others.

“For this, I analyzed the inventory of telecommunications stations which have 4,500 network stations (posts with receptors). These are located on a city map and I noticed that their location is not random, and much less uniform, as one would expect,” he added.

Cross-referencing this information with location data per income according to locations, Neira discovered that there are more stations where people have more income, such as the neighborhoods of Chapinero, which has between 426 and 520 stations, followed by Teusaquillo, Usaquén, Engativá, Fontibón, and Suba, with between 306 and 426 stations.

According to the expert, although this is a service installed where people can pay for it, there are still doubts: Is the Internet really a public service? If it were, one would expect its infrastructure to be equally distributed throughout the city.

“The location of these stations is a reflection of certain inequalities present in the city, as being in socio-economic affluent areas goes against the slogan ‘we are a click away from medical services, libraries or education’, and if there are no antennas in the neighborhood, obviously there will be connectivity issues,” said Neira.

Listen: Why were there connectivity issues during the quarantine? (in Spanish)

Large companies for large customers

Along with the infrastructure, the city also has companies that operate the service, so the researcher worked with information of close to 15,000 ICT companies ascribed to the Bogotá Chamber of Commerce.

After mapping, Neira rated the companies into five sizes: micro, small, medium, and large and looked into the effect they had over their respective neighborhoods.

After cross-referencing the results, the micro and small companies tend to be uniformly located throughout the city, in other words, they support the immediate user, with internet cafes and computer maintenance shops; the medium and large companies are especially located in the neighborhoods of Chapinero and close to the business center of the city, and close to the airport.

“One of the explanations is that the customers of these large companies are usually international multinational companies with local personnel but with customers abroad, and this is why they choose these areas with more stations, as they have better, and greater access to communication networks,” he said.

Transformed urban spaces

According to the research, in this dynamic of medium and large-sized companies, there are also spatial transformations in city neighborhoods, such as in Chicó Norte, where there are 57 stations (the largest number), and 15 ICT multinational companies devoted to developing software, advertising agencies, and design companies.

Face to face communication, above technology

Analyzing the last of the three levels and how people interact with networks on a daily basis, the researcher used a 2016 Multipurpose Survey that looked to show how people have a level of ownership of the ITCs and included close to 220,000 surveys, which were analyzed with a processing data tool.

There were five main questions in the survey: From where do you connect to the internet? What use do you give to the Internet? What device do you use to connect?  Do you use it to communicate with your community? In face of the current communication options, such as social media (WhatsApp, Twitter, Facebook, among others), people continue to prefer verbal and face-to-face communication with their communities.

“I discovered that most people connect from their house or place of employment. However, in Sumapaz –the only rural area of the city– they connect especially from educational institutions and areas of free access, showing a gap regarding access as a public service, which should be easier,” said Neira.

According to the analysis of the surveys, although generally, people access the internet from a desktop computer or a cellphone, in some places they do it from their mobile telephones and laptops, showing that people increasingly use this service from mobile and less fixed areas.

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