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Poorer Countries Stand to Miss Out on the Big Data Boom

Ranking countries by their “networked readiness” reveals a major geopolitical digital divide.
April 25, 2014

The economic benefits of big data are no longer just hype—but many developing economies are set to miss out on them, according to a new report from the World Economic Forum.

Data sets are “a new form of asset class,” which, with the right analysis, can be translated into economic wealth, say the authors of the 13th Global Information Technology Report. But many countries in the world lack the technological infrastructure, social environment, or both, needed to capitalize on them. Wealthier nations continue to build new infrastructure that will widen the use of information and communications technologies (ICT). But the report says many developing and emerging economies remain “comparatively stagnant” when it comes to such investments.

The report ranks 148 economies according to the “Networked Readiness Index,” which accounts for 54 variables, including qualitative aspects like the strength of a given country’s education system and regulatory environment, as well as quantitative factors such as usage of ICT and access to data via the Internet.

As in last year’s version of this report, the top of the list is dominated by northern European countries (Finland was #1, Sweden was #3, and Norway #5) and other advanced Western economies, as well as the so-called Asian Tigers (Singapore, Hong Kong, South Korea, and Taiwan). The lowest ranks are made up of countries in Latin America, South Asia, and Africa, as is shown by a color-coded map of the index. The authors note that several “rising stars”—Armenia, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Panama, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates—have been improving their scores more quickly than the average.

While many poorer nations have seen access to mobile telephony and Internet services expand in the past few years, overall the development of ICT infrastructure in those countries has lagged. Figures for the availability of international data bandwidth in different countries help illustrate the divide between the infrastructure of the leading and trailing economies. In 2012, the year for which the most recent data are available, the top 20 countries by this measure averaged 465.7 kilobits per second per Internet user, up from 159.1 in 2010. The bottom 20 countries averaged just 1.6 kilobits per second per Internet user, up from 0.7 in 2010.

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