A Conversation with John Garrity on Meaningful Connectivity and Supporting Youth in the Digital Age

November 13, 2022

Over the last two decades, the Network Readiness Index has established itself as one of the most comprehensive assessments of digital readiness, measuring key indicators like access, trust, and inclusion. While previous editions of the report have focused on the geographical and economic disparities that can result from digital changes, this year’s report will explore the intergenerational effects of digital transformation, among those being connectivity gaps in underserved areas, which significantly limit the capacity of youth to fully benefit from ICT advances and participate across digital fronts. 

We caught up with John Garrity, Chief of Party for the USAID-BEACON activity (Better Access and Connectivity) and Technical Advisor for the Network Readiness Index, to discuss meaningful connectivity, supporting youth in a digital age, and best practices for ensuring people-centric digital transformation.

Given the increasing adoption of digital solutions, it is becoming more important now than ever to identify and close connectivity gaps. Having worked with digitally unconnected and underserved areas in the past, what remain as some of the challenges and roadblocks in these regions for achieving meaningful connectivity?

JG: Network infrastructure availability (and complementary infrastructure such power and road access), internet service and device access affordability, requisite digital literacy skills, and cyber safety skills remain challenges and roadblocks.  

In line with this year’s theme, gender and social inclusion are a particularly pernicious roadblock to achieving meaningful connectivity. Greater consciousness and coordinated effort can be made to mitigate the barriers to internet use by marginalized segments of the population. Senior citizens and persons with disabilities, in particular, may be further marginalized through the adoption of digital-only solutions and public services. For example, in the transition to digital banking, seniors and persons with disabilities may require additional support services because of a lack of digital familiarity and access. 

Discussions around digital transformation often focus more on the geographical and economic disparities resulting from digital changes, and less on the intergenerational effects, which is an area that this year’s NRI aims to address. Today, youth in countries with robust digital ecosystems are more able to participate across digital fronts (distance learning, remote work, social networking, etc.). In your view, what can be done to better support youth in a digital age, and allow them to fully benefit from ICT advances? 

JG: In terms of support to youth, efforts can be made to go beyond awareness raising and information dissemination campaigns and rather reform default approaches into becoming more transformative through promoting community-based ownership and access to ICT especially for the youth users of online spaces and digital platforms. 

For example, youth voices should be involved to adequately plan and design for ICT development programs and projects, via advocacy groups, government agencies and stakeholders in order to more comprehensively account for actual local context and comprehensive viewpoints. 

Further, because of digital divides between age groups, one approach to address age-based digital divides may be to invest in youth to encourage knowledge transfer to parents and other older-generation associates. 

Developing a digital strategy at the national level requires a holistic approach that looks not just at technology-related factors, but also those of people, governance, and impact. How can the metrics provided by the NRI aid in developing policies and frameworks that target the different elements of digital transformation?

JG: The NRI is utilized by many governments to track overall digital transformation in their countries. The comprehensive nature of the NRI helps to identify areas of potential focus for national digital strategies. Sub-pillars are very useful for tracking specific targets, for example, utilizing the sub-pillar on Access to focus and track progress on infrastructure deployment and the sub-pillar on regulation to focus efforts on improving the policy environment. 

The past few years have emphasized the importance of putting individuals and their needs first in digital transformation policymaking. Can you share some best practices for ensuring that digital transformation remains people-centric?

JG: Absolutely. Here in the Philippines we have seen a number of examples that exhibit best practices. These include: 

  • Convergence strategies that incorporate public and private partnerships, such as demonstrated by the Philippine Commission of Women and the Great Women Project which intensifies their digital marketing module to expand their current gains of women micro entrepreneurs to transition into the online market.  
  • Putting communities in the driver’s seat such as the Department of ICT’s 25 Digital Cities by 2025 project whereby the local government units (LGUs) best succeed with pro-active and diverse ICT councils working with various stakeholders and interest groups in planning and implementation of the digital transformation project. 
  • Developing comprehensive support groups such as Connected Women’s (CW) virtual support group using community platforms such as Facebook, to help connect its 35,000 members where members can post questions for each other. 
  • Blending learning opportunities such as ELEVATE AIDA of Connected Women, a blended learning course focused on easing the transition to online remote work and to meet the growing demand for executive virtual assistants. CW also offered livelihood opportunities for Filipino women in both urban and remote areas through socially responsible AI & digital task outsourcing. The profile of elevate AIDA include women that are differently abled women, retired employee, household help, returning OFW, housewife, single mother, etc. 

For more conversations on digital transformation, join us for the global launch of the Network Readiness Index 2022 on November 15, 2022 at 10:00 AM EST. Registration for the free event is now open

John Garrity is an economist, policy advisor and project manager with twenty years of experience working on economic development issues in the public sector at the state, federal and international levels, and in the private sector. His focus is on digital inclusion programs, universal access policy and last-mile connectivity deployments to foster effective universal Internet adoption for inclusive growth and poverty alleviation. 

He is currently the Chief of Party for the USAID-BEACON activity (Better Access and Connectivity), a USD 33m USAID program to improve digital connectivity infrastructure, the ICT enabling environment, and cybersecurity capacity in the Philippines. He also serves as a technical advisor to the Network Readiness Index.