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Revisiting Digital Inclusion: A Survey of Theory, Measurement and Recent Research (2022)

Posted on:
December 12, 2022


"As it becomes increasingly clear how central digital transformation is to development, the need for accurately  measuring digital inclusion and understanding its relationship to socio-economic factors, becomes more urgent.

Focusing on the internet as a foundational technology, this paper begins by summarising recent developments in digital inclusion theory, particularly as this relates to developing countries. It sets out a framework of core components of digital inclusion - including access/use, quality of access/use, affordability, and digital skills - and briefly considers policy implications.

The paper then surveys the ways these components are currently measured in household and firm surveys and by international organisations, highlighting some of the often-overlooked weaknesses of current measures, and suggesting possible improvements. The paper also reflects on potential applications of (and risks associated with) new ways of measuring digital inclusion using big data.

Lastly, building on the framework developed, the paper reviews the empirical literature on ‘digital divides’ in developing countries, and makes suggestions for how future research could become more rigorous and useful."

Factors affecting digital inclusion

  • Gender
  • Education
  • Income
  • Location

"Clearly, thinking of digital inclusion only in terms of access is insufficient, and important theoretical contributions have been made to extend this concept to consider additional barriers to meaningful usage, and outcomes as well as opportunities. For the purposes of goal-setting and policy-making to tackle digital divides, it is necessary to focus on certain core indicators of digital inclusion, and efforts should be made to improve their sophistication and reliability, and to disaggregate them. While there have been many commentators who have questioned the importance of the internet in developing countries, there is now wide acceptance of the internet being a key enabler for development, which has been aided by recent robust economics research on the topic."

Some conclusions

"Related to digital skills, current measurement efforts take an outdated approach that focuses on computer skills, which is not suitable for measuring digital skills in developing countries. Also questionable is the usefulness of basic proxies that equate attainment of education with attainment of digital skills. International organisations should develop survey questions which focus on digital skills related to mobile phones, and reassess their proxy measures...

Digital inclusion indices, which sacrifice important detail for arbitrarily defined summary measures, are of limited value. Digital inclusion is multi-faceted, and a plethora of indicators cannot be aggregated to form a clear conclusion."

Research Snapshot

What is this research about?

The report explores digital inclusion, focusing on how access to digital technologies, particularly the internet, varies across different socio-economic groups in developing countries. It aims to provide a comprehensive framework for understanding digital inclusion, assess current measurement methods, and suggest improvements. The paper emphasizes the importance of digital inclusion as a foundational element for development, driven by the rapid pace of digital transformation globally. It also reviews recent empirical studies on digital divides and proposes how future research can be more effective. It explores the evolution of digital inclusion theory, the current methodologies for measuring digital inclusion, and the empirical research on the digital divides affecting various socio-economic factors in developing countries.

What do you need to know?

Digital inclusion involves more than just access to digital technologies; it encompasses the quality of access, affordability, and digital skills necessary to effectively utilize these technologies. The paper highlights the shift from focusing solely on access to considering a broader framework that includes these additional components. It also discusses the role of government interventions and the need for improved measurement techniques to better inform policy and address within-country inequalities in digital access.

It is important to understand:

  • The key components of digital inclusion: access/use, quality of access/use, affordability, and digital skills.
  • The current state of measurement tools and methodologies for digital inclusion.
  • The socio-economic factors influencing digital inclusion, such as gender, education, income, and location.
  • The potential uses and risks of big data in measuring digital inclusion.

What did the researchers do?

The researchers conducted a comprehensive review of existing literature and theories related to digital inclusion, and summarized recent developments in digital inclusion theory focusing on developing countries. They analyzed how digital inclusion is currently measured in household and specialized surveys and by international organizations. The paper also evaluates the empirical literature on digital divides, identifying gaps in research and suggesting future directions. They created a framework defining core components of digital inclusion. Additionally, researchers discussed the potential uses of big data in measuring digital inclusion and the risks associated with such approaches.

What did the researchers find?

The findings reveal significant weaknesses in the current measures of digital inclusion, such as issues with reliability, validity, and the lack of attention to the quality of access and digital skills. The paper suggests that while efforts have been made to standardize measurements, more needs to be done to capture the specific ways the internet is used in developing countries. It also finds that empirical studies often provide an unreliable picture of how socio-economic factors like gender, education, income, and location affect digital inclusion. The paper recommends steps to improve research and measurement practices to provide a more accurate and useful framework for policymakers.

Key findings include:

  • There is a significant need to move beyond access to consider quality, affordability, and digital skills.
  • Current measures of digital inclusion are often unreliable and lack sophistication.
  • Big data offers promising new avenues for measurement but comes with privacy and data protection challenges.
  • Digital divides are influenced by multiple socio-economic factors, but many studies suffer from methodological flaws like endogeneity issues.
  • Accurate and detailed data on digital inclusion is critical for effective policy-making and evaluation.

How can you use this research?

This research provides valuable insights into the multifaceted nature of digital inclusion and the importance of comprehensive measurement strategies. You can use the findings to advocate for and implement policies that address not only the digital access but also the quality of access, affordability, and enhancement of digital skills. The recommendations for improving measurement practices can guide the development of more effective surveys and data collection methods, ultimately leading to better-informed decisions that can drive digital inclusion forward. Additionally, understanding the potential and limitations of using big data for measuring digital inclusion can help in designing projects that leverage these technologies while mitigating associated risks.

Additional ways this research can help:

  1. Informing the design of more comprehensive and accurate measures of digital inclusion.
  2. Guiding the creation of policies and interventions that address not just access but also quality, affordability, and digital skills.
  3. Providing insights into the socio-economic factors that need to be considered to close digital divides.
  4. Highlighting the potential and limitations of using big data for measuring digital inclusion.
  5. Suggesting improvements for future research to better understand and address digital inclusion challenges.


This paper sets out a framework of core components of digital inclusion - including access/use, quality of access/use, affordability, and digital skills - and briefly considers policy implications.