The future of the World Economic Forum's influential Global Information Technology Report is the subject of the first session at the Techonomy conference today. A nine-year old in-depth report about how well various countries around the world are prepared in terms of Information and Communication Technologies (ICT), the organization says the document is used by governments to set policy priorities, by corporations to make investment decisions and by technologists to identify countries that have come up with unusually innovative technology solutions. The data is a platform for all kinds of activity around the world.
It's a different world today than it was when the report was launched, though. Report co-author Soumitra Dutta said that the rise of digital and social media, calls to consider social impacts like happiness and social cohesiveness (beyond mere GNP) and other factors like ecological sustainability require a reformation of the metrics in the report. That could get a little more complicated, and controversial, than simply counting how many bits can be shot through the tubes in Tunisia or Tehran.
What's Currently Counted
Today, the report combines publicly available hard data on economic conditions with results of a survey about 68 soft factors from more than 120 thousand CEOs in 133 countries around the world. Hard data includes things like like telecom taxes and hardware capacity, soft data is factors like quality of education and the sophistication of technology buyers and suppliers. The resulting 400 page document is relied on extensively by companies and governments around the world, but it needs a refresh due to substantial technology changes, Mr. Dutta said.
These are the kinds of concerns that other large organizations have been discussing for a number of years. For example, the European Union included extensive discussion of ICT's intended impact on happiness and social cohesion in its 2005 document i2010: The Next Five Years in Information Society.
The Complicated Things That Could be Counted
In addition to happiness, social cohesion and ecological sustainability, participants in today's session urged the World Economic Forum to consider cyber-security and possibly the free speech landscape in the countries being evaluated.
It certainly seems that as communication and media technology becomes democratized and of greater significance to organizations like the World Economic Forum, values questions are going to be a big issue. By the old metrics, for example, Tunisia stands out as a shining star among developing countries in its region. Were free speech and government interference to be included in a World Economic Forum analysis of the country, however, the Tunisian government's extensive (alleged) authoritarian control over its own citizens online might change the country's ranking.
What does that mean for investors, governments and others? As participants in today's session pointed out, not everyone in the world will interpret such information in the same way. The World Economic Forum probably has an easier time when it's counting hard data and keeping the subjective to things like business sophistication. Looking beyond numbers at the human impacts of digital media as part of a country's ICT preparedness could get a little sticky.
The Techonomy conference has brought together some impressive minds to work on possible solutions to this kind of problem - but in this case it isn't going to be easy.