Third graders work in the computer lab on February 14, 2017 at a primary school in Guatemala City, Guatemala. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

Without internet, 364 million children are falling behind

Updated 1925 GMT (0325 HKT) April 4, 2019

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Henrietta Fore is executive director of UNICEF, the United Nations children's agency. She has worked to champion economic development, education, health, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief in a public service, private sector and non-profit leadership career that spans more than four decades. The opinions expressed in this commentary are her own.

Perspectives Henrietta Fore

In 2011, 12-year-old Elvis Chidera would save 100 Nigerian Naira every month, or the equivalent of about 28 cents in the United States, to buy internet bundles for his smartphone because he wanted to teach himself coding languages HTML, CSS and JavaScript. He was only allowed to use the internet at school a few times a month.
Elvis was lucky. About 364 million young people between the ages of 15 and 24 across the globe do not have any access to the internet at school. They are disconnected — cut off from the world of information that the rest of us take for granted. While their peers in wealthier, more connected locales are learning programming and studying how to create applications using artificial intelligence, these children are being left behind.
And what will these disconnected children do when they reach adulthood, facing a workplace in which digital skills are woven into most jobs and livelihoods?
Every month, 10 million young people reach working age. If the digital divide continues, these young people will not learn skills for future work. A booming global population will be matched by an equally booming youth unemployment crisis.
We need to make sure every child has a chance at the best possible education. That includes having access to the internet at school. It's a critical step in bridging a growing digital divide and providing 21st Century skills for a 21st Century labor force.
UNICEF wants to make this more than just a Utopian dream. With Project Connect, UNICEF has embarked on an initiative to map all the schools in the world using data science, satellite imagery and machine learning. Using real-time data, governments and network providers can identify the geolocation of schools that don't have access to the internet. These maps can then be used with partners to connect schools.
So far, Project Connect has mapped more than 800,000 schools in 10 countries. During this process we found that, in Colombia and Brazil alone, 4 million children attend the 22,780 schools and 12,696 schools, respectively, without internet connectivity. Likewise, in Sierra Leone, we have mapped that about 112,000 students go to schools in locations without mobile phone coverage or internet connectivity.