Editor’s Note: 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.
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.
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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.
Using the information provided by Project Connect, UNICEF can work with partners and local governments to develop connectivity strategies. In Kyrgyzstan, for example, data from Project Connect was used to map and then connect about 400 schools to the internet, with plans to connect 300 more through government contracts with mobile network operators.
But this is only a start, and some particularly remote communities might require the power of new technologies to gain connectivity. Low earth-orbit satellites, for instance, provide more affordable internet connectivity than traditional satellites. SpaceX is working on launching 7,000 of them. Another company, OneWeb, recently connected six schools in rural areas as a test case, and is planning a constellation of 2,000 satellites of its own. Other satellite communications providers, like O3b and SES, are looking to connect parts of the world without internet connectivity.
We are now exploring new ways to bring together global financial partners, technology experts and business and network operators to provide internet access to all schools no matter where they are. That way, every child has the best possible chance to reach his or her dreams, just like Elvis did.
With the help of internet access, by age 14, Elvis launched his first app, XmX Me, which made text messages more affordable and easier to send. At 16, he launched another app, PrepUp, to help students at his school prepare for exams. Today, 20-year-old Elvis is a software engineer with Careem, the car booking service based in Dubai.
With the confidence and optimism of someone who has beaten the odds to fulfill his potential, and with the determination to achieve even greater things, he recently joked in a blog post, “Mark Zuckerberg — I’m coming for you.”
If we can connect all the world’s children, Elvis won’t be the only one.