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Technology in Focus

Technology in Focus | Jamaicans in a fast-paced online world

Published:Wednesday | July 10, 2019 | 12:00 AM

Those old enough will remember the sound of a dial-up Internet modem, the anticipation felt as it played like the introduction to your favourite song, albeit where the selector made you wait too long for the drop.

After the static-like sound finally came to an end, you would now be free to enter a website. After pressing the Return key, there would be another waiting period before – finally – a web page popped up.

Younger Jamaicans have grown up with much-improved connectivity speeds with smart phones, mobile data packages, broadband and Wi-Fi will take connection issues for granted. Similarly, those who can afford higher-end devices and connections may assume that theirs is an everyday reality.

So how are Jamaicans using the Internet and what doors can it open for locals According to the Hootsuite/We Are Social Report 2019, some 54 per cent of the Jamaicans use the Internet. Fifty percent use mobile Internet, connecting devices on the go, spurred by the social media explosion which made capturing, sharing, viewing and streaming content much easier.

“It’s night and day,” online learning platform CEO Gordon Swaby said as he compared the devices and connectivity he enjoys with students at the more than 100 schools his company serves.

Swaby would like to see people islandwide have access to training facilities where they can get hands-on experience with computers and digital equipment to learn new skills.

“When a Jamaican is technologically proficient, it touches every aspect of their lives and the lives of the people they interact with,” he reasoned.

“Many people have access, but they do not know what else is out there. For example, there is nothing wrong with using a platform like YouTube to stream music, but there are other uses, such as learning from instructional videos that will help you actually make money,” Swaby added.



Cash still king

According to the World Bank Global Financial Inclusion Data, only 14 per cent of Jamaicans who have a credit card, and, therefore, unsurprisingly, only 10 per cent use e-commerce and pay bills online. However, online transactions seems to be growing as anyone who has queued to receive packages at peak periods from online shopping services can agree.

The Bank of Jamaica (BOJ) reports 20.2 million credit card transactions processed via local deposit-taking institutions in 2018, totalling a value of J$469 billion. That amounts to an increase in credit card usage and transaction amounts by 15.6 per cent and 36.9 per cent, respectively, compared to 2017.

Business operators – even those whose customers might be expected to be more comfortable with e-commerce – must deal with the realities of what consumers are prepared – or not prepared – to do.

@vanitytrunk is a Jamaican fashion business selling via social media, whose owner, Nardia McLaren, estimates cash versus online purchases to be roughly 50-50.

“Some consumers are scared to conduct business online,” McLaren reveals. “A lot of my customers are sceptical, afraid and not knowledgeable about online banking. Some do not have online banking and do not want to have it. Some complain of the tedious process of signing up to some online systems and just can’t bother. This attitude is reflected across every age range. I guess cash is still king.”



Improving access

A popular meme in the format of the famous Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs placed ‘battery’ and ‘Wi-Fi’ ahead of ‘food, water, shelter and warmth’.

The church has been among those recognising the importance of the increasing dependence on the Internet, especially among young smart phone users.

The Reverend Al Miller of the Fellowship Tabernacle in St Andrew recently called for the Universal Service Fund (USF) – which has been on a mission to increase the number of free public Wi-Fi hotspots across the island – to provides free Internet access to churches.

His rationale is that churches can then attract youth on to their premises and use the access to educate themselves. Not unlike the suggestion by Swaby, perhaps.

Jamaicans want to be educated and empowered to use the internet – and safely so. According to a survey by the Broadcasting Commission, 82 per cent of Jamaicans want the agency to educate locals about online safety. The commission now wants the Government to extend its powers to regulating social networks in addition to its role monitoring traditional broadcast media.



Data protection concerns

After well-published breaches of privacy at large tech companies – such as Facebook, which also owns Instagram and WhatsApp – many Jamaicans are interested in the Data Protection Bill currently being examined by a parliamentary joint select committee. It has been reconvened to consider issues such as the competing consideration of balancing individual rights of privacy with the abilities of Jamaican organisations to collect their data.

Matthew McNaughton, principal of local non-governmental organisation the SlashRoots Foundation, believes that the bill is more significant than the better-known National Identification and Registration Act under which the National Identification System (NIDS) was being rolled out.

“We strongly believe in every Jamaican’s right to privacy and commend the Government for trying to ensure that legislation [is in place] to guide what this right should look like [as the island] keeps pace with today’s technology,” says McNaughton. “The hard part is finding a middle ground that does not stifle innovation or place unreasonable regulation on individuals and businesses across Jamaica (or ‘data controllers’ as they are called in the bill).”

Despite such concerns and challenges to keep up with the pace of change, the future can be bright online, concludes Ingrid Riley, who is known on the local tech scene for hosting events and for her Silicon Caribe blog launched in 2005.

“Fact is, each Caribbean country has its own unique culture, digital and creative talent, unique ways of innovating and things that they do better than any other country in the world. They need to own all of that and have the courage to disrupt,” says Riley. “I am a big believer that our emerging #DigitalCaribbean must be created by us to the world, not fed to us by the world.”


10 news ways in which Jamaicans started to use the Internet in the last decade

1. Home sharing: rent an unused room or property to visitors, using platforms such as Airbnb

2. Social media influencer: trade your personal brand into celebrity and income.

3. Social good: mobilise friends and followers for a charitable cause.

4. Freelance income: platforms to register your skills and apply for projects.

5. Content creator: self-publish your creative work: music, videos, books, arts etc.

6. Fundraising: get support from a community of investors for your start-up idea.

7. Learning: build skills and careers using free, ‘freemium’ or paid platforms.

8. Social business: using social networks as both store front and marketing.

9. Online safety: access resources from local and international organisations.

10. Take screenshots of jokes made on Twitter and post them to Instagram.