Sweden is the best country in the world at making the web work for its citizens, whilst Yemen and Zimbabwe are the least effective, according to a new global survey backed by the inventor of the world wide web, Tim Berners-Lee.
The web index, as it is known, claims to be the “most comprehensive effort yet” to measure the impact of the web around the world and how it is changing people’s lives.
It ranks countries by how much benefit their citizens derive from the web and how it has transformed areas such as politics, economics and society. It also assesses any barriers a country has to allowing its citizens to access a free and open web, finding that around 30% of countries face some sort of government restriction.
The survey also revealed that just one in three people use the web globally, a number that drops to fewer than one in six in Africa.
Sir Tim is the public face of the new index, but it was economist Hania Farhan who was tasked with building it.
BBC Future caught up with her to find out how it was done and what it all means.
Why build the web index?
Tim Berners-Lee and others at the Web Foundation noticed there were lots of stories and anecdotes about how the web had transformed people’s lives through education, social networks, politics and so on. But there was very little data as such. So they said “why don’t we try to come up with an index to measure the value of the web and its impact on people?” That was where I came in. I had been working on the Ibrahaim index of African governance [which annually ranks the quality of governance in Africa] for three years. My background is as a quantitative policy economist and I had experience of building those kinds of things.
Where did you start?
You start from the basic idea of how do you, as an individual, get value from the web. We broke it down into three basic components – infrastructure, content and impact. The first thing you need is to get on to the web. So, a country needs the communications infrastructure – broadband or a mobile device, electricity, access to computers etc. Then you also want the institutional infrastructure - you need to have a minimum level of literacy, you need freedom of access and you need to have policies that allow that freedom of access. With those two in place you are online. And then what? Then you need relevant content in a language you understand to be able to use it. So if I get on the web and it is all in Russian, I get zero value as I do not understand Russian, sadly. Then finally the third layer, which is arguably the most relevant - and the one we put the most emphasis on in the model - is the impact. That is measured in terms of political, social, economic, developmental impact etc.
We then simply went out and scoured databases - from the likes of the World Bank, the UN, the ITU, the World Economic Forum, Reporters without Borders, Freedom House, etc - to find indicators to populate these various components of the index. In the end we chose 34 indicators from the data we found.
Were there any questions you just couldn’t answer or find data for?
Some of the questions that many people kept asking were ‘how many pages are on the web?’ and ‘how many pages are there in each language?’ Those data do not exist because there is no centralised unit - a web central intelligence unit of sorts. When we looked at other questions, especially in the area of web impact, we could also see that there was a massive data gap. So, I said let’s gather our own data. We identified experts in all 61 countries and asked them about 60 questions. For example, is the web used for political mobilisation in your country? They were all then reviewed by other experts to make sure that the scores were consistent and had evidence to back them up. That gave us another 51 indicators and allowed us to plug some of the gaps in the data.