To be global, digital and inclusive, we need comparable measures of ICT use around the world. To contribute to this, this research note analyzes what questions the Chinese and the U.S. governments ask in their large, long–running surveys on the topic of computer and Internet use. The process and content of these surveys point up agreements, differences, and silences. Based on this, we propose nine basic questions that can be standardized and used in all country surveys of ICT use to create a coherent global dataset.
Our current experience of globalization is founded on the broad and transnational use of digital technologies. But scholarship regarding this use is often limited to the national scale at best. As a result, we risk drawing parochial conclusions that trail behind actual social life. This paper demonstrates how to use today’s “invisible college” (de Solla Price, 1963; 1986; Lievrouw, 1990) together with the power of the Internet to surmount this problem. It aims for a global science which can then inform global — and in turn national — policy, especially with regard to standardization. Bollen, et al. (1993) present a useful summation of the measurement issues involved in standardizing global data. James (2009) proposes a simple solution to the problem by using just two indicators that are widely available for a number of countries: number of Internet users and number of cellphone subscribers. What greater detail can we get?
In order to govern, allocate resources, and plan, all governments who can do so investigate their population’s use of computers and the Internet. The U.S. and China are two interesting cases: each a global power, one the purported birthplace of all things digital and the other the world’s largest production house and consumer market. (Important contextual discussion of how the Chinese society in the age of the Internet can be found in Qiu, 2009 and Yang, 2003.) This paper presents findings from an initial comparison of two national survey efforts, the U.S. Current Population Survey computer and Internet use supplements (10 surveys over 1984–2007) and the China Internet Network Information Center’s Internet development reports (22 surveys over 1997–2008).
Examining and comparing the two surveys’ process and content points up agreements, differences, and gaps. The questions asked in China and the U.S. suggest nine questions that could augment existing efforts towards global standardization in measuring country–level access to and use of information and communications technologies (ICT). We also invite other researchers to contact us and use our English–language collection of the questions asked in the two surveys.
The term “invisible college” refers to the communiqués and the travels that have connected the world’s intellectuals for at least several hundred years. It is invisible compared to the visible research institutions dotted around the planet and the journals and books published online and off–line. As an example, this study was enabled by an e–mail inquiry from one author to the other. This led to a visiting position at the University of Illinois with funding from the China Scholarship Council. Comparisons and exchanges between China and the U.S. were one of our research interests. For this study we collected the surveys, translated from Chinese into English as needed, and reformatted the digital content into a large spreadsheet for analysis.
The U.S. surveys are available online . China’s Internet Development Reports are also comprehensive and freely available online , although the questionnaires themselves are not. We used the reports to backwards–engineer the questions and translate them into English. We excluded all questions concerning demographics and other non–ICT topics. We thus built a database, essentially two tables in a spreadsheet, from the inferred Chinese questions and the U.S. questionnaires.
Table 1: National surveys by month administered, showing number of questions.
As Table 1 indicates, the U.S. survey began in 1984; the Chinese survey in 1997. They vary in length, with on average 17 ICT use questions (U.S.) and 30 (China). Over time, both the U.S. and the Chinese surveys get longer and more detailed, as indicated by the number of questions, and then shorter. For the U.S., the length increases sharply in 1997 and 1998, and shrinks precipitously in 2007. U.S. markers over this period include the 1994 Clinton–Gore information superhighway/digital divide policy push, the 2000–2001 dot–com bust, and the 2001 start of the Bush presidency.
In China, the survey appears to lengthen from 1997 to 2004, and then becomes shorter over the years 2005–2008. We say appears because as “backward–engineers” of the surveys themselves, we are estimating the survey length from the questions for which data is publicly reported. As we finished this paper, CNNIC fielded their July 2009 survey, which included 99 questions about ICT. It is likely that both the U.S. and China package and sell their data to commercial interests.
An additional comparison can be made in the frequency of the surveys. The U.S. survey has been conducted 10 times over 23 years. The Chinese survey is done every six months. The U.S. survey has been carried out alongside the much smaller but far more frequent Pew Internet and American Life surveys, which were first fielded in March 2000 and have continued several times a year .
Table 2: U.S. survey response, from Current Population Survey.
As Table 2 shows, the U.S. survey is carried out by telephone interviews with more than 48,000 households. Generally everyone in the household is interviewed, sometimes by proxy. To have adequate data about households without landline telephones, households with a demographic profile that matches households without telephones are oversampled. (According to the 2007 American Community Survey, 94.6 percent of U.S. households have landline telephones; in the 2000 Census that figure was 97.6 percent.) Thus the U.S. surveys are designed to be representative of the entire U.S. population. The U.S. survey began with a large N of 221,000 individuals, then dropped to an average of 135,000 +/-12,000 individuals during the period 1993 to 2007.
Table 3: China survey response, from CNNIC.
A+C1 indicates residents with household telephones including a “handy phone,” a reduced price cell phone; B indicates college students boarding at school; and, C2 indicates residents without home phone but with cellphones.
As Table 3 shows, the Chinese survey began with 1,800 respondents and has fluctuated from a high of 578,000 at the peak of the dot–com boom to a recent low of 16,000. It has used online, print, telephone, and face–to–face surveys. As of December 2008, 340,804 million people, nearly 30 percent of individuals in China, had household phones including the “handy phone,” a reduced price cell phone, and 641.23 million, over 50 percent of individuals, have cell phones . The CNNIC assumes that individuals without any phone are not online. With this assumption and with the large online response, it is possible that the survey is missing more than 12 percent of Chinese people and is not representative of the whole population.
Table 4: New questions in each survey.
As Table 4 indicates, each time a survey is offered, some questions are reused, others are revised or dropped, and new questions are inserted. Both countries innovate and adjust to new technologies. The surveys of December 1998 in the U.S. and July 1999 in China almost at the same moment reflect both innovation (many new questions) and breadth (many questions altogether).
Table 5: The Chinese and the U.S. survey questions reflect nine aspects of computer and Internet use.
As Table 5 shows, nine categories emerged from a coding of all the survey questions. The U.S. survey emphasizes ICT uses, details of connecting to the Internet, places people use ICT, and ownership of digital tools. The Chinese survey emphasizes ICT uses and people’s attitudes towards all aspects of ICTs. Perhaps reflecting a socialist ideology, there are no questions about ownership. On the other hand, while China quite steadily maintains a question about “netizens” — with small shifts in the definition of this term — the U.S. survey does not conceptualize or name people who use the Internet. Following from this, the U.S. does not ask people what they know about computers and the Internet, while China asks people if they know certain technological terms from the current discourse.
Table 6: Compared to two other existing frameworks for global standardization of data collection, the U.S. and Chinese surveys cover more of the nine aspects.
Note: ITU = International Telecommunications Union; OECD = Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
As Table 6 indicates, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) survey poses questions on ICT uses, connecting, places, ownership, devices, and identity (ITU, 2007), while the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) survey poses questions on ICT uses, connecting, places, devices, and frequency (OECD, 2009a, 2009b; OECD Working Party on Indicators for the Information Society, 2009). Neither of them asks about attitude or discourse. But both organizations are engaged in an ongoing search for standardized data .
Table 7: Nine questions comprise a model survey that could be asked worldwide.
The questions in Table 7 could be asked worldwide with control variation appropriate to the country, but yielding comparative data. The identity question expresses both practice and self–conceptualization. The discourse question addresses not skills but knowledge, part of mastery of the new tools and the new society. The questions taken together incorporate the U.S. focus that is rooted in the digital divide origins of the U.S. survey: who is connected, where, what are they doing. And they incorporate the Chinese focus on their population’s experience and attitude towards the digital age, conceptualized neatly and powerfully as the netizen .
Our technologies are clearly global, but why do we need globally comparable data? Because without it, international and national policy lags behind. Governmental and other agencies need data to implement useful programs and services. Commercial interests need data to understand their markets. And civil society needs data to inform its debates and actions on issues which are quite typically both local and global. On all these fronts, ICT and the continuing invisible college enable global, data–driven practice.
About the authors
Kate Williams is an assistant professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign Graduate School of Library and Information Science where she co–directs the Community Informatics Research Lab. Her work is available at http://people.lis.uiuc.edu/~katewill.
E–mail: katewill [at] illinois [dot] edu
Hui Yan is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Information Management at Peking University and a 2008–2009 visiting doctoral student in the Community Informatics Research Lab at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign. His work is available at http://irm.im.pku.edu.cn/research/yanh(english).html and http://sites.google.com/site/huiyanuiuc/.
E–mail: hyan [at] pku [dot] edu [dot] cn
The authors would like to thank Maosheng Lai; Salvador Rivas; the members of the Community Informatics Research Lab; and, various faculty, staff and students at the University of Illinois GSLIS Research Showcase for their valuable feedback.
1. As of June 2009, The U.S. Computer and Internet Use supplements to the Current Population Survey from 1990 to present are available at http://www.census.gov/apsd/techdoc/cps/cps-main.html. Earlier surveys are documented at http://www.census.gov/population/www/socdemo/computer.html.
3. For more information, see the Pew Internet and American Life Project history, available at http://www.pewinternet.org/Static-Pages/About-Us/Project-History.aspx.
4. Ministry of Industry and Information Technology of People’s Republic of China, available at http://www.miit.gov.cn/n11293472/n11295057/n11298508/11912660.html.
6. For comparable terms used in the U.S. literature, see Howard, et al., 2000 on netizens and Mossberger, et al., 2007 on digital citizenship, both cited in Buente, 2009.
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Paper received 15 June 2009; accepted 10 September 2009.
This work is in the Public Domain.
Toward global measurement of the information society: A U.S.–China comparison of national government surveys
by Kate Williams and Hui Yan
First Monday, Volume 14, Number 10 - 5 October 2009
A Great Cities Initiative of the University of Illinois at Chicago University Library.
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