'Cutting digital gap key to fighting poverty'

Prof. Sheizaf Rafaeli at Sderot parley: "Technology not just toy for rich, it's doorway into being accepted by society.

poor 248.88 aj (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski  [file])
poor 248.88 aj
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
Reducing the technological divide between rich and poor may be the best way to reduce poverty and hunger, according to Prof. Sheizaf Rafaeli, head of the University of Haifa School of Management. He spoke Tuesday at the annual Sderot Conference for Society during a session on how technological advances have widened Israel's socioeconomic gaps. "We always have to ask whether [fighting digital gaps] should be our biggest worry, and should come at the expense of other, more immediate, concerns such as poverty and hunger," Rafaeli, who also heads the university's Center for the Study of Information Society, told The Jerusalem Post following his presentation. "But technology is not just a toy for the rich, it is also a doorway into being accepted by society and improving social standing. Lack of access to it will only mean the social gaps get wider," he said. Israel is a global leader in technology, Rafaeli said, but this often serves as a barrier and a major source of inequality in terms of income and education for certain segments of the population. "Despite the fact that we have more engineers in Israel per capita than most other places, and we host a range of international companies such as Intel, Microsoft and Google, there is still a digital gap in Israel that needs to be bridged," he said. The divide was exacerbated by a range of factors, including location, educational levels and gender, he added. At the panel discussion, which was hosted by Intel representative Yossi Shenkler, Science, Culture and Sport Minister Ghaleb Majadle said his aim was to ensure every child in Israel had direct access to a computer. Rafaeli said achieving this goal would eliminate the digital divides among Israel's various population sectors, some of which do not have access to electricity, while others are illiterate even in their native tongue. "There is already a wide availability of hardware," he said. "However, we need to be developing our software to include more in the country's main languages - Hebrew, Arabic, Russian and English." One of Israel's main technological challenges is increasing Web content and the flow of information, including the spread of government information, in the various languages of our immigrant nation, Rafaeli said. He cited the example of on-line encyclopedia Wikipedia, which has more than 20 times as many reference articles in English as in Hebrew. There is even less information available in Arabic than in Hebrew, he said. "We also need to ask what the role of the state should be in reducing these gaps," Rafaeli said. He said he welcomed the involvement of hi-tech giants in providing educational support and resources. Shenkler, who is the general manager of Intel's design center in Haifa and its director of micro-processing product development, told the Post Intel was not just about profits, but that the company also had social obligations to fulfill. "This is not a conflict of interest," he said. "For the past 20 years, Intel has been promoting technology for the betterment of mankind. We would like to see more companies doing what we do within the framework of the government system." Shenkler pointed to the many community-based education programs run by the company, such as the Intel Club House that provides after-school training to underprivileged immigrant children in Haifa's Neveh Yosef neighborhood. In the four years since the company set in motion such learning programs here, more than 150,000 students have completed its courses, he said. "I don't believe that we should be looking at this negatively," Shenkler said. "We have here an enormous opportunity to allow everyone a chance to reach a higher economic standard, and ultimately a much better life."