Digital Potential

Seo Yun (Stephanie) Hwang, C’23, spent her summer examining the impact of information and communication technology initiatives in developing countries.

Thursday, December 17, 2020

By Karen Brooks

Seo Yun (Stephanie) Hwang, C’23

Courtesy of Seo Yun (Stephanie) Hwang

In 2015, the United Nations set forth 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)—a set of global objectives addressing issues that range from poverty to gender inequality to climate change. If deployed effectively, U.N. member states agreed, digital technologies would boost both public- and private-sector efforts toward the achievement of each of these goals by the target year of 2030.

Political science and sociology major Seo Yun (Stephanie) Hwang, C’23, spent her summer investigating what effective deployment means as an intern with 1 World Connected—a project of Penn Law’s Center for Technology, Innovation, and Competition (CTIC) that analyzes the internet’s impact around the world, primarily in unconnected and under-resourced regions. She reviewed case studies outlining the successes and challenges of various connectivity initiatives in sectors including health, education, government, and business.

“Many organizations have benevolent intentions going into projects, but they don’t track their impact as opposed to just their reach—and there is a difference,” Hwang says. For example, she explains, an indicator of reach in an education project might be the number of books a school obtained. “But that is not enough to gauge efficacy. You have to look deeper at details like, ‘Through this project, how many students continued onto secondary school? How many are ranking high in their district in terms of grades? How did the community change in a tangible way?’”

Hwang applied for her internship through the Penn Undergraduate Research Mentoring Program, which gives rising sophomores and juniors a chance to conduct research alongside a faculty member (this year, collaborations were done remotely). The 1 World Connected opportunity’s ties to Penn Law appealed to her because she hopes to pursue a law degree in the future. Her project supported the work of advisers Christopher Yoo, John H. Chestnut Professor of Law, Communication, and Computer and Information Science, and Müge Haseki, a postdoctoral researcher at the CTIC, who Hwang says taught her the value of data—especially disaggregated data.

“Before, I looked at data as a more nebulous issue, but this project opened my eyes to its importance. To inform technology and development policymakers, practitioners, and other stakeholders about the significance of their work and to increase their incentives, we need to show quantitative ways in which they are contributing to the SDGs,” she says. “We identified the problem to be that there is simply not enough accurate data collection, and that the data collected is not sufficiently analyzed, which prevents stakeholders from being able to effectively tackle issues in world hunger, gender inequality, employment and education opportunities, and climate action, among others.”

Long interested in women’s issues—she was president of her high school’s chapter of She’s the First, an organization that promotes gender equality through education—Hwang appreciated that Haseki asked her to home in on literature about gender-related initiatives, studying drivers and barriers to the adoption of modern technology.

“We’ve seen that not only are financial barriers preventing access to internet resources in many places, but there is also a social element. Women have cultural setbacks, like gender role expectations—maybe being a stay-at-home mom while the husband goes out to be the breadwinner—that might prevent them from reaching the financial and social independence they would want. This shows how important internet access is for female empowerment,” she says.

Hwang’s findings will support 1 World Connected’s mission to establish standards for stakeholders in internet connectivity initiatives to collect accurate data and better understand their role in realizing the U.N.’s global goals.

“On a local scale, the internet has enabled economic growth and social development—but it has not yet been felt in much of the developing world,” she says. “While the internet has had a positive impact on the world in general, that has to be contextualized with the understanding that it needs to be brought to communities that still have not been able to take advantage of it. That was our job through this project.”