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The University of Southampton
Web Science Institute

Smart Rural Areas - communities, communication and safe spaces in South Africa


Information and communication technologies (ICT), the World Wide Web, and Big Data are of increasing interest to international development and humanitarian agencies working in low and middle income countries. The modelling and analysis of digital traces through virtual social networks is a standard means to study the influences and effects of information diffusion online and has the potential to be supportive of aid work and crisis response. However, little is known about the digital networks emerging through smart-phone, e-mail, and social network use in rural areas. A recent survey about smartphone use in rural South Africa revealed a high proportion of users and highly complex patterns of using smartphones and e-mail (McGrath and Hosegood 2014). Evidence is scarce about several aspects that will determine the value of ICT in sourcing and disseminating health and welfare information in isolated and relatively disadvantaged communities including: the extent to which these digital communities mirror traditional communities with respect to composition, physical proximity, social and political governance; and, the types of information passed through and between different digital communities. For example, NGOs need to know who will validate, disseminate or block dissemination of information about health care (e.g. follow-up treatment, access to clinics, general information about hygiene). Furthermore, the effectiveness of information dissemination needs to be studied not just top-down from the international or national level to the local level, but also bottom-up. The goal of this pilot project is to study current patterns of ICT use and thus to assess the situation and topology of real and virtual communities in a rural part of the Umkhanykude district in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. Since 2000 approximately 11,000 households in the area have participated in an ongoing longitudinal, population-based demographic and health survey conducted by the Africa Centre for Health and Population Studies (AC)/University of KwaZulu-Natal (Africa Centre; Tanser et al (2008).

Our project asks:

Our goal is to derive an information diffusion model that allows following information traces across the online-offline boundary. Based on our pilot we intend to develop a larger collaborative project with colleagues at South African universities, which will expand the study to further areas and exploit the novel information diffusion model for aid work and disaster response use cases.


Africa Centre for Health and Population studies website:;

McGrath, N. and Hosegood, V. (2014) An Africa Centre staff survey to explore the ownership and use of smart phones.

Tanser et al. (2008) Cohort Profile: Africa Centre Demographic Information System (ACDIS) and population-based HIV survey, International Journal of Epidemology, 37, 5, 956-62.


Principal Investigator: Dr Silke Roth, Social Sciences

Co-Investigator: Dr Markus Luczak-Roesch, Electronics and Computer Science

Co-Investigator: Professor Vicky Hosegood, Social Sciences

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