The digital birth of an African city. The case of Douala (Cameroon)

Pucciarelli, Marta (2019) The digital birth of an African city. The case of Douala (Cameroon). PhD thesis, Università della Svizzera italiana (USI).

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This dissertation focuses on the online communication and representation of a digital city in Africa: Douala, the largest city of the Republic of Cameroon. In particular, it explores the evolution of the web-based reproduction (Couclelis, 2004) of Douala, the largest city of the Republic of Cameroon, from a chronological, spatial and representational perspective, with the purpose of understanding how its representation is produced and its relations with the physical city. This is paramount for scholars, practitioners and the civil society as the gaps between available online information and the physical world shape our knowledge and expertise of the world, and invisible places in the virtual representation may remain unknown to many people (Graham, 2013). The study of the digital Douala is led by three research questions, which contribute to fill the empirical, methodological and theoretical gaps concerning digital cities in Africa. Each question constitutes a different phase of the research and it uses a mixed method approach for data collection and analysis. The first phase is led by the question: What does access to information and knowledge mean in Douala? It is a contextual study framing the challenges and tendencies in the production and distribution of oral, printed and digital information within the city of Douala and about the city itself. Data has been collected online and during a first exploratory fieldwork in Douala through ethnographic observation, interviews, and questionnaires. Warschauer’s model of ICT access (2002) has been used to present the results, and content and descriptive analyses of data have been performed. Outcomes reveal that in Douala access to information and knowledge is marked by a predominantly oral tradition and that the production and distribution of written (printed and digital) information are challenged by a frail technological infrastructure, poor content, and few human and social resources. However, the growing diffusion of mobile devices, the existence of national strategies and private investments focused on ICTs and Internet adoption, show a clear leap from oral to digital communication that does not linger on the printed media step. In light of these considerations, the second phase of the research is led by the question: How is the digital Douala produced? This phase focuses on the coming online of the digital city of Douala, by presenting those socio-economic activities who are contributing to shape the online landscape, where they are based, the visible and invisible areas of the city emerging in the online space, and their evolution over time, since the diffusion of the internet and in three selected periods (2007, 2010 and 2013). Data was collected through document analysis and online research, while descriptive and map analyses have been used to present the results quantitatively. Outcomes show a conceptual difference when adopting a synchronic versus a diachronic view in the data analysis. The synchronic view mirrors a clear parallelism between digital and social inclusion/exclusion (Graham 2014, Unwin 2015). This perspective depicts the online Douala as an economic and commercial hub, one third of whose activities are performed by international companies, and which is mostly visible in its coastal and better served areas. The diachronic view adds a time layer, as well as the relative presence of socio-economic activities within their own business categories and neighborhoods (online saturation). It demonstrates that the areas where little business activity is formally registered have a greater effort and motivation to communicate their online presence. This ensures indirect visibility to the neighborhood they belong to, and it is highlighted by three salient aspects: 1) the online visibility of the most diffused categories of socio-economic activities within the city of Douala does not result in higher online saturation; 2) the categories that show a significant online growth in the years 2007, 2010 and 2013 are the ones with less physical presence in the city, and whose headquarters are just in Douala, with few or no branches spread in the city; 3) the higher the number of formal activities in a given area, the lower is the online saturation rate of the area. The third phase is led by the question: How is the digital representation of Douala (mis)aligned with the physical one? This phase provides a reflection on “hybrid cities” in Africa (Graham, 2008), i.e. the influence of the digital city over the physical one, through the analysis of local residents' city representations (mostly created through an offline experience with the city) compared with the representations by foreigners (mostly created through an online experience with the city). Data was collected in two different moments: during a second ethnographic study in Douala through interviews, one focus group, 22 neighborhoods visited and ethnographic notes; and through the analysis of 130 User Generated Content on TripAdvisor performed in October 2016. Social Representation Theory (Moscovici, 1988) has been used to collect data in Douala and to perform the content and comparative analyses. The thematic and geographic comparisons of locals and foreigners’ social representations show that the hybrid Douala is still at an early stage of existence, and it addresses (and influences) mostly an international public that travels to Douala, rather than locals. At the same time, it is worth noting that the cultural industry in Douala generates a new space of interactions between online and offline representations of the city, showing overlaps in the international and local public’s narratives and practices around cultural places. To conclude, this study contributes to researches at the intersection of ICT4D, Internet studies and Urban studies by presenting an overview of the digital Douala, an African digital city, since its birth, not limited to its snapshot in a given period, but observing its movement, its growth and its continuous evolution, as well as its own way to influence the digitalization of local practices as well as visitors’ experience of the city.

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