The 2012 Computer Supported Cooperative Work (CSCW) conference took place February 11-15 in Bellevue, Washington. While not a development focused venue per-se, CSCW does represent several foundational elements applicable to the field. Over the course of the conference, one was able to learn of ICT4D (broadly defined) taking place in Kenya, Egypt (I think social media and the Arab Spring was the unwritten sub-theme of the conference), Uganda, and Haiti just to name a few. Many international development goals, especially those surrounding technology, are measured by their ability to connect people around the world. In a sense, it is the deconstruction of barriers to global communication and connectivity that most ICT4D projects strive for.
A useful context for examining an ICT4D project is to study the interface where an individual has their hands on a technology tool being utilized. At CSCW2102, the tools which seemed to be garnering the most study were Twitter and Skype. While I think the accessibility of Twitter’s API has a lot to do with this, the Skype case studies were particularly thought provoking when examined in the context of ICT4D projects like Global Libraries. As showcased previously, library patrons in Romania and Ukraine are utilizing the Skype capabilities to connect with dispersed family members around Europe. A similar case study was explored in Susan P. Wyche, Rebecca E. Grinter’s paper: “This is How We Do it in My Country”: A Study of Computer–Mediated Family Communication Among Kenyan Migrants in the United States. Through ethnographic research on the dynamics of distance communication, photo sharing, and cost concerns, a dominant theme arose. Skype is a game changer.
Digging deeper, where do low-cost VoIP tools such as Skype fit into the ICT4D space? Drawing from Telegeography, it can be seen that Skype is having a dramatic effect on VoIP traffic.
Telegeography also reports that in 2009, 12% of all international voice traffic was on Skype. In the graph above, we can see that this growth rate remains steady near 15% annually. 27% of all the world’s voice traffic was via VoIP. However, the populations of developing countries remain some of the least connected in terms of global traffic.
It is not difficult to see where that the growth potential for services such as Skype in the global south is enormous. Community institutions, such as libraries, have an obvious role to fill in providing a venue for populations to make use of Skype in connecting with dispersed family members or the larger diaspora populations. The impact on an individual’s life that is measured so vividly in Wyche and Grinter’s ethnographic approach are the fuel for this type of ICT4D. The development impact is not the raw usage of Skype itself, but rather Skype’s ability to lower access barriers and afford enormously efficient communication between individuals. It is less about the rise of a new technology platform, but more importantly how this tool recontextualizes the most familiar form of communication: hearing another person’s voice.
Food for thought: how can this fuel ICT4D design? At an interface level, further consideration of the development context can improve Skype’s functionality. Mobile banking has redefined finance in many developing countries, yet the ability to transfer credit is glaringly lacking in Skype.