I had the opportunity to attend the ICTD2010 conference in London last week, and wanted to share a few thoughts and conclusions. Overall, this was a different kind of experience for me, because the conference was primarily oriented towards academic research instead of practice. It’s unfortunately pretty rare for practitioners and researchers to overlap, so this was a good opportunity to see what sorts of conclusions are being made about how technology can impact development. At the same time, there was the opportunity to talk shop with others working in the field, and we tossed around some great ideas for cooperation with those who have developed useful tools.
Three major takeaways from the conference for me:
1. Mobile, mobile, mobile
Mobile tech dominated the conference in every way. Many of the innovative tools presented were based on mobile technology. The majority of sociological papers examined the effects of mobile ownership and connectivity on different population segments. One of the more interesting papers included an examination of the economic effects of owning a mobile phone, and tried to extract the benefit as separate from other factors. In a much retweeted line, the paper concluded that, while mobile ownership did convey a minor economic benefit, “It will take a century for a poor family to call, text, tweet, or friend its way out of poverty.” Others looked at how messages could be conveyed by community health workers through recorded instructional videos displayed on mobiles, or how mobile phone usage broke down on demographic lines.
For several years now, the rapid spread of mobile penetration has been hailed as a potential instrument of development for the massive bottom of the pyramid, and this belief was in full view at the conference. Pilot mobile applications were on display that helped rural shopkeepers in South Africa more efficiently manage their inventories and orders, tracked minibus arrival times for commuters in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, and collected health data from roving health workers.
However, Matej and I wondered whether this emphasis was excessive and risks overlooking or diminishing the life-changing benefits of internet access. Surely, the affordability and accessibility of mobile devices promises new access to information for millions, and the value that potential services that can be delivered or data collected through mobiles cannot be overlooked. But the relatively limited functionality of mobiles precludes the creativity and flexibility one gains access to in front of a PC connected to the internet. Certain applications can improve certain aspects of life when specifically designed to target that area, and that’s worthwhile, but an exclusive focus on this prospect means efforts to spread more wide-ranging access and the transformative results that brings are getting pushed to the margins.
To us, this means libraries and their potential are almost entirely out of the debate, and that is a gap that needs to be corrected in the ICT4D field. Libraries as a host of public internet access bring new educational, communication, and economic benefits to communities, and libraries are intrinsic hosts to guides to the world of information – librarians. With some training, encouragement and innovation, libraries and librarians throughout the developing world can be community points for development, a point proven through the Global Libraries programs. Happily, there were a few of us there pushing this point, including Laura Hudson of FrontlineSMS and Stuart Hamilton of IFLA, but there is room for much more.
2. Sustainability remains an issue
There was much discussion at the conference about the problem of sustainability. Critiques came from two primary angles. One was that much of the research recounted at the conference was based on bringing a tool or device to a small rural community, studying its effect for several months, and then leaving once enough data has been collected. One of the speakers on the conference’s opening panel called this “an extractive industry.” The result is that while an engaging paper is written and presented, the rural village to whom the tool was brought is abandoned. One participant in a discussion on sustainability in which I participated recalled a map he had seen of mobile tech pilots in Uganda. He said it looked like map of the spread of some disease epidemic.
There is certainly much curiosity about what sorts of impact different technologies can bring to the poor, but less knowledge about what happens at scale. To a practitioner attending a conference that has historically been for researchers, one of the reasons for this appeared to be the yawning gap between the two groups. Events like this conference are useful for getting implementers and researchers together to learn from each other, but there are still language and cultural divides, and there doesn’t seem much impetus to push research conclusions out to organizations working in the field, nor from organizations to explore and draw on findings when designing interventions. As the ICT4D field matures and there becomes a greater understanding of and consensus on how the impact of new technologies can be maximized, it will be imperative to address this disconnect.
The second critique follows from the first and was a common lament of the practitioners at the conference: too many pilots. There was a feeling that these research studies had explored every angle of technology’s effects in the developing world, yet there was just pilot after pilot. Ken Banks of FrontlineSMS and others asked if we haven’t learned anything concrete already, and whether some technologies or approaches are ready for broad implementation. Of course, technologies are constantly changing, so there will always be a need to test new ideas, but this point really gets to the heart of ICT4D even as a separate field. Technologies – such as mobile phones – have become so commonplace that they aren’t really “technology” at all any more, they are just tools that we use to get things done. In that way, there is really a need in the field to integrate these tools into projects and initiatives not as some flashy new gimmick, but just as useful components that help accomplish one’s goals more effectively and efficiently than other available tools. I wonder if the separation of “ICT4D” as an area of study and activity is slowing this integration.
3. Lessons learned from Macedonia
Perhaps for me the most interesting paper of the conference was by Laura Hosman of the Illinois Institute of Technology. She examined the USAID-funded technology for education projects in Macedonia over the last decade, which were conducted based on best practice and had proven theoretical underpinnings. Yet after five years of well-funded and well-managed projects, computers and internet placed in every school, every teacher trained, and the telecom monopoly broken, teachers still didn’t use computers in their classes. Laura wanted to know why.
I found her presentation particularly compelling because of its practical applicability. IREX administers very similar programs, and while we do our best to assess results and learn from them, the view of a qualified outside observer is valuable, and something we aren’t often able to include. Laura’s intensive work looked at many of the questions with we grapple with on technology for education programs, and her position allowed her rare insight that linked the rarely-overlapping fields of implementation and theory.
It was reassuring that her conclusions – there were two major relevant ones – matched much of what we have learned through IREX’s education and technology programs. First – and most importantly – change in teaching is a long-term, ongoing process. One can’t deliver equipment, drop in a training, and expect teachers to integrate computers into their daily curriculum. It takes years of constant support and training for teachers previously unaccustomed to using technology to become comfortable changing their methods. Programs should therefore plan for constant, intensive training customized to address teachers’ concerns. Second, the involvement of administration is paramount. This is something we’ve recognized over the last few years in our programs using technology and made major adjustments in approach as a result. In Macedonia, Laura found that administrators were not involved in the program at all. No matter how enthusiastic teachers or students are about the new computers, without school directors and supervisors on board and engaged in the process, there will never be systemic change.
In all, the conference was educational and I’m glad I had the opportunity to attend, especially along with my colleague Matej Novak, director of Bibliomist, with whom I had the chance to think about applications of some of the ideas we encountered.
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