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Who writes about ICT4D online?

Over the past months Global Voices has been engaged in researching and writing about ICT for development supported by Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet & Society and Canada's International Development Research Centre (IDRC). The challenge was to find out what was being said about ICT4D in global blogs and citizen media. We wanted to see what was being said beyond the halls of science, by practitioners in their own words.

We've collected our findings on a Future of ICT for Development special coverage page.

So what's being said?

After several months of dedicated analysis and writing about how ICT for development is covered on the web, here are some thoughts about the online availability of information about ICT4D – from academic articles, to conversation, commentary, and citizen media reflections on what works, what’s difficult and what is worth sharing.

It has been six years since the IDRC and Harvard held their first groundbreaking forum on ICTs and poverty. Since then there have been a great many zeros and ones spilled about practice and scholarship of ICT4D online. Much of this takes the form of research papers, books, and presentations produced by scholars or practitioners affiliated with institutions and nonprofit organizations.

It is, however, relatively more difficult to find blogs and citizen media content from unaffiliated individuals, and from those who experience the benefits, and sometimes challenges of internet technologies in developing-world contexts. While there are scattered discussions and commentaries, sustained, community-driven dialogue is not easy to find. This is perhaps not surprising, given the often complex and technical nature of the field.

Phone charging station in Uganda in 2008, by Ken Banks - kiwanja.net

Phone charging station in Uganda, 2008, by Ken Banks – kiwanja.net

There has been tremendous improvements in internet access and  explosive growth of cell phones in developing world, as Matthew Smith outlines in his essay for IDRC/Harvard’s latest conference, Communication and Human Development: The Freedom Connection? in September 2009.

However, GV’s research (led by Aparna Ray and John Liebhardt) has found ambiguous evidence of online discussion of these themes that advances beyond well-worn anecdotes of fishermen with mobile phones. Those discussions surely exist, if not online; a look at the Manthan Awards in South Asia, for example, gives us a window into communities of practitioners in this field, and the focus of their work.

In general, we observed that there are several categories of people writing online about ICT4D:

  1. People who both understand grassroots development needs and are proficient in ICT. A very small percentage of online writers fall in this category. These people have the skills to develop tools/ techniques, speak the language of ICT4D, and are able to get exposure for their projects.
  2. Academics who are interested in the field. They are able to develop concepts in ICT4D, and mostly run small research projects to prove/ disprove their hypotheses, build concepts, and make predictions. There is a lot of energy here – perhaps why we saw so many research papers in our web searches. These people explore and predict trends, but are not often in contact with grassroots folks, and rarely implement projects.
  3. Everyone else either comes from the ICT community, and open to designing tools for development/ social projects, or people working in the  development sector who need ICT solutions but have relatively low/ no knowledge of ICT. These two sets of people do not usually speak the same language.

Broadly speaking, many development experts seem hesitant to learn technical skills and languages. They may want a ICT solutions, but there are numerous obstacles to engagement, including expertise, time, resources, and organizational culture. Hence ICT experts sense that development practitioners are rarely clear about helpful solutions.

Likewise, ICT tool developers may not involve development communities in the need analysis/ development phase, producing many solutions that are top-down, and without user support.

Solutions and strategies:

ICT4D is a vibrant theme, but also quite complex, and with little awareness outside of specialist communities. Our first months of coverage have captured some of the best of existing citizen media writing. A next step would be to fill the gaps in coverage and language that we found. Some approaches:

Continued engagement: Much more can be written, with a focus on clarifying who the audiences are for content.

Popularizing complex ideas: much of the content of the GV posts is news for those who are not in the ICT space; for ICT experts, it has less to offer. How stories are reported is key. Strategies include:

  • Conducting interviews with experts and practitioners to simplify language and concepts for target audiences.
  • Finding a common language and platform for dialogue among people both in grassroots development and in ICT technology development.
  • Including writers from different perspectives and parts of the world.
  • Highlighting the work of interesting ICT projects.
  • Focusing on user experience and feedback.
John Liebhardt and Aparna Ray contributed to the observations and conclusions in this post.

11 comments

  • Peter Ballantyne

    Thanks for the interesting posting.

    You seem to equate ICT4D with ICT4GrassrootsD … In my experience there is much ‘D’ happening that is not in the grassroots but is enabling of the grassroots …. and there is an enormous amount of ICT that empowers D, but not necessarily by acting ‘in’ the grassroots.

    So a tighter definition would help.

    I personally prefer the notion of ‘ICT-enabled development’ or ‘D with ICT’, but they don’t run smoothly off the tongue.

    Your categories of ICT4GrassrootsD writers might work; for ICT4D more generally, I can see:

    – ‘grassroots’ development workers making various intensities of use of ICTs. These might be development-led or ICT-led activities [most of whom never tell their ICT experiences I suspect, it depends on their motivations and drivers. Are they aware that anyone wants to listen to them? Do they think that what they do is of interest to anybody else?].

    – many many development efforts using ICTs at all levels in and beyond the grassroots (e-governance, e-government, e-extension, e-health, e-schools, e-learning, e-science, e-verything, e-tc) where again the practitioners may not document much of the ICT elements. Much is embedded into mainstream sectoral development work or the ‘internal’ processes of institutions of all kinds and may be difficult nowadays to separate out. I suspect very little of this is in blogs, citizen media etc.

    – people studying, researching, documenting, experimenting, and learning about ICT in development contexts and processes [who produce a lot, as might be expected]

    – many policy-level discussions and advocacy on ICT and development processes and priorities, eg at UN level or among development donors and civil society [again, quite a lot of prose circulating]

    – and a steady string of public-oriented stories, articles and pieces, in specialized or general sources; perhaps mainly by journalists/writers of various types. Often a small number of stories repeated over and over.

    There has certainly been a divide in the actions and discourses between people who do ‘ICT’ and those who ‘do’ development (and probably between those who do these and those who write about them). But I see this divide narrowing as ideas from each community spread to the other.

    Every ‘development’ worker (public, private or NGO) I meet these days has a mobile phone and is aware of some of the potentials of ICT in their work and for their partners. Which doesn’t mean they can (or should) set up an ICT project.

    And more and more ICT champions recognize that tested development principles (participation, ownership, cooperation etc) and anchoring technological change into wider community and sector processes and value chains will increase the success rates of their activities.

    One useful strategy might be to find ways to encourage the individuals and groups that tend not to even think what they know is worth documenting and sharing, to get their stories ‘out’. Beyond the global voices, we also need to seek out the hidden, the undiscovered, the un-valued, the shy, and perhaps the unsure voices.

  • […] very interesting is the summary of who’s writing about ICT (Information & Communication Technologies) for development by Ivan Sigal at Global Voices. Especially provocative are the observations regarding the […]

  • So are you going to name those that fall into these 3 groups? I feel you must, if you’re so bold as to make categories and claim thier relative size.

    I am especially curious because as someone who strives to be in your Group 1 through the publication of least 5 blogs, I never heard of your analysis till now, I’d like to see who you found and where they fall.

  • Wayan, thanks for the comment. These categories were a way for John and Aparna to make sense of the material they found online. They are not meant to be understood as rigorous empirical delineations, but as a way of telling stories and generating conversations. Accordingly, their work was in part about finding threads and weaving narratives to help illuminate whether and if the themes present at IDRC/Berkman’s conference had penetrated into popular, nonspecialist conversations.

    I agree it would be interesting to see whether these categories hold up under a rigorous analysis, and what the choice of categories tells us about the field. It would also be interesting to catalogue some of this (netvibes page?). From my experience working in international development, it strikes me that John and Aparna are on the right track – especially if we follow the resources and talent in the field. There’s a good amount of expertise and writing by people who work in the field, attached to nonprofit and international organizations, donors, and other practitioners – Inveneo certainly being one of them. Likewise, as the IDRC/Harvard conference shows us, there’s a healthy amount of academic research and analysis available online. What’s harder to find – and in some ways this seems obvious – is coherent, non-institutional discussions. John and Aparna’s efforts are identified in their articles over the past few months, so that’s the place to see how they informed their analysis.

    This is an ongoing conversation, and we’ll be writing more in the coming weeks, so we welcome your comments and insights. If you’ve got suggestions for places to find conversations online that we haven’t covered, we’d appreciate the links.

  • Ivan,

    John and Aparna’s articles do not tell us who are in these three categories, they go into specific case studies around a topic.

    So I believe my point still stands: if you’re gonna say there are three types of discussants, please have the bravery to note who is in each category. I see this as anything from a simple list of examples to a detaled spreadsheet of all know people.

    Beyond my personal status, I hope to find new voices to connect with in every category. Because your larger point is also true: there needs to be more cross disicipline discussions in development. 

  • Ivan, I think your 3 categories are spot on for the most part and I totally agree that there is a gap between Tech and Dev. Will you be exploring some of the different frameworks around ICT4D in future blogs? There are some really interesting and different ways of looking at the role of ICTs in development that we could benefit from understanding better and discussing. Richard Heeks has a really interesting piece (ICT4D 2.0 Manifesto) discussing that and the importance of those ‘bridge’ people who have both ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ skills to bring ICT and Dev together.

    There are some lists of ICT4D blogs already, eg. at EthnosProject.org; and some really useful feeds that find and share ICT4D related news. Awhile back, Christian Kreutz (@ict4d) created an extensive list of those who tweet about ICT4D which then he opened up so people could add themselves. A few others have done the same (including you Wayan). You’ve probably used these for your research Ivan.

    It would be nice to see the Global Voices list of ICT4D writers (whether categorized into the 3 areas or not) so we could add new voices to those we may already know of.

  • Very nice piece, Ivan. Not to confuse the debate over your three basic categories, but I think we also need to divide up end users, the tech users in the developing world. I say this because I think that we forget how diverse groups of end users can be.

    For example, let’s look at Burkina Faso (where I spent five years), which has a small group of people who were very much part of the technical class, up on the latest innovations, and most likely they’re debating the worthiness of, say, the new iPad and how it relates to their business needs. Secondly, there’s a group of people who are handy with most technologies but maybe didn’t follow the latest trends. These people use a computer at work, but may not have a lot of access outside the office. Then there are people who have been to school, have a cell phone, can use a computer but maybe don’t have much access. To make things simple, I’ll gather all the others: mainly those in rural areas (or smaller cities) who can surely benefit from ICTs. Some may not have a lot of education and computer access is certainly going to be an issue.

    Sure, the four groups are simplistic. But for those in the ICT community, the main problem is each of these groups has vastly different needs. My question: When only finite resources exist, who do you help first? The first group, which may only make up 5 percent of the population, needs exceedingly high-quality bandwidth to keep up with their regional/international peers; group two could really take off with some new tools, but they only make up 10 percent of the population; few new tools will help group three without solving basic access issues; finally, providing training (and appropriate technology, which may not include computers, but cell phones) is most important for group four, which could make up nearly 50 percent of the population. A big problem is group-four people certainly aren’t as adept at articulating needs as members of the first two groups.

    When those working with ICTs solve Burkina Faso’s issues, they’ll have to move on to Ghana, Cote d’Ivoire, Togo and Nigeria, which all have vastly different pyramids. And, speak to my colleague, Aparna Ray, about India: She’ll give you a list of different issues.

    Sure, we’ve got to get organized on our end. But I wonder if ICT opinion and decision makers – programmers, development agencies, donors, governments, journalists, end users, etc. – have postponed asking ourselves the tougher questions: Who should benefit from ICTs first? How much should they benefit? And, at what cost to others?

  • Putting my Inveneo hat on, I’d like to respond to John’s question with our approach. We realized long ago that our small organization (12 people) needed to recruit others to have large-scale impact.

    So we work hard to build the capacity of local ICT companies to deploy technology to all the groups he speaks of in a sustainable (profitable, appropriate, supported) manner. Here’s more about our local partner program: http://www.inveneo.org/?q=itpartners

    In conjunction with our 60 local partners in 20 countries, we’ve impacted over 1 million people in just 5 years.

    Is that distribution even? Of course not, but rather than us picking those that should be helped, we and our partners react to demand. Its those that self-select and ask for ICT, and show ability to sustain it, that receive our interventions. We’re proud that because of our targeting training and marketing, the majority of that demand and our interventions are going to rural and underserved communities – those that need ICT the most.

  • From my experience, I feel that the 3 categories that Ivan has described would perhaps be relevant for the universe of people lying in the ambit of ICT4D per se and not only restricted to those writing about it online.

    In fact, most ICT4D writers online are probably those who DO understand both sides of the story and fall into category 1. The point is that this segment itself is very small, and the network sometimes becomes almost like a clique. However, there are other projects happening on the ground where the stakeholders (atleast some of them) technically fall into this category but while there is work going on in the ground, there is not much awareness about these projects online. Two such examples I can think of are a) the Award winning e-Health program being run in the Sabarmati jail in Gujrat India and b) An e-learning program being run by the monks of Ramakrishna mission in the Sunderbans. In fact, attending the prestigious Manthan Awards in December 2009 was an eye-opener for me. The ground seemed to be buzzing with interesting, innovative ICT4D projects only a few of which had found their way online.

    The category 2 of academicians may often be a subset of category 1. Richard Heeks comes almost immediately to mind. However, we also find many ICT4D research papers online which begin and end as university projects. There is not much online discussion around these. Not all of these projects are actually implemented in scaled up, sustainable manner. They are done more as part of the university syllabus requirements and are therefore limited in scope.

    The 3rd category to my mind is the most interesting. This is where the needgap appears to be the most. At the Manthan Award conference for example, there was a participant from IDRC India who had also brought up this issue. Wayan, you have written “we and our partners react to demand. Its those that self-select and ask for ICT, and show ability to sustain it, that receive our interventions.” Here you are the solution provider open/ eager to provide interventions. However, to seek your help the client has to have some basic idea regarding what they need and also are aware that inveneo is the place where a solution for their problem can be found …these are probably those who can self-select. This is absolutely fine.

    What I have felt however, is that this self-selected group is again a small portion of those who “need ICT4D”. There is a large group of people roaming in the dark who have the need, may even have the means to make projects sustainable and profitable but lack the basic knowledge regarding whom to talk to for a solution (names of solution providers) or even what kind of an ICT solution they need, which creates a bottleneck for them. So we are talking about the need to have a common platform and language which would enable this segment of solution seekers find and communicate better with solution providers and get the right ICT4D solutions for their needs.

    The 3 categories mentioned by Ivan should perhaps be seen in this light. It was not meant to say that there are people writing about ICT4D online without adequate knowledge of both sides :-)

  • aparna/ivan:

    as Wayan & Linda requested above, it would still be beneficial to have the list of experts, and especially whom you consider to be falling into category 1. to know who are the ‘thought leaders’ in the field is very helpful for those who are just beginning in the ICT4D field or considering how to proceed.

    incidentally, Richard Heeks just posted this informative piece on ICT4D research & state of the field.
    http://ict4dblog.wordpress.com/2010/02/08/ict-for-development-research-size-and-growth/

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