• Written by Henry Jewell
    5 July 2016

Photo by Ethel Méndez Castillo

The International Conference on Information & Communication Technologies and Development (ICTD2016) is an annual research conference that explores the nexus between ICT and global development. The 8th iteration of the conference was held on the beautiful campus of the University of Michigan (this might be a biased description, as I live here) in Ann Arbor, from 3-6 June.

My colleague Ethel and I attended the event to present, participate, engage, listen and learn. We co-convened a session titled ‘Searching for the missing link for data use’. The four days provided a diverse and fascinating set of perspectives on all aspects of ICT4D, which showed both the potential of ICT for global development, and some of the challenges.

Some key takeaways:

Who defines the ‘D’ in ICT4D? Perhaps you are thinking that development is a well defined field, so it should be obvious. But it is not as clear-cut as we might think. All too often the global development narrative is defined and driven by global voices, meaning that local voices are not always heard. As a sector, we have improved greatly at involving more relevant local voices and participatory approaches but we still have a long way to go. It is clear that ICT can be a conduit to allow for increased participation and improved agency but only if we heed the advice of listening more to the relevant voices and bringing them into the conversation. Tererai Trent delivered an inspiring keynote and one quote in particular rang true: “Who’s values are we serving? Always remember to ask this question when delivering development projects.”

Data – the results of many ICT interventions is an increase in data, but how is that data being used to improve results? And are we focusing enough on privacy, safety and security around this data? I have focused quite a bit on these items in previous blogs so will not go into too much detail again. However, it is important to note that these are issues that continue to be bottlenecks (in terms of data use) and risks (in terms of privacy and security) that need more attention. It is interesting to look at both of these topics from an organizational capacity standpoint. For example, in a relatively short period of time we have gained technologies that will allow us to collect lots of data faster. However, for the most part, organizations (especially large ones) struggle to adjust to change at the same pace as the leaps forward in data technology. Thus it is going to take time and training to align the two. So are we as an ICT4D community focusing enough on this capacity-building component?

After access – Jonathon Donner presented the findings from his book ‘After Access – Inclusion, Development and More Mobile Internet’. The mobile phone has been hailed as the device that will close the digital divide, leading to greater inclusion and individual empowerment. So with the rapid rise in mobile phone ownership, are we now seeing the benefits that were predicted to follow? Donner argues that ownership (access) and effective use is not the same thing. How you engage with the digital world will define the benefits it can bring. So if you engage with the digital world through a pre-paid mobile (which leads to a metered mindset – how much data can you afford to use?), your experience will be very different versus if you connect via broadband on a computer. So it is clear that the assumption that just getting everyone online will lead to great progress is at least partially flawed; the reality is much more nuanced than that. What happens ‘after access’ is going to be an interesting area to research and focus on moving forward.

It is clear that ICT does have a role to play in global development but that we should not be led astray by shiny new technologies to the detriment of listening to actual needs. Trying to find a problem to fit a perceived solution has never been a good approach. So let’s make sure we understand the problem by engaging with local communities and then, in a collaborative manner, work out a solution, which may or may not include a shiny new technology.

Thanks to Kentaro Toyama and all the organizing committee for an interesting, engaging conference.

Henry Jewell is manager, Akvo USA hub and executive director, Akvo Foundation USA. You can follow him on Twitter @hejewell.