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Giving Thanks to 8 Communications Platforms that Changed ICT4D

By Wayan Vota on November 23, 2023

giving thanks communications

Today in the USA it is the Thanksgiving holiday, which historically was a day we gave thanks for a bountiful summer harvest and successful preparations for winter. These days it’s associated with too much food, shopping, and (American) football.

Taking us back to the original tradition – of giving thanks – I’d like to continue previous thankfulness lists (of ICT4D leaders, digital initiatives, and technology donors) by publicly thanking the many communications platforms that changed digital development for the better. This is my imperfect list – please improve it with your comments on what I missed.

1. Radio

AM and FM radio created communications platforms decades before most of us were born with concepts like “fireside chats” that brought national ideas into the homes of almost every citizen. Add in ham radio and community band radio, and the original global Internet is purely voice-based and has more users.

In fact, even today, there are more radio station listeners than Internet users. I’ve seen rural herdsmen living in animal skin tents listening to FM radios in rural Mali – not a mobile phone (or signal) in sight.

Approaches like interactive radio instruction are still the most effective education intervention and interactive radio programming can engage every citizen, regardless of literacy or eyesight. Radio is the low-tech way to reach everyone, so why aren’t you using it to communicate in your programs today?

2. Interactive Voice Response

We’ve had some form of interactive voice response since the touch tone telephone (and maybe longer!). These systems automated the ability of callers to direct their own pathway through a pre-recorded or dynamically generated auditory database.

Starting in the 1990’s(!), BBC Janala was using IVR to help Bangladeshis learn English. I remember watching Mark Summer program an Asterix server at Inveneo in 2008. By 2010, Human Network International launched its 3-2-1 service in Madagascar to much acclaim.

3. Email

I remember excitedly typing my first “electronic mail” using PINE back in my first years of university.  Pop Quiz: when was your first email? From humble beginnings, email became an open standard in 1995 and I still use it to explain the concept to non-technical people because of its ubiquity and simplicity.

I’m not sure how to quantify email’s impact on digital development, and all types of development in general. Where I could take away any of these other communication platforms and you’d be frustrated, if you lose email, its game over at work and probably your personal life too. In fact, I bet you’re reading this ICTworks post as RSS-to-email – the best low-bandwidth way to reach people online.

4. Short Message Service

The short message service started as an open standard for person-to-person communication that moved data on unused and essentially free infrastructure. Then Mobile Network Operators realized they could sell this service to subscribers at crazy markups. SMS became a huge revenue driver for MNOs as everyone – the development community included – rushed to use SMS to commutation with people.

Frontline SMS, Ushahidi, VOTO Mobile, and many other companies were created on SMS platforms to help people drive effective change, one text message at a time. By the end of 2010, SMS was the most widely used data application, with an estimated 3.5 billion active users, or about 80% of all mobile phone subscribers.

5. Skype

Unfortunately for the open standards cause, Skype was a proprietary messaging standard that gained widespread adoption, mainly via its very cheap international calling program that featured free calls between Skype users. A stunning communications innovation in 2003.

While there were no widespread ICT4D programs that used Skype as its main communication tool (that I know of), it powered untold number of one-on-one and one-to-many phone calls that changed the dynamic of international development. Teams no longer had to pay crazy expensive international calling rates to connect with each other within or across countries. A quick Skype call – back then, just voice, no video – could find agreement.

6. WhatsApp

WhatsApp started in 2009 and quickly became the main communications platform outside of the USA. It now has text, audio, and video capabilities, allowing users and businesses to richly and freely connect with each other. It also promises end-to-end encryption that many governments find troubling.

When COVID-19 started troubling us all, the World Health Organization turned to Praekelt Foundation and WhatsApp to create a global communication solution to fight the pandemic infodemic. This led Praekelt to become Turn.io and launch a Chat for Impact Accelerator with WhatsApp that is showing us all how powerful WhatsApp can be for development.

7. Generative AI

No list of communication solutions in 2023 would be complete without mentioning the newest artificial intelligence wunderkind – Generative AI. Powered by ChatGPT, this communications platform between human and computer promises to be world-changing for all of us, even if the future isn’t quite here yet.

We are still sorting out how to use GenAI in developing countries, though not for a lack of trying. It seems everyone is racing to create GenAI solutions, or at least craft guidelines for usage, with GenAI solutions in education and healthcare leading everyone as usual. We’ll see if GenAI is still the center of hype in 2-3 years, or just another 3D printed blockchain drone.

8. What Else?

Of course, this isn’t an exhaustive list. It skews to efforts that I know about – a tiny microcosm of the global digital development ecosystem of communication platforms.

It doesn’t mention other technologies, methodologies, and initiatives that happen every day, at all levels, and are the true drivers of sustainable digital development around the world.

So I invite you to add your inspirations in the comments or just in your own thanks on this day of Thanksgiving. We are privileged to work with so many great communication platforms. Thank you to all of them today, and every day.

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Written by
Wayan Vota co-founded ICTworks. He also co-founded Technology Salon, MERL Tech, ICTforAg, ICT4Djobs, ICT4Drinks, JadedAid, Kurante, OLPC News and a few other things. Opinions expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of his employer, any of its entities, or any ICTWorks sponsor.
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7 Comments to “Giving Thanks to 8 Communications Platforms that Changed ICT4D”

  1. Marcel Heyne says:

    In the realm of impactful communication platforms, Audiopedia stands out as a unique and essential tool, particularly for reaching marginalized communities. As the article rightly emphasizes the importance of various communication technologies, Audiopedia brings a distinct approach to the table.

    Our platform focuses on providing accessible audio content to empower women, especially in remote areas where literacy rates are low, and access to technology is limited. With over 8,000 audio articles in more than 80 languages, Audiopedia addresses critical issues like health, nutrition, and financial literacy. This approach is crucial in regions where languages are predominantly oral, and traditional written content is not as effective.

    Moreover, Audiopedia’s model aligns perfectly with the spirit of ICT4D, leveraging technology to make a tangible difference in the lives of those who are often left behind in the digital divide. Our work, recognized in the UN’s SDG Digital Accelerator Agenda, demonstrates the power of innovative communication platforms in driving social change and empowering communities at the grassroots level.

    Audiopedia complements the communication platforms mentioned in the article by filling a critical gap in reaching and educating the world’s most underserved populations.

  2. Nirmal Rijal says:

    While it’s use was quite short-lived, Equal Access in Nepal (of which I was Country Director from 2004-2009) pioneered the narrowcasting of critical health, education and livelihood messages via the WorldSpace satellite receivers to very remote communities in Nepal, and across the border to vulnerable Nepali migrants in Delhi and Mumbai. With the rapid growth of FM radio in that decade, these receivers played a vital role in transmitting interesting and educative radio programs to the FM radio stations for broadcast in their area. It was an innovative use of satellite broadcasting of audio prior to the advent of internet with the bandwidth we associate it with today.

    • Wayan Vota says:

      Nirmal, you may be surprised to learn that Equal Access is still using radio (among other communication platforms) to educate and inspire around the world. Worldspace is long gone, but its ethos continues in the many OTT digital data services we use today.

  3. Dawn Simmons says:

    This is a wonderful and informative article. It is amazing how just in 35 years we have gone from radio to ChatGpt. Many of us in the US and Europe are still trying get their heads around the whole concept. It is also interesting how there are so many grants and opportunities to further high level Technology platforms, when you have so many people in rural areas and socio-economically challenged areas that have never seen, much less touched a computer. Where radio and word of mouth is their only source of receiving communication about the towns, country and the world.

    I think that many of the grantors and finders need to give to more grassroots organizations (without the middle-man, big organizations) to help make a direct impact to the people that they claim they want to help. My organization “Brighter Tomorrows Today, Inc.” based in Nkenkaasu, Ghana and Harlem, NY (as well as other small towns) is helping people one by one to teach them about computers, basic skills and the internet with practical, hands on learning, charging the equivalent of $1.20 per month to students, to help these areas move into 2023. Not stay back in the 1970’s.

    It is really important that these large funders and grant makers realize that despite funding for new grandiose cutting edge ideas, we first need to help millions around the world learn about the basics of technology and give them access/learning to it, so it can be better utilized.

    We all need to remember, big buildings always need a strong foundation.

    If we really want to help. We must continue to educate the same people (in rural areas) we claim we want to help. And support those who are in the small towns, working one on one, without the glamorous jobs, spending their own money, (because the org can not get a “fancy grant”) to help hundreds of children and their parents have a better future.

  4. Thank you for this nice walk down history lane. One tool that is worth mentioning is KoboToolbox as it has provided thousands of organizations a free, simple, and field-appropriate solution for data collection and analysis. As such, Kobo has been indispensable for many humanitarian interventions, development investments, and research activities.