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3 Ways to Move From Hype to Practice in Digital Development

By Guest Writer on March 15, 2018

new technology hype


I’m Nora Lindström, and as Global Coordinator for Digital Development for Plan International, I’m tasked with staying current on all things digital, and maintaining an overview on Plan’s ICT4D programming around the world.

As a result, I get emails like this from our senior executives:

Hi Nora, I’ll be talking about our use of digital technology at an upcoming meeting. Can you tell me how we are using blockchain in our work?

The blockchain hype has entered the mainstream, and everyone wants to be seen using it, or at least testing out how it could be used. And why not? Last December an iced tea company changed its name to Long Blockchain, and its stock price skyrocketed.

The blockchain hype is on in international development too. In an op-ed for Devex last year, blockchain was described as “the single most disruptive technology for the international development sector as we understand it today.”

Perhaps if we allowed people to donate in bitcoin, we’d be raking it in. Then we could use blockchain to bank the unbanked. Provide transparency in land registration and agricultural supply chains. Provide identities to those without.

However, my answer to the executive that wrote to me is no. No, we are not using blockchain in our work on girls’ rights. Anywhere.

Be Cautious of New Technology Hype

We’re not not using blockchain because others and I don’t see it’s potential. I actually do. And I’m aware of UN agencies’ blockchain work in spearheading its use to improve food security and reduce remittance costs.

However, there are many organisations – including mine – who are not using it because we’re still struggling to see the tangible use cases that would bring added value beyond the initial experimental hype.

It’s not yet clear how heavily we should be investing in it right now: There are genuine concerns about piloting new technology on extremely vulnerable populations, in situations where we don’t have the right to fail. Also, not all new technologies fulfill their disruptive promise: how many of you still regard 3D printing as the massive big next thing in the international development?

Embrace Established Technologies

While being interested, even excited by the dots on the Gartner hype cycle, lots of practical gains and returns on investment still come from “older” technologies.

There is a slight tendency to talk about using mobiles phones in development as something that’s already been done, like it’s DVDs when everyone’s moved to streaming. Yet many of our organisations still have so much to gain and so much to learn from using mobile phones.

Last December, Plan Finland launched Sheboard, a predictive text app that empowers girls by suggesting words such as “clever” “brave” and “powerful” after phrases such as “I am” or “my daughter is”. This was described as revolutionary.

Data collection is still not universally digital, and not everyone even has access to a mobile phone. In fact, women globally are 14% less likely to own a mobile phone than men. We also have a lot to learn about making use of data we collect, as well as ensuring the data is stored securely and privately.

Hand Over the Technology

Anyone who has studied development theory will be familiar with the phrase “hand over the stick”, coined by Robert Chambers. As we think about using technology – new or otherwise – in our work, we also need to be mindful of handing over the tech.

Nowhere is this more true than when it comes to artificial intelligence, or machine learning. We all know Silicon Valley has a diversity problem, but what also needs to be recognized is the impact this has on how, and what, machines learn.

AI has several potential applications in international development – from chatbots to natural language processing. But if machines are programmed to learn from the current status quo, then we risk them reproducing existing power relations, from gendered stereotypes through neo-colonialism to inequality.

That’s why we in international development increasingly need to work on getting knowledge into the hands of the people we work with, and empower them to develop their own tech. The future is digital, and if the majority of mankind is not engaged in creating that digital future, we’re in real trouble.

3 Practices to Practice

The three things I want you to take away from this post are:

  • Watch blockchain and other new technologies, experiment with them where it makes sense, but don’t think that they’ll be sole source of digital development, added value, and competitive edge in the future.
  • Expand your use of mobile phones and other familiar technologies and do it ever better and more responsibly.
  • Create opportunities for the people you work with to access, use, and create technology: HAND OVER THE TECH.

This was originally given as a lightning talk at the USAID Digital Development Forum.

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