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African Open Source Technology and ICT4D Differences

By Nana Kwabena Owusu on May 7, 2010

An interesting conversation sparked by a blog post on the Ushahdi blog is the main reason for this post.

The post by Erik Hersman raises issues about open source software and tools created in Africa and ICT for Development (ICT4D). In the post Erik contends that although it is great that these tools are being used for development oriented Non Profit work, the technology (tools and software) themselves should be separated and not classified as ICT4D tools.

What is ICT4D (ICT for Development)? It’s usually defined as the application of technology in third world countries, not as technology. In other words, a technology platform or tool is not ICT4D, though it is used by ICT4D practitioners to do their work.

As you may (or may not know), Erik Hersman is one of the main people behind Ushahidi, a powerful tool which has been used to aid crisis management in several instances including Haiti (and initially in Kenya during election violence there).

However as an open source project, Ushahidi is first and foremost a tool for monitoring and mapping information, from several channels (the web, twitter, SMS) and creating a visual representation of  data. It is for this reason Ushahidi has been well suited for crisis management, especially since its initial development  was centered around a crisis.

However just as with WordPress, Drupal, and Mozilla projects, it is a Free Open Source Software whose use is limited only by the talent and passion pof the developers and community which adopt and adapt the software. Erik therefore states that just as Drupal and WordPress cannot be classified as ICT4D tools because the Non Profit and Development community use them extensively so should Ushahidi not be pigeon holed as an ICT4D only tool.

Truth be told my heart leapt with joy after reading the blog post? Why you may ask. I believe my comment in response to the post summaries it perfectly.

Whew this post just made my day and clarified an issue for me. For some time now I have been wondering time and again if using Ushahidi (and other such open source projects) for a commercial project would be a betrayal of the vision on which the tool was built? It has made me a bit apprehensive about trying out an installation and playing around to see its potential.

When I say play around since I am more into use cases than the code (to each his own) it would be along the lines of what problems can Ushahidi be used to solve. Is it suited for bus routing, reporting crime, locating fire hydrants. Unless I tinker I will not know.

This post gives me a clear mind to tinker without feeling like a sellout if the idea is one which can be commercialized. Separating the tools from their use is important.
Nana Kwabena Owusu

Now there are excellent tools out of Africa which have been used really well by NGOs and get a lot of media attention in that context but are not necessarily ICT4D tools. It seems my apprehensive sentiments about taking software which was deemed (wrongly as Erik points out) for non-profit or social enterprise work and maybe using it in For Profit ventures is shared by others.

Here is a comment from Jon Gosier in response to my comments about this apprehension and how to address it.

Agreed @Nana I’ve had this conversation with a number of investors and organizations interested in SwiftRiver as well. It’s ridiculous to say what we’re building is strictly ICT4D when clearly there are so many other potential applications for the technology. That’s exactly how we’re approaching development and some of the things we have in the works.

With Ushahidi, WordPress, Drupal, I see it as being very much the same senario. Ideally the people and organizations who use these open source products, support the non-profits making them…and there’s nothing to stop you for building whatever you want, given the right set of tools and vision.
Jon Gosier

(Read the full blog post and the great comments at the Ushahidi Blog )

The blame (for lack of a better word) is not entirely from the Western media or ICT4D community. Erik admits its time to really showcase the potential of Ushahidi away from ICT4D but it is up to the community and people like you and me too. Its time to create sometime beyond any possible initial uses the team might have imagined and make it a truly great FOSS project.

As I stated in my comment I would love to tinker with this and other such projects to see the potential for other uses and now I can knowing it was meant for just that. I hope to highlight other African FOSS projects which can be tinkered with soon.

Nana Kwabena Owusu originally published It’s Different. African Open Source Technology and ICT4D on 233tech.com

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I believe opening up avenues for sharing and discussing ideas will strengthen the Ghanaian tech industry. Ideas, issues and discussions on technology in Ghana and Africa is so huge we will need all of you to effectively achieve this aim.
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One Comment to “African Open Source Technology and ICT4D Differences”

  1. Alex Muturi says:

    As posed, “What is ICT4D (ICT for Development)? It’s usually defined as the application of technology in third world countries, not as technology. In other words, a technology platform or tool is not ICT4D, though it is used by ICT4D practitioners to do their work.”

    Technologies will always exist and new ones born every day, what matters is, can we can take the power of this ICTs (commercial, open-source, free, shareware, call them what you may) and turn them to be tools that enhance and improve the quality life of everyone around them whether in developed or developing countries.