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In ICT4D We’re Principled, But Are We Practiced Enough? – Your Weekend Long Reads

By Steve Vosloo on February 17, 2018

Starting with the Principles for Digital Development, we now have principles for many development sectors,and principles for cross-cutting themes, including principles for:

Even organisations have fine-tuned these resources, for example, DFID does development in a principled way and DAI is teaching digital principles to its non-techie staff, and there are principles for worker engagement supported by technology.

These principles have been developed over a long time. Fifteen years go I wrote a literature survey on the best practices of ICT4D projects. It was based on the work of then research pioneer, Bridges.org, drawing on a range of projects from the early 2000s.

In my paper, Bridges.org put forward seven habits of highly effective ICT-enabled development initiatives. By 2007 the list had grown to 12 habits – many of which didn’t look that different from today’s principles.

Do We Practice What We Preach?

But if these principles are not new to us, are we practicing them enough? Don’t get me wrong, the ICT4D community has come a long way in enlisting tech for social good, and the lessons — many learned the hard way – have matured our various guidelines and recommendations. But should we be further down the line by now?

The principles mostly outline what we should do, and some work has been done on the how side, to help us move from principles to practice. But I think that we need to do more to unpack the why don’t we aspect.

Consider this data point from a recent Brookings Institute report Can We Leapfrog: The Potential of Education Innovations to Rapidly Accelerate Progress. Brookings analysed almost 3,000 education innovations around the world (not all tech-based, just so you know) and found that:

… only 16 percent of cataloged interventions regularly use data to drive learning and program outcomes. In fact, most innovations share no information about their data practices.

We know that we should be data-driven and share our practices. So what is going on here?

  • Do the project managers behind these interventions not know that they should do these things?
  • Do they not have the capacity in their teams?
  • Do they not want to because they believe it exposes their non-compliance with such principles?
  • Or perhaps they feel data is their competitive edge and they should hide their practices?

Time for ‘Fess Festivals?

We all know of other examples like this. Fail Festivals are an excellent way to share what we tried and what didn’t work. But what about ‘Fess Festivals, where we confess why we can’t or – shock horror – won’t follow certain principles.

Maybe it’s not our fault, like donor funding cycles that ICT4D startups can’t survive. But maybe we should be honest and say that on some projects we won’t collaborate because the funding pie is too small.

If fail festivals are more concerned with operational issues, then ‘fess festivals look at structural barriers. We need to ask these big questions in safe spaces. Many ICT4D interventions are concerned with behavior change. If we’re to change our own behavior we need to understand why we do or don’t do things.

Good Design is Honest

So, on the one hand we really can pat ourselves on the back. We’ve had good design principles for almost twenty years. The level of adherence to them has increased, and they have matured over time.

In fact, last month CO.DESIGN published the 10 New Principles of Good Design (thanks Air-bel Center for the link). What is wonderfully affirming is that many of the “new” principles in the commercial space we have endorsed for years.

For example, they say that good design is transparent. We know that user-centered design is participatory and that we should expose the important parts of digital solutions to our users. We believe in telling our users what we’ll do with their data.

They say good design considers broad consequences and is mindful of systems. We try to understand the existing ecosystem, be conscious of long-term consequences and design for sustainability. For us, these are not “new” principles.

On the other hand, there is still much work to be done. We need to deeply interrogate why we don’t always practice what we preach, honestly and openly. Only in this way will we really pursue a key new principle: good design is honest.

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Written by
Steve Vosloo is passionate about using technology in education. He's worked at UNESCO, Pearson South Africa, Stanford University, and the Shuttleworth Foundation on the use of mobile phones for literacy development, how technology can better serve low-skilled users, and the role of digital media for youth. All opinions expressed in this post are his own.
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2 Comments to “In ICT4D We’re Principled, But Are We Practiced Enough? – Your Weekend Long Reads”

  1. Steve – so wonderful to see the 12 habits. They remain the most comprehensive, thoughtful set of requirements in our field, and a galvanizing publication for practitioners and researchers alike. I “lost” several battles with advocates of the Digital Development Principles when they were being constructed – my .02 was that we already had these superior ones. But no, I was repeatedly told that the 12 habits were too hard, too detailed, and a case of “the perfect getting in the way of the good.” The fact remains that current iterations are too diluted and almost impossible to enforce, whereas the 12 have the capacity to have real teeth – and why they remain the gold standard in ICT4D.