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ICT4D is Responding to Changing Technology

By Lindsay Poirier on September 23, 2011

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Technology is progressive. It is constantly changing and evolving as new components make their way into the field.

For ICT4D professionals, this should be exciting. It means that brand new tools are constantly being added to the international development arsenal. Looking back on the history of ICT4D, it is easy to see how emerging technologies helped shaped new landscapes in development. Typically, historical accounts are broken into three eras:

ICT4D 0.0:

During this period from the mid 1950s to the late 1990s, the primary focus of ICTs for development was initially within the government. At first, data processing applications were used for administrative functions in the public sector, and soon after the emergence of the microcomputer and associated software, similar applications were seen as useful for economic growth in the private sector. At this time, the PC database was the primary component of Information Technology.

ICT4D 1.0:

Two factors emerged in the 1990s that changed the landscape of the field. First, the creation of the Millennium Development Goals established specific objectives to pursue in international development. At this point, ICT4D professionals could refine projects to create solutions within specific arenas. Almost simultaneously, the internet emerged, offering free access to information across the globe. These advents led to large investments in ICT infrastructure and the set-up of telecentres where anyone could access information. Unfortunately, these projects were often rushed and poorly planned with almost no monitoring, making many of them unsustainable.

ICT4D 2.0:

A second shift occurred in the mid to late 2000s as professionals began to understand how to leverage the mobile phone for ICT4D projects. Although less often cited, the entrance of all forms of low-cost computer technologies – tablets, low-cost laptops, web 2.0 communication – played a key role in changing the field in this era. Lower cost meant better scalability. Since technology was more affordable, even the poorest individuals could take advantage and even become content providers, greatly improving sustainability of ICT4D projects. Efforts also shifted from disseminating new technology to integrating existing technology and strategizing for its best use.

What’s Next?

Thus far the transitions have followed a trend. New technology leads to new methods of implementation leads to either desirable or undesirable outcomes. It makes you wonder which game-changer will be entering the field next and if it will substantially change the way projects are implemented. Have we hit a prime model with ICT4D 2.0, where low cost technologies offer scalability, and users generate content? Will a new era, ICT4D 3.0, eventually emerge, where artificial intelligence and machine learning, reasoning, and planning change methods for project implementation?

While this remains to be determined, there is certainty that technology will continue to progress as people innovate and create. The focus, however, should not be on where the technology industry is going but instead on how the ICT4D industry reacts and responds to new tools. There is a certain hype and excitement that comes with the emergence of new technologies: a sort of “this is going to change and save the world” mentality that is felt before the technologies’ potentials and implications are fully recognized. It is vital to not get caught up in using a specific new technology simply for the sake of making use of it.

Consider public sector initiatives to promote development with mobile technology, often referred to as m______. Specific projects incorporating mobiles have been proven to be extremely effective in developing nations. Mobile technology currently holds a great deal of potential because of its ingenuity and affordability. However, rushing to implement mobile technology as a development solution without first defining and outlining the problem that the technology is intended to address puts professionals in dilemmas similar to those that arose during the ICT4D 1.0 era. Projects do not have appropriate implementation strategies mapped out, which often results in failure to sustain.

One of the most exciting aspects of the ICT4D field is in the fact that it is one of the few technology industries where professionals are not expected to immediately jump on the bandwagon with new technologies as they emerge. This field really requires individuals to step back and consider which tools existing in the arsenal are best suited to help solve a given problem. While new technologies expand this arsenal and offer feedback on best practices for implementation, their incorporation should happen only at appropriate times. Creating the best solution should always have highest priority in effective development practices.

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I am an undergraduate student at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute studying Information Technology and Science, Technology, and Society. The focus of my studies is on International Development. I have a particular interest in incorporating ICTs in primary education in Sub-Saharan Africa.
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3 Comments to “ICT4D is Responding to Changing Technology”

  1. James says:

    Food for thought on not leaving satellite networks out of the ICT mix.

    There are some important developments in the use of ICT that have been overlooked in your breif history. First of all, an NGO called Partnership for Productivity International was using computer to computer satellite communications between the US, African and Caribbean countries, including establishing CARINET, a satellite linked communications network between all the islands of the Eastern Caribbean in the early-mid 1980s. This was essentially email when fax was just coming into its own. A fellow named Jerome Glenn, who started and continues to lead the UN Millenium Project put that together using a mainframe based at the New Jersey Institute of Technology that translated between computer languages, including teh mainframe languages of the day as well as the myriad of emerging PC systems and software. We used to use that system to get documents translated between Apple and PC computers in the same office! It was way ahead of its time. This went beyond the PC database that you referred to in 0.0.

    Second, in ICT 1.0 the use of satellite imagery as part of the Famine Early Warning System (FEWS NET) developed by USAID in response to the Sahelian droughts of the 1970s and 1980s connects disaster response, market information and information and communication technology. Through the early warning system, USAID pioneered the use of market anomalies – unseasonally high food prices, low wage rates for unskilled labor, or a glut of livestock for sale – as early warning indicators of impending food crises and/or livelihood shocks. The system also helps households use market information to make decisions on sales of household goods, services and labor. For example, most recently, FEWS NET monitoring and analyses predicted the 2011 Somalia famine well in advance, allowing the Agency to preposition relief supplies in South Africa, Djibouti and elsewhere in the region for distribution at the onset of the disaster and to alert East African herders to better manage their herds through off-take sale or migration.

    Both examples go beyond the Internet and cellphone networks yet together with them provide an additional dimension to the ICT use in development.

    Good luck with your studies!

    James

  2. lindsaypoirier says:

    Thank you for the feedback. I can definitely see where satellite adds an additional element when considering how ICTs can be used for effective development.

    Considering this and the focus of the end of the post, I have a few questions: Would you consider advancements in satellite technology and imagery since the period of ICT4D 1.0 as particularly advantageous to the ICT4D industry? What would you consider the best example of this technology playing a part in the field today? Can you cite any instances where the use of this (or related) tools was preemptive, not-well planned, and/or not effective in the ICT4D space?

  3. Rick Doerr says:

    Hi Lindsay,

    I enjoyed your review and look into the future of ICT4D. I agree that simply using technology is not the answer to improving health and economic statuses in developing countries. The technology must fit not only into the culture and knowledge of users but also into their daily routines and/or job processes.

    While I think you did a great job reviewing the history of ICT, I think two other forms of ICT should also be included in the 1.0 section: radio and television. In developing countries which have high usage rates of radio and/or televisions, they can be used to disseminate knowledge and information to the masses. This is especially true in countries that have low adoption rates of mobile phones and/or poor mobile technology infrastructure. An example of a radio intervention is the “Journey of Life” radio show in Ethiopia which began in 2001. The radio series focused on characters that engaged in both risky and safe sexual behavior and whom the audiences could connect to. Through JHU/CCP and USAID, its purpose was to show vulnerable Ethiopians about how they could become infected with HIV/AIDS and also how to protect themselves. The study had a positive impact on the listeners’ knowledge of HIV/AIDS.

    Below is a link that shows other eHealth interventions from the 90s and early 2000s.
    http://www.itu.int/ITU-D/ict_stories/themes/e-health.html

    Again, nice job and looking forward to future posts.

    Cheers,
    Rick