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The Digital Development Glossary: Your Key to ICT4D Buzzwords

By Matt Haikin on March 2, 2017

Have you wondered what the latest jargon in technology and development means? Or if you are using it correctly in your next proposal or donor report? Well here is your techie term decoder!

Below I’ve compiled a list of key terms, acronyms, and buzzwords that come up in ICT4D discussions, along with simple non-technical overviews and some relevant links for further information.

Where possible, these links focus on the topic’s relevance to the humanitarian and international development sector and seek to draw out some of the context and nuance of ongoing debates, although in a few cases, plain old Wikipedia definitions do the job.

Please Add Your Terms in the Comments

This list is just a start at trying to list all the terms we use, and I’m sure we’ve forgotten your favorite buzzword. So please help make this list fresh and relevant with your additions and corrections in the comments below.

TermExplanation and links to further information
Adaptive ProgrammingAlso called Adaptive Management, this is the aid and development industry’s relatively new name for fairly old concepts (Agile, Learning approaches etc.) Long overdue and gaining pace especially with DFID and USAID.


AgileAgile describes a way of building software that is iterative and incremental – i.e. launch the smallest product that makes sense, then evolve it in line with real user feedback. Traditionally, it is delivered using methodologies such as Scrum which centre on small self-managing teams. It is pretty mainstream in the private sector and developing traction in the ICT4D space. It is also starting to be applied to non-software areas – wider technology programmes, project management, marketing etc.


Big DataExtremely large and complex data sets exist that present a new challenge to analysis and offer potentially valuable insights – nationwide health or transport data for example. These big data sets are being explored by NGOs as ways to predict behaviour or to evaluate their work, while, increasingly, they are also being discussed through a lens of privacy and protection of potentially personally identifiable data.


Data ScienceData Science is the study of data to extract knowledge and insights. Although in practice this is often used interchangeably with terms like data analysis, it is actually broader and typically includes more “what” questions, some level of understanding of the context of the data, and visualisation of the results to better communicate findings, as well as tending to focus on more complex analysis such as data mining and predictive analytics.


Data VisualisationOften shortened to Data Viz, this is the art of producing accessible visual representations of data. This might range from using Excel to display project M&E results, through to plotting complex data such as census’ graphically that would be challenging to understand any other way. There are a myriad of tools out there to help!


Design ThinkingDesign Thinking is an approach to innovation that places human users at the centre, and can be applied to the development of projects, products, services, organisations, processes or strategies. Although it emerged from architectural design, it is now primarily used in a business context and more recently, in ICT4D.


Digital Citizen EngagementCitizen Engagement or citizen participation looks at how citizens interact with the institutions that affect them (primarily government, but increasingly also the private sector, NGOs etc). The field of Digital Citizen Engagement looks at how online and mobile tools are used in this process, what impact they have and how they change who engages and how.


Digital PrinciplesDeveloped from the collective experience of multiple practitioners and donors, the Principles of Digital Development are a set of nine guidelines that codify best practices in designing and deploying information and communication technology interventions in international development.


Drones for Mapping and Humanitarian ReliefWhile I am personally a bit dubious about this, there are a number of organisations experimenting with the use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs or Drones) for both mapping and for delivering medical supplies etc. Some are even trying to get local labs to co-create these kind of robotics, be great to see how this develops!


eduTecheduTech or EdTech is the use of technology in the education sector, typically but not exclusively in developing countries. There is an enormous amount of money going into technology solutions for education globally (e.g. One Laptop Per Child), with very mixed views on whether it is effective or not.


IATIIATI stands for International Aid Transparency Initiative – a format and framework for publishing data on activities and spending. Or is it an agreement? A partnership? A commitment? An open standard? Clear..? Don’t worry, I’ve yet to meet anyone who truly understands exactly what IATI is, how it works, and what impact it has. But most of us just need to learn how to use it and how to publish our data (DFID insist on it) – Bond has a great guide to help get you started.


ICT4DICT4D (Information & Communication Technology for Development), more or less equivalent to terms such as ICTD, Tech4Dev, Tech 4 social good or Tech 4 social change. ICT4D represents a broad field covering practically every potential use of ICT in the aid and development sector – within health, education, for NGO management, for donors, for intermediaries, for end-users. Sometimes its definition is stretched to other forms of technology (water monitoring, drones, solar power) – anything where there is even a hint of the tech being used for information or communication purposes. There are too many good (and some bad) sources to begin to list, so LMGTFY.


ICTDSee ICT4D above. For reasons I have never been able to fathom, the sector cannot agree on whether or not to include the ‘4’, or even to ditch both in favour of ‘digital development’. The ‘debate’ rages.


Internet of ThingsInternet of Things (or IoT for short) is the common name for the embedding of very small electronics in everyday objects and connecting them through the Internet – allows for sensors to be used to control homes, energy etc. IoT in the ICT4D space tends to focus more on ultra-small sensors providing automated monitoring information, for example whether water delivery systems are working or not.


IVRIVR (Interactive Voice Response) is automated inbound or outbound calling allowing people to perform basic interactions via their mobile – typically responding to multiple-choice questions or recording verbal responses for later analysis. It is beginning to be used in ICT4D as a useful and affordable survey and evaluation tool, said to be richer and without some of the limitations that come with using SMS (literacy issues etc.)


Lean/Lean StartupLean is a methodology arising from production lines in Japan at Toyota that focuses on maximising customer value while minimising waste. The original version of Lean does not hold much interest to ICT4D but it has spawned Lean IT, Lean for Software Development and more importantly, Lean Startup – a method of creating tech products that focuses on building only what is needed to better understand your customer – a little like Agile on steroids. It is slowly beginning to be discussed in the wider ICT4D space in the context of things such as Adaptive Programming, and will probably get more and more popular.


M4DM4D or Mobile 4 Development is the sub-section of ICT4D that explicitly uses mobile phones (as opposed to, say, laptops). Given the increasing convergence, the rise of tablets, and the amount of activity happening in the cloud, the distinction between the two is becoming increasingly blurred.


Maker Spaces and 3-D PrintingMaker spaces are (kinda) to hardware what incubator hubs are to software and apps. Supporting people in the global South to start to create their own hardware as well as software could be potentially transofrmational, let’s see where things go…


M&E TechCall it what you will – M&E, MEL, MEAL, MERL, PMEL – monitoring and evaluation these days uses a range of online and mobile tools to collect, analyse and communicate data – although whether this is effective or not is very context-specific. I have collated a list of these tools.


mAgriBuzzword for mobile tools for agriculture – SMS updates of market prices, farming Q&A etc. And there are a lot!


mHealthOn the one hand kind of self-explanatory – mobile applications for the health sector. But unfortunately it’s a messy market, there are literally thousands of apps, so many that some places have stopped allowing more! There doesn’t appear to be a helpful list or guide anywhere, but this is a useful if out od date starting point!


mMoneyMobile Money started with m-Pesa in Kenya (almost accidentally!) and has become probably the most talked about successfully scaled “ICT4D” programme in the world. The success and scaling of mobile money in other countries has been more mixed but continues to grow.


Open DataOpen Data is data that anyone can use, access and share. Typically, this involves governments opening up things like transport data to allow others to build apps that query it. There is some overlap between open data and big data, but also some tensions and privacy concerns that arise when the two are combined.


Participatory DesignParticipatory Design (PD) is an approach to software development that emerged in Scandinavia in the 60s with the goal of giving workers joint control over the changes to their environments that came about with automation. Later versions of PD emerged in the 90s in the US without the ‘power’ element, as a way of including end-users at every stage of product design to ensure the result better reflects their needs. It has a lot in common with the more ubiquitous user/human-centred approaches to design, and with what is usually called Co-Design in fields such as architecture or health, and has more recently evolved into Design Thinking.


Participatory DevelopmentParticipatory approaches to aid and development evolved in parallel to those in ICT, with a stronger focus on how stakeholders and ‘beneficiaries’ could be involved at every stage of a programme affecting their lives. Some widely known participatory development methods include PRA (Participatory Rural Appraisal, which later evolved into PLA or Participatory Learning and Action), PAR (Participatory Action Research), Action Aid’s REFLECT methodology (based on the work of Paulo Freire). More recently, participatory approaches have become mainstreamed at organisations such as the World Bank, amongst a lot of controversy over whether these are truly participatory or not. At the same time, there has been some push back asserting that, in some cases, participatory methods are easy to game or co-opt and simply provide a smoke-screen of legitimacy for what vested interests wish to happen. Interesting times! For a full discussion of how this and participatory design affect the ICT4D space, read my dissertation! J


Participatory GIS MappingGIS (geographic information system) mapping is simply the storing and sharing of geo/mapping data in a computer system or online (e.g. Google Maps). In the ICT4D space it is often combined with a participatory approach to enable communities to map their own region and plot what they feel is most important. One of the first and most well-known examples remains Map Kibera in Nairobi.


Participatory VideoParticipatory Video (PV) is a set of techniques to involve a community in creating their own films. Both the end-result and the process can be empowering and lead to community action. It can be used in a range of sectors, one of the best known is Digital Green which uses PV to allow farmers to share videos on improved agricultural practices with their peers, giving take-ups much higher than through traditional agricultural extension work.


Responsible DataResponsible Data: “The duty to ensure people’s rights to consent, privacy, security and ownership around the information processes of collection, analysis, storage, presentation and reuse of data, while respecting the values of transparency and openness”. It has particular importance when looked at through the lenses of big and open data where the potential for damage through mis-use is so much greater.


UCD/HCDAlthough they have different origins – at their core, UCD (User Centred Design) and HCD (Human Centred Design) amount to the same thing – a framework of practices around understanding the needs and wants of the end-users of a system and designing around these. These practices are increasingly recognised as vital for successful ICT4D work, even if the skills needed to do them well are still relatively hard to find. Combining UCD/HCD with other best practices such as Agile in a development context is an ongoing challenge.


UXUX (or User eXperience design) is a mainstream part of software and app development that dictates that products should improve their usability and accessibility to increase user satisfaction. This could impact on the visual design / interface, the underlying processes or the architecture of the information contained. It is becoming increasingly accepted that UX matters for ICT4D – one of the biggest reasons ICT4D interventions fail is that people simply don’t use the products created. And one of the major reasons for this lack of uptake is poor user experience…


Originally published as A glossary of some key ICT4D-related terms

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Written by
Matt Haikin is an ICT4D practitioner, researcher, evaluator and consultant specialising in participatory approaches to technology. He has managed software development for NGOs and governments in the global South, conducted primary research into the role of technology in participatory budgeting in Brazil, and the impact of digital technologies on the role of international NGOs in Africa.
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6 Comments to “The Digital Development Glossary: Your Key to ICT4D Buzzwords”

  1. Lukas Borkowski says:

    Thanks for the great read, Matt. I would suppose adding the term Digital Development in itself since it describes a new paradigm in using ICTs for development as opposed to the current widespread understanding of ICT4D as using ICT tools for development. I can highly recommend the work by Richard Heeks. Have a look at his latest blog article (https://ict4dblog.wordpress.com/2017/02/28/an-emerging-digital-development-paradigm/) or his more comprehensive University of Manchester working paper on the same matter (http://www.gdi.manchester.ac.uk/research/publications/working-papers/di/di-wp64/).

  2. Jeff Wishnie says:

    We can’t have ICT4D and ICTD without T4D and DD (Digital Development) !

    And ICT itself should be on the list as well, yes? It’s not like it is widely understood, or slides mellifluously off the tongue 😉

  3. Karl Brown says:

    I’d add eHealth and digital health, esp as digital health is gaining a lot of traction these days. Paul Sonnier probably has one of the most well-known definitions of digital health:
    “Digital health is the convergence of the digital and genomic revolutions with health, healthcare, living, and society. As we are seeing and experiencing, digital health is empowering us to better track, manage, and improve our own and our family’s health, live better, more productive lives, and improve society. It’s also helping to reduce inefficiencies in healthcare delivery, improve access, reduce costs, increase quality, and make medicine more personalized and precise.”

    In reality, this is (slowly) being translated into a diversity of things, from digitizing existing paper-based information systems, to novel devices (including mobile phones, but many others as well) that are connected and sharing information, as well as solutions like telemedicine.

  4. Timo Luege says:

    The Swiss Foundation for Mine Action recently released a report on humanitarian applications of drones. The report is based on two years of research, so well worth a read if you want to find out more about the pros and cons of UAVs: http://sm4good.com/2016/12/02/drones-humanitarian-crises/

  5. Green ICT – the application of
    technologies and practices that materially reduce
    resource consumption (energy, water, conflict minerals, etc.)
    and harmful emissions (CO2e, toxic materials, e-waste, etc.)
    of Information and Communications Technology lifecycles:
    manufacture & construction, deployment, use, and disposal. Ensures the expansion of ICT4D does not have adverse environmental impacts.

    More at http://vertatique.com/where-green-ict-ict4d

  6. Thanks for the suggestions everyone have updated my list at https://matthaikin.com/ict4d-glossary/ keep them coming!