ICTD2010 is over now and we’re happy we were there, joined the organizers and got a very special view from behind the curtains on the conference. We are still publishing interviews and are planning for an extensive wrap up of the whole four days, but as the impressions are still fresh it’s time for me to write a very personal resume on what I’ve seen and heard there, and what I think is relevant for the ICT4D field as a whole.
Interdisciplinary research field vs. Mainstreaming ICT4D
What I really liked at ICTD2010 was that there were sessions and workshops covering many different topics. Different sector-specific viewpoints on ICT4D were all invited to the conference. There were tracks on health, microfinance, environment, gender, open source and many more.
The conference organisers identified this openness to other disciplines as the main reason why there were so many people wanting to participate. They event had to close their online registration early as a result of this big demand. Approximately 580 people registered it to the conference in the end.
Naturally, this diversity led to interesting discussions and fruitful exchange (as far as I can judge). To me it seemed to be a consensus at ICTD2010 to view ICT4D as an interdisciplinary research field on its own.
This of course opposes the view of several donor organisations who want to mainstream ICT4D in their general development efforts (here Richard Heek’s case against mainstreaming ICTs in development). In the Donor Voices session at the conference this tendency was underlined once more, especially by representatives of the Swiss, Canadian and German development cooperation.
It remains to be seen how this will develop.
Practitioners vs. Researchers
A topic which was addressed at several sessions at ICTD2010 was the gap between ICT4D practitioners and researchers.
At the conference, therefore people with both backgrounds were invited and already in the opening panel of the first day, Tim Unwin challenged five renowned practitioners to share their views and to “tell us (the researchers) what they think we should be doing”. Responses called for “focus more on people’s needs”, “more critical thinking”, “make sure community ownership” , “not focus too much on technology and tools”, “a directory of organizations working and researching in the field”, “justification to be able to work in ICT4D” or “research on the regional contextual differences”. See a wrap up of the Opening Panel: Practitioners Perspectives here.
Generally at the conference many people stated that practitioners and researchers should find an appropriate language to share their expertise, so they can simplify life for each other. Furthermore the need for better documented projects as well as more engagement of researchers in the field was raised.
An improvement which Anriette Esterhuysen identified in an interview we held with her was that “people are more willing now to talk about their failed projects”. Also, as is stated in the WWW foundation blog:
there were quite a few papers presenting failed initiatives. Failure can be as instructive as success. But as academic disciplines grow up, they become competitive for promotion and funding, and failure becomes shame.
This also fits with other recent initiatives to motivate people in ICT4D projects to publish their failure as well as their success (for example Mobileactive.org’s Failfare intitiative), as it’s people’s lives ICT4D projects are dealing with and repeating mistakes can have severe impacts.
Technology-driven vs. looking at the individual people’s needs
A very interesting sentence relating to this dilemma came from ICTD2010 programme chair Kentaro Toyama. Having swapped his position at Microsoft Research to the University of Berkeley recently, I asked him which differences between the two he noted in the approach to ICT4D. What he said was, that actually these different approaches to ICT4D drove him in the first place to take the position in Berkeley. At Microsoft Research he said, he was too much constrained to technology, which he considered not to be helpful in many cases (the complete interview with Kentaro Toyama here).
Many other voices also repeated the claim that “technology is not a silver bullet” and the need to look at the individual people’s needs. Kiss Abraham states in an interview we led with him that the focus on technology is de-humanizing the whole ICT4D debate and that much more research on the individual people’s needs and the changes technology brings to them is required. Ineke Buskens states in the same interview that researchers should keep in mind that real people with a purpose are behind all the research (complete interview with Ineke Buskens and Kiss Abraham here).
With our poster about “Stories from the Field: Mobile Phone Usage and its Impact on People’s Lives in East Africa” we were also addressed by a lot of interested people who said they were waiting for more research on such an individual level.
North and South
At ICTD2010 great focus was laid on bringing together researchers from “North” and “South”, to get away from the often-criticized approach to research FOR the target group, but not WITH them.
Furthermore, a very critical approach towards development was expressed. One very catchy quote on this topic was Geoff Walsham saying that development is not a final state, but we all are developing and that there is no need to consider countries of the “North” more developed than countries of the “South” (full length interview to be uploaded).
A novelty at ICTD2010 was the introduction of a Spanish track on the first day which was well attended. Dorothea Kleine said in our interview (full length interview to be uploaded) that conversations about ICT4D should be carried forward by different groups of people in different languages and that she hopes for more participation in languages other than English for future conferences.
Also Ineke Buskens tried to include French and Arabic speaking people in the ICTD2010 pre-confernce platform by translating several sent in texts to these languages.
Related to this, as was quoted by Whiteafrican and Afronline, the lack of ICT4D research by Africans was addressed. One paper (“ICTD Research by Africans: Origins, Interests, and Impact“) even specifically topicized the contributions of African researchers to the ICT4D debate. You can watch our interview with one of the authors – Paul Plantinga – at the ICT4D.at Youtube channel.
The decision to host the next ICTD conference in the Global North (Georgia Tech) was therefore heavily disputed and by some people regarded as a missed opportunity to bring ICT4D research back to the local, affected people. It must be stated though, that Georgia Tech obviously was the only university with a formal bid for ICTD2012, so the decision cannot be regarded as politically motivated.
Most of this is not new
An interesting and maybe worrying fact about the topics above, which I identified as substantial at the conference is that most of them are not new or just recently found out about.
We’ve all heard of that before, at conferences and events, in papers or news articles. As Tim Unwin states in our interview (part 2): “One of the things that probably sadden me most about the field is how little it has changed. We’re hearing much the same things we’ve heard for 3, 4, 5 years.”
Maybe the ICT4D field is still immature as is stated on the WWW foundation blog, maybe it is picking up slowly, or maybe the real decision makers – which are primarily the donors I would guess – don’t agree to the majority’s solution to the above mentioned topics as of yet. The “Voices of the donors” session at ICTD2010 suggests otherwise, but I’m curious if these “old” challenges will be resolved and new challenges will be identified until the next ICTD conference 2012, or if we’ll still be stuck with the current ones.