Doing ICT4D

"We are stuck with technology when what we really want is just stuff that works." - Douglas Adams

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to ICT4D projects. If there were, we wouldn't need field guides like this.

There are a number of project guides, process checklists, and tools out there to get you started in specific ICT4D domains. Check out the tools and platforms section to find links to them.

However, there are a number of general principles to keep in mind when planning, consulting, carrying out, and sustaining ICT4D projects in the field. They essentially revolve around thinking of people first, of listening and doing everything you can to understand your environment, of not leading with technolog first, and of understanding the impact of any tech-related intervention.

People come first

It has become a sort-of mantra in ICT4D that people come first, that solutions are designed around individuals, and that the technology exists to serve human-centered outcomes.

It has needed to become a mantra because so often while project objectives remain good and true, it is easy to lose focus on the people-centered aspect of a project and resort to technical problem-solving. This can hurt you down the road.

Once you've skewed your focus towards building a solution around the technical problem, which may or may not address the person-centered challenge in the beginning.

Remember that ICTs don’t produce valuable information or services: people, markets, firms and institutions do, and the goal is to facilitate their more effective performance and communication.

Know the environment, project, user

This is where ICT4D-professional-as-anthrpologist is key. More than understanding the technology, it's important to observe and understand local context, power structures, information and communication practices.

Allow yourself to start with a clear understanding of the information ecosystem in a given place and its constraints. How is information – broadly defined – produced, valued, exchanged and consumed in a given context? How do various cultural, class, gender, age, linquistic, economic characteristics of an environment influence how people use information?

Remember that ICTs don’t produce valuable information or services: it's the people, markets, firms and institutions that do.

Don't lead with technology

Don't lead with technology; lead with needs.

The tool is not the change. You should start by understanding why the end result you desire is not happening already, and be explicit about your theory of change (inputs, activities, outputs, outcomes, assumptions).

It should also be worth noting here that a proper needs assessment / inventory process might as easily lead you to not pursue a technology-related solution, i.e. to not build something.

Building technologies involve tradeoffs in time, effort, resource, and opportunity costs.

Thought exercise

One helpful exercise before even beginning to sort through the links and resources below is to define what you're wanting to do without invoking the technology.

Why do this?

One, because it helps to ensure you've got a clearly articulated objective laid out ahead of you.

And two, it's actually kind of difficult.

It should never be about the technology. Technology isn't the thing, it's the thing that allows you to do the thing.

The wet blanket of ICT4D

One of the challenges when working in ICT4D is that the field worker has the burden of being realistic about the limitations of technological innovation. This realism may run counter to the enthusiasm for tech solutions that are held by project stakeholders, users, and colleagues alike.

It's hard to argue for simple and time-tested solutions like SMS, phone-based services, and radio than the headline-garnering trends like A.I., drones, and blockchain.

But the ICT4D professional is not out to save the world by their own efforts. As well-intentioned field staff, we must be vigilant of our own hubris, and acknowledge the underlying complexity of the challenges we are working to address.

Technology is only an amplifier

The mere fact that a technological innovation exists and is potentially 'available' in not in itself a guarantee of being on a path towards economic and social growth.

We often hear stories about the ways in which access to the Internet and mobile communications can be life-changing, but there are a great number of stories where technological innovation has a negative impact.

Technology is not in itself a magic bullet in development. It is neither inherently a ‘good’ nor a ‘bad’ thing.

Access to technologies, to information, and to services can potentially serve to exacerbate and amplify inequality, limit opportunities to the rich and well-connected, and leapfrog marginalized communities.

If you want to learn more about technology-as-amplifier argument, I recommend reading Kentaro Toyama, particularly his book Geek Heresy.

Hype cycles

The development community has been too obsessed with technology-as-invention, and too little focused on technology-in-use.

A 'hype cycle' is one way to characterize how people tend to over-emphasize the new technologies and ideas in the short-run, and to under-emphasize them in the long run. The 'hype cycle' traces a level of interest and investment over time as it ascends to a broader trend of interest, loses its lustre as not being a cure-all, and eventually begins to rise again as an area with renewed interest and productivity.

Hype Cycle

Hype Cycle from Gartner — Source: Wikipedia.

The challenge in ICT4D is not simply to recognize that the Hype Cycle exists in the minds of stakeholders, beneficieries, and teammates—but to also be allergic to the hype itself.

The task of the ICT4D professional is to use that interest and investment in a new technology or idea and to be able to move as effectively as possible to a more realistic and productive phase of development alongside partners in a way that allows for local and national organizations to build out their own capacity in their own fashion.

Principles

Some great jumping-off point for thinking about principles within the ICT4D sector include this checklist for digital inclusion from the UK Government Digital Service, and the Best Practices in the use of ICTs—a discussion paper from United Methodist Communications that gives ICT practitioners a list of the best practices in the use of ICTs for development.

Of course, these are not specific to ICT4D projects, nor should they be limited to technology-related efforts—they are helpful in a variety of field circumstances and projects.

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