The future of ICT: universal, sustainable, open

«To my knowledge, no information technology process has been a success, so far.» Tim Unwin – a very well-known top notch ICT4D guru – enjoyed being provocative during a symposium at VU University in Amsterdam on May 16th. The meeting gathered information scientists, anthropologists, and political scientists so that they could reflect upon the role of ICT in development, now and in the future. The following is a recap of the major interventions.

[By Serena Carta – from the ICT4dev column]


Stefan Schlobach, the coordinator of one of the very few EU university masters on the ICT4D topic available from VU Amsterdam, opened the meeting bring up the perspective of information scientists working in ICT4D. «Involving information scientists in ICT4D allows for the creation of many opportunities,» Schlobach said, listing all the research fields he and his colleagues are focusing on:

  1. human-computer interaction, particularly via voice user interfaces
  2. access to quality information all over the world (from multilanguage sources to content curation)
  3. environmentally friendly sustainable ICT
  4. data protection and safety over the web
  5. emergency management
  6. Internet and web where there’s no landline – using GSM network only

As soon as one moves away from a purely technological perspective toward more of a sociological one, different contexts coalesce in all their fascinating complexity. That implies the list of the questions about how to use ICT for development gets longer and longer.

Mirjam de Bruijn, a contemporary history and anthropology university professor, introduced us to the social science approach to this problem. Building on the “Mobile Africa Revisited” report from Mali Chad Niger and Cameroon in years 2006 to 2013, Prof de Bruijn focused on social dynamics and self-developmental mechanisms triggered by the usage of ICT, particularly mobile phones. «Over the span of a decade, GSM coverage spread out like wildfire, throughout the African continent, so much so that nowadays we can claim that almost everybody has a mobile available. When a given village has not coverage, some can surely be found just few kilometers away – the researcher pointed out – In these settings, how did technology impact a society with its communication rules, language and grammar?

In other words, what happens when people get access to ICT and, by way of it, they are exposed to information produced in other parts of the world? How do individuals – and  communities as well – react to it? Finally, how do barriers and mobility change in a continent that is quintessentially mobile, as shown by all the migrations and diasporas it witnessed?».

It is hard to find proper answers to these questions because every situation has its peculiarities. Furthermore, the study of societal changes due to ever-changing technologies requires additional time to come to completion.

Despite that, Mirjam de Bruijn concluded that the transnational ethnic and religious communities under study became stronger by way of mobiles. Cellular phones allowed members to take an active role within the community they originally belonged to without having to cross the borders physically.

Stéphane Boyera, a consultant in ICT4D and a Voices project partner (see video below), pointed out the limits of the so-called “mobile revolution”. Said limits are perceived differently with respect to the “poverty level” of the social class of the ones involved.

Let us go through them together:

  1. access to technology: Together with Nigeria and South Africa, Kenya is one of the most technologically advanced countries in the continent. 53% of mobiles are 2G (phone calls, and short text messages), whereas smartphones (adding Internet connection) are 9%
  2. user culture and profiling: Given that Mali has a 26% literacy rate, most users do not have enough knowledge of basic ICT usage
  3. language barrier: most ICT services are developed by and for English speakers. This makes it harder for people speaking another language or a local dialect
  4. low salaries: it means not enough money to buy either the tools or the services
  5. huge gaps between rural and urban areas and among social classes: «All around the world, people belonging to the elite are more likely to own tablets and smartphones and therefore be always connected to the Internet – concluded Boyera – The lower you go down the social pyramid, the less devices you find».

According to the expert, voice based technology – increasingly used for international cooperation – is a possible way to bridge this gap.

Amadou Tangara, worldwide well-renowned innovator in the ICT for rural development field, witnessed about the efficacy of this technology in Mali and Burkina Faso. Using cell phones connected to community radios, Tangara developed three projects allowing crop produces to get in touch with potential clients (RadioMarché), citizen journalists to collect stories (Foroba Blon) and people to announce events or start public gatherings (Tabale). «In every day life, ICT are paramount to get informed, sell products, earn money and live better – Tangara claimed – For this reason I envisioned a vocal technology allowing web services to be provided regardless of the spoken language and literacy skills involved. These projects favored women and youth social inclusion and made commerce more dynamic».

Let us end this roundup with Tim Unwin’s provocations. «What are the merit of ICT for development? Is their use really of any help to marginalized people or is it just widening the gap between the rich and the poor?» this is what he asked participant to reflect upon. In his opinion «the technological revolution we chat about is actual sped up by the private sector interest, the only one having final control and earnings». Unwin invited everybody to think about the kind of development we intend to promote «What kind of development do we have in mind? Is it about growth – improving the economy, freedom and human rights – or is it about reducing inequalities?» – he further maintained that «within the concept of growth is nested a potential widening of the differences, even in the most developed countries» and he went against a concept of poverty that has been «institutionalized and made absolute in the name of a symbolic modernity exemplified by ICT». He, therefore, listed what he considers priorities in the moral agenda of next ICT4D, so that ICT can be transformative:

  1. state regulations hampering private sector ambitions and providing citizen protection (such as support for open source endeavors, privacy protection, public-private balanced partnerships, citizenship involvement)
  2. person-centered ICT (universal, low cost, open, sustainable, designed around community needs)
  3. new models of democracy built upon social justices and collective redistribution rather than individual
  4. affirming both rights and responsibilities, because «access to ICT is not a human right – this is just what private business want you to think».

The Storify of the second part of the meeting


Photo credits World Bank Photo Collection

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