Author Archives: hpohnan

ICT4D Class Reflection

I’m not sure how to best organize my thoughts, so here are a few of the positive things I got out of studying ICT4D:

  • One of the perks of being in this class was that it was a nice little reminder of why I became interested in the field of international development. It’s unspeakably refreshing to be surrounded by people who share the same good intentions I like to think I have.
  • I tried things I never thought I would and developed skills I never realized were useful. Writing in this blog and using the class twitter were two activities that I enjoyed a lot more than I thought I would. It gave me a very different perspective on social media, since I was using it in an academic context instead of a personal one.
  • I felt inspired by some of the projects we discussed and I researched. There are no defined upper limits to technological solutions, nor have we ‘run out of’ ways to use existing technologies. Technology that was nearly inconceivable as little as thirty years ago is now mainstream. I can’t begin to imagine what technological advances we’re going to make thirty years from now. To me, it seems like ICT4D, and the entire field of international development to some extent, is a breeding ground for innovation.
  • This was probably one of the few classes that made me take a closer look at other international development practitioners. Reading the blogs of people in the field (for the ICT4$ discussion) was eye-opening because I didn’t realize there was such a strongly established community out there. And it’s all easily accessible to us too, since it’s mostly internet based (it’s ICT4D after all…). The class blog and twitter assignment showed me how easy it is to reach out to these people and start a dialogue with them, which is something I hope to do in the near future.

China National ICT Resources

The official ICT national policy of China is listed as the ‘State Informatization Plan’. Informatization isn’t a phrase that’s used very frequently, so make sure it doesn’t auto-correct to ‘information’ or ‘informational’ if you are searching for information. Other useful things to search for include the 5-year plans, which usually include goals related to technology & development.

1) National Policy Overview – It’s unclear whether the entirety of the policy itself is available in English or not. However, these are two power points that I think provided a good overview of the policy itself.

2) World Bank Reports and Resources– This should probably be the first place you go.  It’s an all around great resource for any country, so I’d recommend starting with the ICT home page and searching ‘China’ (or any other country) plus other key words for relevant information. You can also visit to view chapters of a book related to China’s national strategy. Here are some resources within the World Bank that I recommend:

3) Industry Overview – Two excellent reports on the state of the the ICT industry & market in China.

4) DataTrading Economics has a good master list of ‘communication’ indicators in China. Additional indicators are available on the World Bank website.

Crowd-sourcing: Wikipedia

On Tuesday, our guest lecturer, Adam Papaendieck, brought up the notion ‘micro-tasking’ as an example of crowd sourcing in ICT4D. His example was of the ‘mark spam’ feature on email providers. Each user is providing information so that they are able to collectively make a more efficient spam filter. It enables a collection of small, individual actions to make a better product. I would like to take this entry to remind everyone about the another micro-sourcing platform that I’m sure we all use quite frequently: wikipedia

At this point Wikipedia has been around for quite a few years and it’s safe to assume most people have read an entry or consulted wikipedia in some fashion. It’s a widely used portal for information based on the relatively simple notion that anyone and everyone can collectively contribute their knowledge or time to making a better online encyclopedia. Aside from authoring articles, users are able to edit pre-existing articles, flag articles or sections that are questionable (overly biased, no sources included or otherwise wrong) and contribute to the discussion on articles. Once you make an account, you are able to access the ‘edit’ and ‘view history’ tab of the article in order to see what sections of the article have changed and who made the edits. If there’s a bogus edit made, this allows users to flag the contributor who made the edit. Criticisms are often directed to the abuse of the system and the reliability of the articles. (Ironic wikipedia article: reliability of wikipedia) An open source encyclopedia is certainly susceptible to reliability and bias issues, but this is true of virtually any news source.
Although I share similar reservations, I still use wikipedia on a regular basis. It’s difficult to argue with a seemingly infinite amount of free and rapidly updated information. It’s just so easy to use it as your go-to source when you want what is more or less a comprehensive collection of information about countless topics. In fact, it’s so widely used that I’ve actually had professors recommend certain Wikipedia pages to our class. I’m interested in hearing what others think about the accuracy of projects that use ‘micro-tasking’ as its basis. Even if there are a lot of contributors to a project, it could still ultimately end up failing if their contributions are of so poor quality that the project has no value. Is crowd-sourcing tasks like this a good idea if the outcome could be of an unreliable quality?

Digital Volunteers and Micro-volunteering

We’re familiar with the case study of the Red Cross utilizing digital volunteers during natural disasters. However, digital volunteers aren’t just limited to emergencies, and Red Cross isn’t the only organization that’s utilizing international volunteers. ‘Virtual’ volunteers are contributing to development projects around the world. The advent of widespread ICT usage means that volunteers can contribute to a project that’s happening in a different country (or even continent!) just as easily as a project in their own.

Several websites, such as VolunteerMatch, have been used the concept of digital volunteers to drawn attention to projects that require assistance. Users can find projects that interest them and determine what type of activities they can fit into their schedule. Typical volunteer opportunities include translating documents, research, writing blog entries/newsletter articles, doing grant research etc.

This is an extremely useful tool for NGOs in developing nations, since it increases their access to support. For example, international development projects can be a challenge because of the language barrier.  If there isn’t a local volunteer who can assist with translation, then the organization may be able to find someone with the desired skillset through one of these websites.

Virtual volunteering has also spawned the idea of ‘micro-volunteering’, which applies crowd-sourcing to volunteer tasks. Instead of crowd-sourcing news or reports, these organizations allow a large number of people to do small tasks that help a cause or organization. An example of this would be Wikipedia, where millions of contributors assist by editing and adding new information to articles. Other websites have lists of small tasks that can be completed in anywhere from five minutes to an hour, depending on how much time the volunteer decides to set aside.

I’m glad our guest lecturer brought up the digital volunteers case study. Virtual volunteering is definitely something that appeals to me. It means that I can offer my assistance on a development project that I really care about, but I don’t have to leave my apartment or deal with commuting to and from the location. I only took a cursory glance, but there are a lot of opportunities that I think would appeal to some people in this class. It’s definitely worth looking into!

Surui Carbon Project

An indigenous tribe in Brazil seems like an unlikely group of ICT users, but the Surui tribe, previously unknown to the world, is now embracing technology in order to preserve their livelihood.

The Surui Carbon Project is an ongoing project in Brazil that allows the Surui tribe to sustain their culture through carbon financing. Rather than let indigenous lands with large amounts of forested area be clear cut by logging companies, the Surui have set up the ‘Surui Fund’, where the money that they earn from the carbon credits will be used to implement their 50 year Management Plan. Their management plan is aimed at preserving their culture by using the money to fund health care initiatives and schools so that their population will be able to sustain itself, in addition to being able to protect its forest and reduce emissions.

ICTs come into the picture because the Surui need to create maps that show the exact area of forest they own. They have been working with Google Earth’s outreach team in order to measure and monitor the forest cover. They can also request high-resolution satellite images if they think there is suspicious activity going on, such as illegal logging. The outreach team has been training people in the tribe so that they can understand and use the software themselves.

This novel use of ICTs is also interesting because it is not a single standalone project, but a multi-year, ongoing process in which they plan to expand the amount of forested area under their stewardship. They have received assistance from NGOs in navigating the initial process of con proposing the project, measuring the amount of carbon saved, getting their credits verified. While previously the tribe had been selling off their land a little at a time to loggers for money, under new leadership they are now shifting their focus from short-term economic benefits to long-term sustainability, both economically and culturally.

The Surui Carbon Project is probably one of the most innovative development projects that I’ve heard of. However, I think there is a significant economic risk in undergoing it. There are numerous costs associated with launching the project, not to mention the fact that REDD, the program they are basing their actions off of, is still in its infancy. It was only developed in 2007, so the outcome of projects like this is uncertain. The price of carbon credits vary, and may even be possible that no one will want to buy them. I hope this isn’t the case, because I’m hoping that it can serve as a model for other unlikely groups to begin using ICTs.

Micro Grids & Mobile Phones

While some dismiss mobile phones as toys for entertainment, they are seen as more of a tool for subsistence in countries like India. Electricity is one of the most problematic barriers to mobile phone access in developing nations. Remote areas are not connected to the grid, and the closest area that is could be hundreds of miles away.  Rather than letting this lack of infrastructure deter development, an organization known as Mera Gao Power is helping one of the poorest states in India develop a micro-grid.

Rather than having one large, central plant produce all the power for a region and then distribute it, a micro-grid allows many small energy sources to produce energy for nearby facilities. This type of energy supply is very fitting for villages in Uttar Pradesh, because they typically require very little energy, so a relatively small setup is sufficient for two very important needs: lighting and phone charging.

In a village of 100 households, four solar panels produce enough energy to supply both light and mobile charging. Since they use very little of the energy that is produced during the day, it is fed back into the energy grid and stored in a bank of batteries so it can be used when it gets dark. This allows users to have lighting rather than relying on kerosene lamps at night, and to charge their phone at any time.

One point that should be made is that most developing countries lack conventional utilities (with power plants, a region-wide energy grid, etc.), so small to medium scale solar project make much more sense. It’s not going to be profitable for a company to take on the financial burden of connecting remote areas to the energy grid since those areas use so little energy.  The cost of building that infrastructure would take an extremely long time to be paid back since users in those areas simply won’t need (or be able to afford) a sizable power supply. Generation on a smaller scale, such as through solar setups, can provide a consistent power supply without a heavy investment in costly infrastructure.

While this setup may have some drawbacks (same inefficiency, investment, etc.), I think that it puts a fine point on how important mobile phones have become. This program and others like it tout a reliable energy supply as a means to having light and the ability to charge mobile phones. The fact that mobile phones were one of the primary considerations is very telling.

Link to article: “Indians villagers’ lives transformed by new energy delivery system

Rural Education Action Plan and Computer-Assisted Learning

Despite the minimal success of the OLPC program, there remain other avenues to implement computer-assisted learning in schools. In China, the Rural Education Action Project (REAP) uses similar methods to improve the quality of education in rural China. The distribution of services (health, education, infrastructure, etc.) is extremely uneven due to the urban-rural divide. Students in rural areas can be nearly two years behind their urban counterparts, which means that they will likely be unable to attend college, or even high school.

The purpose of the program is to allow for consistent, controlled lessons that are an addition to the regular curriculum. If the quality of education in rural China was on par with that of its urban counterpart, it could potentially stem destabilization of the country.

While it was interesting to find another case study of CAL projects and the type of development issues they seek to address, I can’t help but feel that this program may have similar downfalls for OLPC. It seems to subscribe to the same philosophy of ‘computer automatically equals education’, without stopping to question if a computer is really the best fit for a child’s education needs.

A laptop, or any other tool, shouldn’t (and cannot) be used as a universal solution to a complex, nuanced problem. Instead of changing the medium of education (from traditional books and projects to computer based lessons), maybe development programs should aim to transform the relationship between technology and individuals.  By treating technology as a replacement for education, rather than a supplement, these programs ultimately end up leading a misguided effort.