Author Archives: mattbrandeburg

Digital Divide: Lessons Learned, All Clichés Aside

When summarizing the most specific lesson I can take away from this class this semester, it is without a doubt the implications of the Digital Divide.  From the first introduction of the concept, I found literature framing the topic in a way I had no previously considered; the Digital Divide was and is more than groups being left out of the latest technological trends (as I had always understood it), but also the story of groups being left behind of the global economy in general.  In other words, this was not just a social exclusion, or consumerism exclusion, but an economic exclusion at a very fundamental level.

I find the use of ICTs in combatting this tragedy as something that I will take with me into the future.  In all areas of international development, it is important to frame projects in a way that promotes equality to all.  For ICT4D, combatting the Digital Divide is a way to achieve greater equality across multiple areas.  I will take to heart the success stories, from fishermen in India using SMS to improve market efficiencies to everyday citizens benefiting from mobile banking using MPESA in Kenya.  The Digital Divide is all around us, but the ICT technologies we have today can help us leapfrog these challenges in smart, dignifying ways.  This is the ultimate lesson I will take with me into a future with international development.


I am interested to see if in the future we can focus more on the political economy of ICT4D, or the implication of other fields in general.  In other words, if we are highlighting business, banking, and industry over all throughout the semester, can we bring in tools from other disciplines for one day and understand how they measure success and if there is a connection with what ICT4D interventions achieve in developing countries.  In other words, can there be a day to take a multidisciplinary approach to some of the achievements of ICT4D discussed throughout the semester?  These are things I would like to have considered for future semesters.


FAA Comments on In-Plane Cybersecurity

In our most recent class, the subject of cybersecurity took a particularly dramatic turn when the topic turned to in-plane security with regards to malicious software apps on smartphones.  The app in question is a particular piece of code written by Hugo Teso, a german security consultant, and unveiled at a security conference two weeks ago.  As Gizmodo, a popular gadget blog writes on the subject, the app demonstrated “could falsify data and adjust the heading, altitude, and speed of an entire airplane.”  The potential for this app are frightening indeed; that is, if the application worked as advertised.

Upon further review, the app appears to be, for the time being, unable to replicate its results on live aircraft.  The exploits appear to only be valid in the training version of the plane management software.  As the same Gizmodo article points out, the Federal Aviation Administration dismissed the application’s claims rather quickly.  The FAA contends:

[A] German information technology consultant has alleged he has detected a security issue with the Honeywell NZ-2000 Flight Management System (FMS) using only a desktop computer. The FAA has determined that the hacking technique described during a recent computer security conference does not pose a flight safety concern because it does not work on certified flight hardware.

Elaborating on why the certified flight hardware was immune to the exploit, the European Aviation Safety Administration, or EASA, reports that the training software lacks the overwriting protections that the certified software used in-flight have installed.  In short, it seems that the software was written with enough forward thinking redundancies, authenticators, and other security features that the software is ahead of the present threat.

The question remains however how the software will react in the future to these threats.  This exploit, though done as a proof of concept rather than with explicit malicious intent, nevertheless has been let out of the proverbial bag.  As planes gain wifi and other networking capabilities, how long will these current software protections be sufficient?  What this ordeal teaches us, more than that our planes are presently safe from these types of attacks, is that we must continue to develop software with forward-thinking security in order to ensure our safety in the 21st century.

Forums for Failure, Fanfare and Felicitations: Pecha Kucha Edition

This week’s class addressed the role of public forums for developing best practices and learning from project mistakes.  The two biggest examples covered were the FAILFare and the Dutch Institute of Brilliant Failures.  These groups provide outlets for positively critiquing projects and help facilitate the dialogue necessary for future successes.

That said, forums like FAILFaire are not exclusive to the field of international development.  One such forum which has spread across the globe and appeals to a variety of fields is Pecha Kucha. The format is simple: 20 slides, 20 seconds per slide.  The presentations are often humorous, the space is often a bar in order to promote “thinking and drinking”. These characteristics of Pecha Kucha combine to create a very casual setting amongst peers that allows for honest, unguarded dialogue on successes and failures.

The event can be educational in other interesting ways when you consider its unique format.  The setting appeals to millennials as it is fast-paced, high-energy, and to the point.  This is key, the 20 seconds per slide rule, as it keeps the presenter from beating around the bush or otherwise obfuscating his or her failures.  The informality of it all, combined with its directness, is why the collaborative atmosphere can lead to real assessment and learning.  I highly suggest everyone reading this blog to find out the next Pecha Kucha in their city and give it a try.

The next Pecha Kucha event scheduled for New Orleans is May 2nd; however, no official information has been made public at this time, so it may be postponed indefinitely. 

Criticism Waged From “Bamako”: Development in a Neoliberal World

For this module, one of the assigned readings was on the Zapatista movement in Mexico.  In this article, the movement is placed within a context of anti-globalization protests in the 1990s. As Mark Gelsomino cites in “The Zapatista Effect: Information Communication Technology Activism and Marginalized Communities”:

Anti-World Trade Organization (WTO) protests in Seattle, Genoa and Quebec drew hundreds of thousands of protesters invested in resisting a neo-liberalist conception of globalization. Unfortunately, the “anti-globalization” tag is something of a misnomer. By large, these groups are not against globalization itself, but rather the version of globalization that is driven by unfettered commoditization (3).

This reminds me of a film little known to American audiences yet profound on its indictments on global financial institutions and neoliberal development policy: Bamako.  In this 2006 film, the “unfettered commoditization” of globalization is put on trial as a Malian backyard becomes a courtroom for the citizens of Bamako against the International Monetary Fund.  The central question of this film revolves around value and self-worth:  why is the fate of countries determined by how much they export? According to the citizens of Mali in this film, this statistic bears little relevance with what occurs within a country’s borders.

At one point in the film, a Malian declares the services they were forced to develop did not make them better off.  Instead of free healthcare they were forced to privatize the industry and charge fees for services.  They learned how to do business like in the West: “pay or die”.  A few minutes later, the character declares “we must civilise globalization.”  Unrestrained capitalism, or “unfettered commoditization” is the beast the actor argues must be tamed.

It is important when promoting development projects that we consider the specific lessons we are presenting to foreign countries.  We must not teach them “pay or die”, we must approach the world in a more humane capacity.  We must understand the culture of a target country and not deprive them of a critical service in the process of promoting our goals.  While “Bamako” takes a rather one-sided stance, it holds valuable advice for the Western audience.

The movie ends with a quote by Amié Césaire: “My ear to the ground, I hear tomorrow pass.” There is much need in the world, but let us not promote false hope or continue in our history of broken promises.  There is already too much of that for the world to bear, lest we find ourselves on trial next.

The Gods Must Be Crazy: A Recap of 2012’s “Tablets Without Teachers” Experiment

In the fall of 2012, the internet started buzzing about a daring new experiment by One Laptop Per Child (OLPC). In “two remote Ethiopian villages” where the local children not only had never seen a computer but were illiterate as well, OLPC dropped a box full of their new XO tablets in the middle of the village and recorded the results via the tablets’ memory chips.  The Ethiopian experiment proved to be quite interesting indeed.

The boxes were taped shut and came without any instructions.  Within four minutes, one child got the box open, pulled out a tablet, and turned it on.  After five days, the average number of daily apps used by each child was 47.  In two weeks time, these illiterate children were singing their ABCs.  In one village, after five months, one tablet was hacked and running Android.  Best of all, the cameras were disabled in the XO software natively; however, by using Android, this particualrly motivated child got his camera to activate–then quickly hacked the other childrens’ tablets to do the same.  Every tablet was customized–even though software prevented them from originally doing this.  The kids took the tablets and made them their own.

Still not impressed?

After several months, the kids in both villages were still heavily engaged in using and recharging the machines, and had been observed reciting the “alphabet song,” and even spelling words. One boy, exposed to literacy games with animal pictures, opened up a paint program and wrote the word “Lion.”

The gods must be crazy.

Morocco National ICT Resources

National ICT Strategy:

 Digital Morocco 2013: The National Strategy for Information Society and Digital Economy

  • Also known as: Maroc Numeric (French Version)
  • Last Updated: 21 June 2010
  • Published by: Ministry of Industry, Trade, and New Technologies.
  • Language: English

Programme eGouvernement (Newest supplement to Maroc Numeric 2013)

  • Last Updated: 19 January 2011
  • Published by: Ministry of Industry, Trade, and New Technologies
  • Language: French

Government Links:

Non-Government Resources:

The Lost Decade: Ten Years of Retrospect on Gender and ICT

A little more than ten years ago, the famed Geeta Rao Gupta published an article on Foreign Policy as a continuation of her work published just prior in the International Feminist Journal of Politics.  The title of her article? ‘Till Technology Do Us Part.  The article strikes a depressing tone as it angrily demands from global governments why policies that benefit women have yet to be established when it comes to ICT and the work force.

The conclusion of the article is simple:

[Previous reserch concludes] that maximizing the benefits of technology for female workers requires building on women’s “experiential knowledge,” providing women with flexible vocational training that considers nontraditional job opportunities, and ensuring that the state takes greater responsibility for protecting vulnerable workers.

This conclusion comes from an impressive collection of data where “nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), academic researchers, and policymakers from Bangladesh, China, India, Indonesia, Korea, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, and Vietnam [were used] to examine the ‘problems and possibilities’ that technology poses for women workers.”  Interviews on the ground described cases such as this one where “hand loom weavers in India reported feelings of uselessness and despair because their skills were rendered obsolete by technologically skilled workers.”  There lies the rub, and why the previous conclusion was not how the article actually ends.  Instead, the author continues in her conclusion with the following caveat:

Unfortunately, without a concrete political strategy spelling out the how, who, what, and where, such objectives remain unobtainable. A realistic strategy should identify the individuals and institutions that would implement these recommendations, assess the costs and benefits to the state and to employers, and outline the specific steps at the local, national, and international level needed to translate well-intentioned rhetoric into reality.

Ten years later, and those concerete strategies do not appear to have been formulated. (If they have, dear reader, please post some recomended points of research in the comment section bellow.)  Further, the author implores countries to examine the health risks associated with high-tech work: not just repetitve stress injuries like carpal tunnel but psychological damages and negative externalities like loom weavers lament above.  While the promise of incorporating technology into the working lives of women may make for a great political soundbite, even ten years out there has yet to be a credible response to this criticism.

Neither the First, the Twentieth, nor the Last Mile Will Ever Be Wired

In the coming decade there is a whisper, sometimes growing to an audible level, that perhaps our efforts to bring the internet to LDCs–some from, any form of the internet–will finally be achieved.  The problem with the traditional method of achieving this–wiring “down to the last mile” to ensure everyone has equal access–is that we ignore two basic laws about technology: 1) if you can see it, you can break it, and 2) if its going to take a while to implement, it will probably be obselete before it’s finished.  Neither of these scenerios bode well for the multi-billion if not trillion dollar undertaking world leaders have promoted in the name of wiring their citizens for the 21st century.


On the first point, the argument is brief.  Technology breaks.  And the more parts, the more points of failure.  In an LDC, by the twentieth mile, even if you have been concistently rolling out your network, expansion is exponential and you may soon realize you do not have enough technicians to maintain your network.  In this event, having a wired network is promoting a liability.  Costly to install, costly to maintain.


The second point of the argument is the real key.  Recent advances in cellular broadband have created networks that rival, and in many cases, surpass even the wired connections of the most developed of countries.  Further, building on a cellular network means that, unlike municipal wifi, having wide areas covered while allowing multiple users to connect simultaniously has already been proven.  In the Technology Review article “LTE-Advanced Is Poised to Turbocharge Smartphone Data“, LTE-Advanced, the next generation of mobile internet, averages 223 Mbps (mega-bits per second) in tests.  For comparison, the FCC’s plan for America’s “high-speed” internet (read “Conclusion and Next Steps” following the link) is by 2020 to ensure that “100 million homes should have affordable access to actual download speeds of […] 100 Mbps”.  According to the Technology Review article, AT&T, among other US carriers, is planning to test LTE-Advanced by the end of this year.  If developing countries were to invest in say this technology over costly copper (or even more costly but proportionally “future-proof” fiber optic) cables, they would see a network more than double the “best case scenerio” for the average  American internet connections by the end of the decade.


But why commit to a wireless network in the developing world?  Even in countries where modern, higher-speed internet has reached high levels of penetration, there is the issue of next generation technology.  What is considered fast internet today may work for youtube and twitter, but the Next Big Thing may one day soon require an even more robust network than what these countries currently offer.  What incentive is there to spend the time or the money to essentially re-do the networks, including the daunting task of uprooting and re-burrying all new cables as copper gives way to fiber and beyond?  Mobile has already been crowned the future of computing.  Intel has announced the end of its production of desktop motherboards, Microsoft’s latest operating system, Windows 8, is touch-centric and designed to be best experienced on tablets rather than traditional PCs–the future of internet may come in the form of a network that thrives off of devices that are never stationary.  In this scenerio, even the first mile may never be wired again.



Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics

The efficacy of the Millennium Development Goals, or MDGs, was a point of discussion for this week’s ICT4D course.  The case was made that the impetus for the MDGs was an end in and of itself for the simple fact that, regardless of the final status of the goals, the process of measuring progress (and in some cases, the lack thereof) created resources, networks, and for the first time coalesced a wealth of statistical information that the world simply lacked prior to the launch of the MDGs.

While this is a rewarding byproduct of the MDGs, a recent article I came across in Foreign Policy raised doubts to even this saving grace.  The article “We Have No Idea if Africa Is Rising” by Morten Jerven shifted the debate from whether or not Africa is in fact economically rising to simply questioning the validity of the supposed statistics on which we base our analyses.

As the article begins, Jerven asserts the following :

Some commentators argue that African economies are destined to remain trapped in the bottom billion unless some sort of fundamental change occurs. Others beg to differ, speaking of a continent that’s showing every indication of rapid progress. Yet, despite their wildly different interpretations, what’s striking is that both camps base their arguments on the same set of numbers.

The crux of Jerven’s argument seems to rely on the recent phenomena of “GDP revisions” in African countries. As he cites:

In November 2010, the statistics office of the government in Ghana announced that it was revising its GDP estimates upwards by over 60 percent, suggesting that previous estimates had left out economic activities worth about $13 billion. After the revision a range of new activities were accounted for, and as a result Ghana was suddenly upgraded from a low-income country to a (lower) middle-income country. In the fall of 2011 Nigeria also announced an upward revision of its GDP. This revision isn’t complete yet, but once it is it’s likely to cause a similarly large jump in growth figures. Several observers have raised the possibility that such a revision could actually double Nigeria’s GDP — which, given the size of Nigeria’s economy, would bump up the size of Sub-Saharan Africa’s economy by more than 15 percent. Just to give some perspective: The value of the increase would be roughly equivalent to 40 Malawi­sized economies.

According to Jensen, the agencies that oversee much of the statistical evidence the International Development field basses its assessments on, such as the World Bank, have began to question many previously held beliefs about African trends and, most worrying, have replaced their projects with clouds of confusion and doubt.  To say the least, the World Bank’s chief economist for Africa has referred to this recent perceptual shift as “Africa’s Statistical Tragedy.”

Jerven also contends that this is nothing new for Africa.  As a scholar who has written books that take an in-depth look into the methods used by governments and organizations to collect data in Africa, Jerven has found a common thread of diminishing statistical quality since independence for the African nations.  As he writes:

Upon achieving statehood, African states moved to expand their statistical capacity. They performed population censuses, business surveys, and agricultural censuses. But their ability to do this was hit hard by the economic crisis of the 1970s. The administrations faced large external imbalances, high rates of inflation and general shortage of funds which weakened government bureaucracies around the region, leaving many of them unable to measure their economies. Moreover, the statistical offices fell into further neglect during liberal policy reform that followed the economic crisis in the 1980s and 1990s (the period of “structural adjustment”).

On the subject of ICT4D, these revisions and “new methods are capturing a whole range of fresh numbers, such as data from telecommunications (mobile phones) and the service sector.”  What’s more:

[A] great part of the recent growth derives from appropriately recorded growth in external trade, but exactly how this growth relates to the domestic economy, and to economic development more generally (including poverty reduction), remains pure speculation.

Some scholars have suggested looking at alternative measures. We could, for example, compile new estimates based on the ownership of goods such as television sets, fridges, and automobiles — which imply that African economies have been growing three times faster than the official figures.

In short, we simply don’t know how Africa is doing.  Really, the whole article is well worth the read for those in International Development and should give pause to how much weight we attribute to the next statistical report out of Africa.


Not Another Digital Divide: Perspectives From 2012

Last year, the New York Times ran an article on the newest, latest, and greatest digital divide in America: wasting time online.  This article almost immediately generated heated responses from critics all across the web.  Perhaps no critic was so thorough as Christopher Mims in his comprehensive response on the popular MIT University blog and magazine Technology Review.

Mims summarized the contentious argument thusly:

[W]hile all kids are spending more time with media, those with lower socio-economic status were spending even more of it, and on activities like Facebook that aren’t exactly conducive to learning. In other words: even when you give poor people access to technology, they don’t know what to do with it!

The NYT article gets worse before it gets better, but it does serve an important role in our national dialogue–even if to serve as a whipping boy–on closing the digital divides our country, as all countries, must face; the article drives home a persistant cultural bias with which many of us in the developed world consistently grapple.

First, as Mims points out, perhaps we should put an end to the concept of a digital divide entirely.  While a radical proposition at first, upon closer inspection we see that there may be some truth to this argument.  Jessie Daniels, Associate Professor of urban public health at Hunter College and CUNY and author of a forthcoming book on Internet propaganda, sat down with Mims to help elaborate on this idea.  As Daniels contends:

I think we’ve all sort of accepted the “digital divide” framework, but there are some real problems with that.  First of all, saying there is a “digital divide” presumes a shared understanding of that term and there’s not one.  The original NTIA report from 1998 defined “digital divide” as someone with a desktop computer with (dial-up) Internet access. Since that time, those technologies have faded, yet the terminology has persisted. What many people have done is to talk about “multiple divides” or, as the New York Times did today, “new divides.”  But I find this framing problematic.

I would argue, and lots of others have too, that the framing of “digital divide” treats lots of complex ideas about access to and use of Internet technologies in a simplistic, “either or” kind of way.  Following that 1998 NTIA report I mentioned, there were lots of research and popular press stories that talked about “technology haves and have nots.”  That’s far too simplistic for adequately understanding what’s happening with technology access and use.  And, it leads people – both researchers and journalists – to start asking the wrong kinds of questions, such as: “what’s wrong with the technology have-nots?”  And, “why can’t the technology have-nots behave more like the technology haves?” Given that in the original research, the middle- and upper-classes, whites, and men were more likelyt to have access to technology, those sorts of questions about the characteristics of the “have-nots” just point us to old ways of thinking about class, about race, and about gender.[sic]

In short, by using such a specific subset–white males of the middle class in the United States for example–as your measuring stick, you inherently miss the nuanced approaches to technologies that other cultures bring to the table.  To use Jakarta as an example, an upsurge in mobile browsing has led to an independent blogging phenomenon–and circulation of which is largely spurred by social networks (Economist Intelligence Unit, “Digital Economy Rankings 2010”).  According to the Grey Lady, this would would be a classic example of too much time spent on social media, when in reality their social media presence is largely related to their news cycle.  Daniels calls this “digital fluency”, which while it carries on its own metaphorical baggage, seems to more adept at incorporating these socialtal and cultural shifts as a result of the advanced proliferation of ICT across the globe.

In the end, this article makes the point that not only should we consider retiring the phrase “digital divide”, perhaps it is not even the true enemy of the developing world.  An important observation to keep in the back of everyone’s mind is that perhaps it is the developed world’s hubris, rather than the digital divide, that is the true limiting factor as we continue into the 21st century.