Author Archives: oabell

Is ICT4D for Me?

This week our class spoke with Wayan Vota, the senior manager at Development Gateway and professional in the field of ICT4D. Our discussion offered us the opportunity to reexamine the themes of our course with the benefit of Mr. Vota’s experience and expertise. As we are a class of juniors and seniors, it is perhaps unsurprising that the conversation shifted towards questions about future career possibilities. How do I market myself in the ICT4D field? What jobs are out there? Is ICT4D for me?

One of Mr. Vota’s comments stood out to me, not simply as a valuable insight but also because it identified one of the most important lessons in the field of ICT4D, and International Development more generally. Network, network, network. Any college senior is well aware of the importance meeting professionals in their desired field in hopes of making a positive impression and embarking on a career path. The value of networking, however, is much greater than shaking hands and growing one’s contacts list. It’s an exchange of information or services between people sharing common interests or goals. When networking is used to develop effective partnerships among stakeholders, it becomes extraordinarily important in the field of ICT4D.

It’s no secret that lots of development projects fail, and fail fantastically. Although different sectors of development present specific challenges, many of the reasons for failure remain constant across sectors. Check out this list of the top ten worst practices in ICT for education, all of which apply in other areas. However, successful practices and methods can also translate into positive results for different sectors, even when picking up a proven project in its entirety and moving it somewhere else is often disasterous. One aspect that is common to successful ICT4D projects is an integrated approach that not only takes into account the articulated needs of a community but builds these into every stage of project development. Networking between stakeholders ensures that project designers and implementers not only know who their target audience is but that they also deeply understand how certain technologies will be useful (or not) within these communities.

The networked ICT4D approach gives rise to a demand driven development style which reinforces the necessity of viewing ICTs as tools, not as a means to an end. We’ve seen on countless occasions the pitfalls of technological determinancy and assuming that flashy ICTs will address development challenges simply when introduced in a community–many of OLPC demonstrate this clearly. Effective ICT4D projects are demand driven in that they address stated needs. It is not sufficient to give people mobile phones and tell them how they should use them, rather development workers should ask what sort of task a community wants to accomplish and then find the best tool (that people will actually use) for the job.

The field of ICT4D is far from perfect, and there are lots of misnomers out there about what ICT4D can or should do. I expected this semester to introduce me to the power of technology to facilitate development and combat human deficiencies. Perhaps more importantly, however, I acknowledged the power of people who harness and transform technology to work for them in meaningful ways. Technology makes people more powerful, but people make technology work. Viewed in this way, I can confidently say that ICT4D is for me.

Fighting Food Loss? There’s an App for That.


Want to know exactly when to shield yourself from an impending downpour? There’s an app for that. Sick of sitting on hold? LucyPhone will do that for you. How about combatting food shortage in Africa? Now, there’s an app for that too.

Researchers at the researchers at the University of Twente’s Ujuizi Laboratories have developed Cheetah, a new smartphone app that provides transporters, growers, and traders with satellite information that helps them locate the fastest route, route with the least additional costs, or otherwise best route in order to reduce food waste. Cheetah presents both crowd-sourced information from Copernicus Sentinel-2 and MERIS and data collected from third parties to provide a clearer picture of route conditions and crop market value. Drivers are notified of areas in which certain factors caused delays for others, and then have the opportunity to make updates to this information.

According to researchers at the Ujuizi Laboratories, Africa sustains post-harvest produce losses of US $48 billion annually. Let’s do some math. A reduction in post-harvest loss by one percent could save US $480 million a year. That’s a lot of lettuce. Moreover, an estimated 20 to 50 percent of crop losses take place post-harvest, primarily during the transport of crops. Poor road infrastructure and frequent pressure on drivers to pay out bribes along their routes contribute to considerable delays during transport.

To date Cheetah has garnered significant attention from the tech community. The app won the 2013 European Space Agency’s App Challenge €10,000 prize and €60,000 business incubation package, but can Cheetah hope to have the impact that its developers envision? With available 3G network connectivity along most of the trans-African Highway and increased penetration of mobile and smartphone telephony Cheetah may succeed in achieving a significant reach. Indeed, the app’s design ensures that its increased use will improve the quality of the information available on Cheetah.

Still, as Laurie Walker Hudson of Frontline SMS notes, technology is only 10% of the solution in ICT4D initiatives. On the ground intelligence about poor road infrastructure and instances of bribery may help individual drivers avoid more costly routes but it alone will not direct funds toward road maintenance or transform lower transportation costs into lower market prices for consumers. It is important to avoid the trap of technological determinacy and assume that one app can engender accountability. Food shortages are often fed by political conflict, not just transportation challenges. Cheetah is a fantastic cost-cutting concept and a realistic application of crowd-sourcing technology, but that’s not all it takes to get to market.

Maps: More than Point A to Point B


Maps are mind-blowing. Click here to see what I mean. However, since mapping allows creators of maps to present all sorts of information in a variety of ways it’s importance to be aware of any agendas that may be operating in the development of these maps. This is one of the reasons that OpenStreetMap is such a cool premise. Anyone can edit it, so theoretically there’s no cause for concern about one overarching agenda.

This week our class has joined the OpenStreetMap community and taken up the task of mapping Chitwan, Nepal. I’ve found that watching the lines and squares appear while tracing roads and buildings is both empowering and intimidating. Contributing to the world’s largest crowdsourcing and open license project certainly has implications far beyond the walls of our classroom, but it’s easy to feel disconnected from the on-the-ground impacts of the technology.

The benefits of mapping are fairly clear in the context of humanitarian responses, but how can maps be of use in a broader development sense? OnTrack and CPD Maps are two examples where the power of maps has been successfully harnessed to target resources most effectively. After all, one significant advantage of maps is their ability to get us from point A to point B most efficiently.

Unveiling OnTrack at the 2013 Esri User Conference.

Unveiling OnTrack at the 2013 Esri User Conference.

OnTrack is a citizen feedback platform developed to facilitate communication through citizens and governments. However, this communication becomes more challenging when a lack of data on local infrastructure hampers monitoring of the status of various projects. That’s where mapping comes in. A “Mapping Party” at the 2013 Esri User Conference used OpenStreetMap’s platform to map infrastructures and identify project sites and beneficiaries, creating upwards of 640 building footprints. This allows for more effective communication between project implementers and targeted communities, and facilitates monitoring of development initiatives.

CPD map.

CPD Maps is an application that allows donors to target funding to neighborhoods with the greatest need for assistance. It works by providing data and maps that help identify census tracts with particular conditions, such as funded projects, neighborhood rent, and economic need, which allows for an overlay of areas of poverty on the maps. Moreover, donors and the public can access CPD maps from the US Department of Housing and Urban Development’s website. This allows anyone to see where federal investments are being made, information which may empower individuals to suggest future development targets.

In this way, maps may increase the accountability of government agencies and development organizations to the communities in which they work. Furthermore, crowdsourcing projects like OpenStreetMap may decrease the chance of a specific agenda shaping the data that is shared. Looks like maps aren’t static after all.

Texts Saving Lives? An eHealth Initiative in Tanzania


Usually when I ignore a text on my phone I manage to evade calamitous circumstances. However, the use of mobile and SMS technologies in ICT4D initiatives increasingly places greater importance on the act of sending a text.

As with many ICT4D initiatives, mobile SMS based projects have often failed to achieve their desired impact. Just as frequently, it is difficult to draw meaningful conclusions from their results, which may further complicate project design. Yet another challenge lies in the scaling up of successful projects for application in different areas.

Launched in 2009, SMS for Life is one example of a promising eHealth initiative with the potential to significantly increase the efficiency of supply chains for malaria drugs. This collaboration among IBM, Novartis, Vodafone, Roll-Back Malaria, and the Tanzania Ministry of Health and Social Welfare monitors the availability of malaria reduction drugs in Tanzania to reduce the number of malaria-related deaths through increased access to these medications.

SMS for Life works by sending healthcare staff automated text messages every Thursday, which prompt them to check their stock of anti-malarial drugs. The health workers then reply with this information via free SMS to the central database system. If they haven’t responded by Friday, they receive another text reminder. On Monday, the system sends this gathered information to a district management officer who makes the arrangement to deliver the needed supplies.

According to Vodafone’s Mobile Health Scientific Adviser Dr. Diane Sullivan, “The SMS for Life solution shows the tremendous potential of mobile technology to deliver social good through lateral thinking by helping to ensure supplies of life-saving drugs.” Indeed, 3rd party evaluation results from the six-month pilot program in 229 villages suggest that Dr. Sullivan’s optimism for this public-private partnership is well placed. At the beginning of the pilot, 26% of health facilities had no dosage of artemisian-based combination therapies (ACTs), while at the end of the program this figure was less than 1%. Additionally, over the course of the period stock-outs reportedly dropped from 79% to 26%. By the end of the pilot, the number of people with access to malaria treatments, including ACTs and quinine injectables, increased to 888,000 from 264,000.

One likely reason for the success of SMS for Life is the model of a public-private partnership that combines the expertise of business, government and NGO professionals. Too often these actors fail to coordinate their activities in an effective manner, or they leverage power against one another. The SMS for Life model has streamlined the medicine supply chain and ameliorated many of these concerns. Certainly, another great advantage of SMS for Life is the potential it has to be scaled up and applied in other areas. Over 5,000 health facilities across Tanzania are using the SMS for Life system. To date, plans are in place for country scale ups following pilot programs in Ghana, Kenya, and Cameroon. Furthermore, this model could also be used to monitor other medicines.

While the SMS for Life model has positive implications for health systems worldwide, it is important to recognize that the system is not a solution on its own. Reporting on the supply needs of rural health clinics will not be effective without sufficient infrastructure to deliver drugs to these facilities. In addition, corruption stands to interrupt even the most efficient supply chain. Mobile and SMS technologies can be hugely effective tools for the provisioning of eHealth services, but they can’t do all the work themselves.

Read more about the Novartis SMS for Life initiative here.

iHub: Tech Networking in Nairobi


Across the globe there are many examples of ICT significantly increasing business productivity. In Nairobi, Kenya iHub, a seeks to do just that. Conceived of by the developers of Ushahidi, iHub provides an open forum for members of the tech community including programmers, designers and researchers in Kenya to exchange information and facilitate entrepreneurship. Their goal is to build an ecosystem of both financial and intellectual support around technological innovators and help ideas grow to their desired scale. To date, the community workspace counts over 12,000 members and iHub has developed partnerships with Intel, Google, Samsung, Omidyar, Nation Media, and Hivos.

iHub’s success in networking within the ICT industry are quite clear, but are iHub’s activities truly catalyzing the Kenyan tech community’s growth? Further, is the growth of this industry having impacts on the lives of those not directly associated with the tech community? Membership in iHub is open only to those who are already in the tech field, which may serve as a barrier to potential ICT users. Additionally, it may be challenging for members to progress through the three levels iHub membership. The most basic level of membership, white gives users access to a weekly newsletter, job board postings, event invitations, and entry into the physical iHub workspace one day a week. Members may then apply for green, and finally red memberships which offer further opportunities to grow tech projects and network with investors. However, red membership requires a payment of Kshs 15,000.

Any successful ICT project within a country’s business sector must be accompanied by a desirable business environment and solid governance. Since Kenya is no stranger to charges of corruption, it is important for the government to ensure that it helps to facilitate a climate that is attractive to investors. iHub is a great example of a community driven initiative to spur development within Kenya’s business sector, but its participants would do well to recognize that it will require collaboration with the Kenyan government to be most effective.

Check out iHub’s activities on their website, and read what a UNDP chief thinks about their initiatives here.

Lessons in Disaster Preparedness

Check out this great video by Caitria and Morgan O’Neill about how to step up in the face of disaster. It has some great info about disaster prevention.

Hazards don’t always become disasters. Ideally, mitigation and risk reduction techniques equip communities with measures of preparedness that prevent threats from wreaking havoc on their infrastructure and populations. However such policies must be enacted at the government level and require significant foresight and regional cooperation that is not present in all vulnerable communities. Furthermore, prevention isn’t as chic or sexy as recovery. It’s the difference between riding in to battle on a white horse and lugging stones to build a wall; everyone wants credit as the knight in shining armor. As a result, communities are often overwhelmed with an incredible influx of donated resources following a disaster. Many outsiders want to respond for a variety of reasons, but unfortunately this response is often characterized by a lack of efficiency and coordination.

Working in the United States and Canada, the organization Recovers presents a functional infrastructure to guide communities in disaster recovery and address this fundamental issue in disaster response scenarios. The organization, created by Caitria and Morgan O’Neil after a tornado hit their hometown of Monson, Massachusetts, utilizes a framework that provides easy to use software to help communities prepare together, mitigate risk, and match resources with needs on a local level through four main features. Volunteer management channels volunteers and skills to where they are needed, case management handles cross-organization aid coordination and online as well as mobile requests, and donation databasing maps and matches local resources efficiently. Finally, Recovers functions as an information hub and community messaging center to communicate effectively within affected areas and with responders.

The key question here is whether the Recovers framework has potential applicability elsewhere in the world and implications for ICT4D. A lack of on the ground knowledge of community needs is a common reason for ICT project failure, as well as inefficiency in disaster response, and it would be wrong to assert that exact duplication of this model would be possible, as many of the areas most vulnerable to natural hazards have weak mobile and internet connectivity. However, the takeaways are still valuable, particularly with regard to the prioritization of certain needs and focus on a streamlined response process.

This is a timely concern as we in the United States end our second day of the government shutdown. Talk of furlough of non-essential personnel, suspension of preventative measures like the CDC’s seasonal flu program, and lack of updates on certain government websites remind us that of gaps in our risk reduction methods can exist here at home. Disaster preparedness is a public good, and as such a free market will not provide it in adequate quantity. Recovers reminds us that readiness is not glamorous, but it makes disasters a lot less ugly.

Demand Driven ICT Industry: The Case of Morocco

Currently classified as a low middle-income country, Morocco ranks 10th among 16 Arab states for ICT development, and is seeking to transition to a digitally literate information society in order to facilitate its economic growth and global competitiveness. While the absence of such a transformation precludes Morocco’s inclusion in the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Digital Economy rankings, the UN ICT Task Force report identifies Morocco as a high demand country for ICTs. The 85.82% penetration rate of mobile phone subscribers for 2010 indicates that Morocco’s population is becoming increasingly literate in terms of ICT technologies, as does the 60% growth in the number of Internet subscribers from 2005 to 2010. From these figures it reasonable to expect that data on Morocco’s digital economy will be available in the future.

A primary focus of Morocco’s national ICT policy is the harnessing of ICT as a means to improve business productivity. Since Morocco is already a leading destination for Francophone call centers, the government wants to capitalize on this and other areas in which Morocco has demonstrated strong potential for export. Open Society Foundations suggests that increasing offshoring and call centers in Morocco stands to add 0.3 percent annually to GDP growth from 2003 to 2018, reducing the international trade deficit by around 35 percent and create 100,000 new jobs. According to the World Bank, high-technology exports as a percentage of manufactured exports accounted for 8% of Morocco’s GDP in 2010, the most recent available data. After falling from its high of 11% in 2003, high-technology exports plunged to 6% in 2008 from 9% in 2007. This dramatic drop was likely due to the global financial crisis and consequent contraction of investment across the board. Since then, it has been increasing steadily, and will likely continue to add to Morocco’s economy in the future.

The greatest challenge for Morocco is also an opportunity with significant growth potential. Morocco ranked 114th of 144 countries in the skills readiness sub-index of World Economic Forum’s Global Information Technology Report for 2013. Despite these inadequacies in the population’s ICT skills, education initiatives suggest promising developments on the horizon, and positive responses in ICT demand indicate a growing interest in these technologies that Morocco can harness to further industry growth. In order for Morocco to best improve its capacity for ICT it needs to address this disconnect between a high demand for ICT technologies and a low rate of ICT skills within the population and workforce.

Benetech: Benevolent Other or Innovative Partner?

Benetech is a nonprofit with the mission of developing and using technology to create positive social change with a primary focus on human rights, global literacy, and the environment. The organization has gained recognition from charitable and government agencies like the MacArthur Foundation and the U.S. Department of Education due to its many successful initiatives.

One such initiative in the field of human rights is Martus, an application that enables users to gather and store information about human rights violations safely by automatically encrypting the data and copying it to a secure server network. This is so secure that only the person who created the data can access it. In situations that threaten to compromise the security of this data, Martus has a panic feature that deletes the data and program then retrieves everything at a later date. In this way, victims of human rights abuses who tell their stories and the workers who collect them are protected.

Martus provides a secure forum for people to tell their stories.

Martus provides a secure forum for people to tell their stories.

Benetech’s Martus software is available for free to human rights workers in an effort to innovate and fill needs where the public sector does not. While the organization’s name evokes the image of a benevolent “other” bestowing the great gifts of technology upon disadvantaged populations, Benetech’s services do seem to empower local communities.

Benetech’s relative success can be attributed to close partnerships with trusted community networks, which enable the organization to more actively engage with its target population. On its own, Benetech’s technical expertise could not be expected to have a significant impact in development arenas; but when taken jointly with needs assessments and local partnerships, Benetech’s innovations may indeed give greater agency to the communities in which it works. This experience serves as a critical lesson for any development group, one asserting that without trust and foundational knowledge, social initiatives are unlikely to succeed.

Read more about Benetech’s mission and initiatives here.

Frugal Digital: Digitally Inclusive Design

Q: What do you get when you cross a mobile phone, a lunchbox, and a flashlight?

A: A digital projector.

No, this isn’t a confusing popsicle stick riddle, it’s one of Vinay Venkatraman’s technology crafts.

Venkatraman is a founding partner at the Copenhagen Institute of Interaction Design. His design philosophy seeks to equip people at the bottom of the economic pyramid with useful technology through the work of his “Frugal Digital” research group.

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Production takes place at a local level.

The group’s work in reverse engineering was inspired by a visit to a street market in Mumbai where this kind of tinkering is taking place. Venkatraman met an electronics shop owner in Mumbai who, in addition to selling prepaid phone cards, fixes gadgets for people. Frugal Digital wanted to tap into this local fix-it culture and channel its energy toward social innovation.

Though the parts may be cheap and the devices simple, the implications for developing countries are significant. An alarm clock and parts of a television remote and computer mouse become a basic health screening tool, envisioned to help local ASHA health workers direct people to more specific care rather than overloading the clinic system. The lunchbox multimedia platform empowers teachers as digital gateways to information.

Frugal Digital team members test a lunchbox projector in a school in rural India.

Frugal Digital team members test a lunchbox projector in a school in rural India.

Technological capacity is a critical factor in determining the efficacy of projects for ICT implementation in developing countries that is often overlooked. Indeed, certain ICT4D initiatives in developing countries have been criticized for taking a flashy approach to development that is unlikely to have a real impact on people’s lives. Simply put, giving impoverished communities the newest iPhone or MacBook is not sufficient to close the digital divide, in part because these areas typically lack the necessary infrastructure to support the technologies.

For this reason, the frugal digital concept is a key step forward for ICT4D initiatives and a plausible alternative to a Western idea of technology and gadgetry. It recognizes the implicit value in the use of local economies and expertise to generate useful products and works on a reasonable scale that encourages community feedback and dialogue about what is needed, and, just as importantly, what isn’t. It shows that the most useful technologies don’t always come out of silicon valley and aren’t necessarily manufactured according to economies of scale. It makes technology that works for people, not corporations.

By salvaging parts and reconfiguring them into new technological gadgets, Venkatraman hopes to empower community members to help create a digitally inclusive society. He’s on the right track.

Watch the TED talk here.


Co-Crea Colombia: Young People as Drivers of Development

During one weekend this past May young Colombians got together to solve community issues in an increasingly familiar venue–online. The event, organized in conjunction with the World Bank, connected young people working to develop applications to tackle security, risk management, transportation and health issues.  Teams from each of the three participating cities competed for three winning spots and a chance to present their ideas in Bogota. Top finishers included:

“Ciclomundo” to let cyclists know which streets are the safest. ( Coco Locos Team, Cali),

“CIUDAPP Cuida tu ciudad” to enable citizens to use mobile devices to notify the responsible agencies for problems with public facilities and infrastructure. (Nerdcore Team, Barranquilla), as well an application from the Emgenia Team from Manziales that gives people points for adopting healthy habits which can then be converted to food donations for community kitchens.


The World Bank quoted María Isabel Mejía, Colombia’s Deputy Minister of Information Technologies and Systems, who said, “this type of activity is spectacular because it promotes innovation, creativity, cooperation and citizen participation to help solve the city’s problems.”

Mejía’s enthusiasm is well-placed. In channelling the energy of the younger generations, countries may harness an eagerness to stay abreast of new trends in communication tools and greater technological literacy for effective development. This way, countries can hope to circumvent the digital divide that prevents them from best taking advantage of information and communication technologies.

Indeed, the 2011 ICT “Facts and Figures” report published by ITU indicates that, across the board, younger people are spending more time online than their older counterparts. Perhaps even more exciting are the people who have yet to join the conversation. 70% of the under-25 demographic in developing countries are not online, and thus present a potential windfall of future online activity.


Events like Co-Crea Colombia provide an opportunity to link socially-minded young people, from the aspiring social entrepreneur to the new kid on the block (with a smartphone), and empower them to develop plausible solutions to community problems that they encounter in their daily lives.