Before taking this class, I didn’t think much about the role of technology in development. Of course I recognized the significance of the spread of the Internet and knew how certain technologies could enhance a development project’s overall goal, but I hadn’t considered that information and communication technologies could be the central focus of a project. ICTs are useful tools that can bring us closer to development goals if used creatively. Learning about the uses of ICTs in development was helpful based on the lessons that both the successes and failures of ICT4D projects can teach.
One of the lessons that kept recurring throughout the class was the idea that project plans should be driven by the people they aim to help. In the case of many projects donors take control and manipulate the goals to either fit their idea of what will be helpful or fit their idea of what will look good from the outside. We looked at case studies where organizations with good intentions failed because they did not communicate with their target population. Without understanding a community’s needs an outside organization cannot successfully provide development aid. We saw this in the case of One Laptop Per Child. The recipients and teachers were not consulted with to assess their needs or the possible constraints that could get in the way of the project’s success. As a result, the project has had little effect on education indicators in its target populations.
One Laptop Per Child also teaches us about the danger of focusing on a project’s image. Their video showing children in under-developed areas carrying laptops appealed to the audience’s emotions and tried to portray the idealism of the project. This is an example of Oscar Night Syndrome, or the tendency to choose projects or methods based on their outward appearance and “shininess”. We studied many projects that failed based on a disconnect with reality stemming from a desire to provide immediate impressive results rather than sustainable long term improvements. This is even more of a concern with ICT4D projects than development projects in general based on their tendency to rely on technology to produce results. Technological determinism is dangerous in ICT4D because it fails to take important factors into account.
I learned the most about ICT4D from real world case studies. Many of these lessons came from their failures, showing us what not to do. But during our video conference with Wayan Vota, he compared the percentage of business failures in Silicone Valley to the percentage of failures in development projects. While it is estimated that approximately 70% of development projects fail, the 30% success rate is substantially higher than the 10% success rate of business start-ups in Silicone Valley. Putting things in this perspective helps to affirm that all is not lost in the world of international development. While rates of failure are high, we can learn from our mistakes to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of future projects.
On one of the many social media outlets I frequent, I recently stumbled across a disturbing video. This video describes the plight of thousands of children involved in the newest form of sexual exploitation: webcam child sex tourism. The organization Terre des Hommes is determined to stop the global rise of these chat rooms that allow pedophiles to abuse children from thousands of miles away.
This video was not only deeply disturbing, but also thought provoking. As the price of Internet access goes down more and more people have gained access. This has been largely recognized as a positive chain of events, and there is significant support for the idea of spreading ICTs to the world. We have studied the many benefits of ICTs and how bridging the digital divide increases equity and access to information, but this video uncovers a consequence that I would never have predicted. The existence of webcam child sex tourism causes me to question what other consequences might arise with the infiltration of technology. Are there ways to prevent them? Can we counterattack these problems using technology as well? Terre des Hommes suggests that while Internet access may contribute to the problem of webcam child sex tourism, it can also help track down predators. But what other consequences have we not thought of?
MOOCs, or “massive open online courses” are the newest trend in the world of ICT for education. These online courses use a series of video modules to teach classes to an open audience. An article in The Atlantic debates whether or not MOOCs are innovative enough to be successful. It focuses on EdX, an organization that designs MOOCs that is the product of a partnership between MIT and Harvard. While only 7% of students who sign up for these classes complete them, the president of EdX Anant Argarwal stresses the fact that they are still new and have huge potential.
The author of the article, Robinson Meyer, argues that existing technology already achieves what these MOOCs aim to do. He even goes so far as to say that technology like email and interactive websites, used mainly for social purposes, can be more effective education tools: “…truly learning, I think, happens much more in those places, in places where one types, than on YouTube or in a MOOC course module, where one watches”. This argument makes sense to me, but I have a hard time imagining a publicly accessible email list that would function in an orderly manner. I agree that MOOCs in their simplest state of video modules will not facilitate lasting knowledge but I think that they hold potential. What separates MOOCs from existing technology is the idea that fuels them, the idea that universal access to knowledge is a real possibility with the use of ICTs. This may be an overly idealistic approach to education, but the funding and research going into the development of MOOCs suggest that they are not to be ignored. It will be interesting to see how this technology evolves in the coming years.
After discussing the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) initiative in class, I found it difficult to imagine a context in which this project would be successful. The program aims to provide every child in developing countries with a laptop for their personal use, but it fails to address infrastructure challenges and incorporation into class curriculums. The class consensus was that the lack of contextualization and cultural sensitivity would be the downfall of OLPC.
My curiosity led me to a case study done in Birmingham, Alabama using the OLPC model. Rather than focus on a developing nation the program chose an underserved population in the United States. The project was mired by controversy from the start as the mayor, Larry Langford, pressed it upon school systems without their input. The case study found a number of factors that contributed to its failure, many of which we had identified in class based on our knowledge of ICT-centric development projects.
Responses to a student survey found that 80.3% of Birmingham students either never used the XO laptops at school or only used them a little. The teachers were disengaged based on lack of training, the time the program added to their workload, and the fact that there were no teacher mentors. As in many developing countries, the schools had problems with their existing technological infrastructure, mainly the absence of reliable Internet access. Due to the program’s stress on child ownership of the laptops, the school was not responsible for maintenance and many problems went unfixed. The quote that stood out to me the most in this case study was from a teacher in the Birmingham school district regarding the inefficiency of the XO laptops:
“They are slow. They are sluggish. They can’t connect to the printers. I don’t teach writing with them because I have no way to access students’ written work other than walking around the classroom and looking at it. We even tried to set up student email accounts in my class, but the system blocked everything.”
The results of the OLPC initiative in Birmingham were disappointing to say the least. Part of this may be contributed to the controversy surrounding the project and a lack of general acceptance by the community. But many of the problems were not location specific, including difficulties with the XO laptop interface. If this program was not successful in an underserved city in the United States, it is hard to imagine the outcome being any better in a developing country.
When Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast in August of 2005, ICT infrastructure was severely damaged and communication was compromised. With many cell phone towers out of service, people were forced to use other means of communication to locate loved ones and seek aid. An article published in MIT Technology Review titled “Technology Responds to Hurricane Katrina” shortly after Katrina hit, highlighted the use of ICTs in locating and assisting victims.
The article discusses how Craigslist became a forum to find missing persons. Motorola mobilized equipment including radios and chargers to aid in communication. Many people turned to radio for their information needs due to cell phone tower failures. In addition, people outside of the disaster zone were able to donate to the relief effort through the Internet. Katrina highlighted a change in disaster response that was shaped by the use of information and communication technologies.
The article also mentions Freedom4Wireless, an organization providing mobile wireless networks in disaster situations. It was founded in 2003 and was called on to provide affordable communication technology when Katrina hit in 2005. Freedom4Wireless (F4W) sent personnel to the area to set up technology allowing rescue workers to stay connected. The equipment is solar and battery powered and provided communication where none existed. F4W stayed for months after Hurricane Katrina hit to help facilitate recovery efforts.
Since 2005, F4W’s technology has advanced and improved. It has been deployed in a number of disaster recovery efforts and has extended service to places with insufficient infrastructure to support communication technology. While our dependence on technology has the potential to be debilitating during emergency situations, Freedom4Wireless represents a new era of disaster response that relies on communication technology.
In the following video, professionals from Africa explain why they think many ICT4D projects fail. It shows their perspectives on ICT4D and highlights 7 of the main reasons for failure.
The 7 reasons stated in the video are:
1. Ideas/results not directly tied to improving economic condition of end user
2. Not relevant to local context/strengths/needs
3. Not understanding infrastructure capability
4. Underestimating maintenance costs and issues
5. Projects only supported by short term grants
6. Not looking at the whole system
7. Project built on condescending assumptions
These seven reasons for ICT4D failure encompass much of what we have discussed in class. Some of the specific things that the people in the video talk about go into greater detail in terms of this succinct list. For example, one community organizer discusses how many projects are designed outside of the community without enough initial research or understanding of how the society works. Not only do they not do enough before, sometimes they come in with an attitude of superiority and the notion that they will be teaching the people there how to use technology, instead of working with them to see how it can be of the greatest benefit to them. Just as Richard Heeks argues, many ICT4D projects have a one-size-fits-all approach and do not take into consideration that each context is unique and some things don’t work everywhere.
The video also discusses the need for developed infrastructure to support projects. One man speaks of power outages and how they are an accepted reality in many communities. People are used to the power going out without warning and do not expect notice in advance. Another ICT professional discusses how his community received 40 computers and now none of them work. They were given as gifts, but their maintenance could not be paid for so they are out of use now. This is an example of an underestimation of costs. The biggest overarching problem that seems to be recurring in the video -and in actual ICT4D projects- is that the project designers and implementers do not fully understand the culture and the problems that need to be addressed. This will continue to be the biggest issue until ICT4D projects work more closely with communities and are led by members from the bottom-up.
The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) aim to prioritize development strategies in order to address the most pressing global issues. While somewhat unrealistic in their scope, they do succeed in outlining eight development sectors. The MDGs address ICT use in Goal 8, and more specifically section 8F. Goal 8 is to develop a global partnership for development, while Target 8F states: “In cooperation with the private sector, make available benefits of new technologies, especially information and communications”. Although Target 8F is the only implicit inclusion of ICT use for development, ICTs have the potential to enhance development projects throughout all of the eight MDG goals.
Chile has adopted this strategy by using ICTs to target the second MDG, to achieve universal primary education. ICTs have played a major role in the revision of Chile’s education policy. This includes the introduction of ICT, the training of teachers in its use, and the development of an educational portal on the Web (Kozma, 2005). In order to address inequalities in the education system, special attention was given to schools in rural communities in order to close the education gap (essentially addressing the “digital divide”). As a result of this new policy, by 2004 80% of the nation’s schools were equipped with digital resources and 55% had Internet access, while more than 60% of rural schools had broadband Internet access (Kozma, 2005). Chile gives an example of how ICTs can be applied to individual Millennium Development Goals outside of the goal for global partnerships for development. This opens up the possibility for ICT use in other sectors as well.
In considering the MDGs it is important to consider how ICTs can offer solutions to problems in all eight development sectors. Their application through Chile’s education policy is a testament to their effectiveness when correctly applied.
(Image from http://www.un.org/millenniumgoals/education.shtml)
In beginning to study information societies and what contributes to their functionality, the issue of infrastructure continued to show up as a confining factor. A country can have access to highly developed technology, but if it lacks a sufficiently developed electrical infrastructure the functionality of this technology will be compromised. Social and political environments can contribute to the success or failure of ICT4D as much as anything else. A blog post from ictlogy.net describes what the author, Ismael Peña-López, states are necessary precursors to a successful information society.
In his post, Peña-López argues that the nature of an institution that fosters the development of an information society is crucial to its functionality. Such an institution should have a multidisciplinary approach and be independent in political and economic terms. This means that it should not be placed under the control of another ministry or department (to avoid bias) and that it should not receive revenue solely from a particular party or lobbying interest. This makes sense when considering how these outside interests could affect unequal accessibility and widen the digital divide within a country.
Peña-López goes on to lay out a set of three important issues that an institution foster ICT4D should consider. One is stressing the importance of context, or understanding the meaning of each data set. This means close analyzation of the state of development of the information society is required. The second is that the institution should provide policy advice, including monitoring and measuring the impact of these policies. The third states that an institution should set up and execute programs that support ICT for development. The format of these programs will rely heavily on the understanding and data previously gathered. The combination of these three things set up a basic framework for an information society that minimizes the digital divide and fosters the development of the society as a whole.