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.