Author Archives: Thomas J O'Brien

Lessons learned

The most important lessons we learned this semester were about failure. Too often in IDEV classes, we get caught up in success, but learning about failure is most important because it allows us the opportunity to learn. Successful ICT projects require thinking about things from many angles. Giving laptops to children is useless, for example, unless the children also know how to use them, repair services are available, and internet and power infrastructure exists. The overall most important lesson I take away from this class is flexibility. We’ve seen many examples of how projects fail, but the ones that are successful are the ones that are flexible.

In any development project (and most things in life), flexibility is the most important attribute to have. We live in a rapidly changing world. Even in my lifetime, technology has progressed in unimaginable ways.  To be successful in this world we need to be willing to adapt and we need to know how to learn quickly. Because of this class, I have begun thinking about technology in my everyday life from how something works to how it can be used to change the world.

Flexibility is the most useful theoretical framework to teach in this class, but it is difficult to teach in a theoretical way. I’ve learned most by reading about different projects and learning from our guest speakers who brought real world knowledge with them to our class. I’ve enjoyed this class. I have learned to think as a more technologically competent person. This attribute will help me in any career, development or otherwise.

Honduras ICT4D Resources

  1. The Honduran National ICT Policy is a PDF file that I cannot attach here. It is the first result when Googleing “Honduras National ICT Plan.” The file is in both English and Spanish and was published by a coalition of Korean governmental agencies and universities on behalf of the Honduran government in 2012.
  2. The only official governmental mention of ICT that I could find was a presentation by the office of the vice president titled “ICT & e-Government in Honduras.” The entire presentation is in Spanish.
  3. Girls in ICT Day– An event hosted by La Comisión Nacional de Telecomunicaciones- CONATEL in coordination with the ITU Area Office for Central America, Mexico, Dominican Republic and Cuba. The most recent event took place on April 26, 2012.
  4. A 2010 ITU report briefly mentioned Honduras but mostly provided background information.
  5. It was quite difficult to gather information on the ICT sector of Honduras. The government posted virtually nothing online and outside sources, such as the ITU report listed above, did not provide much information about the situation in Honduras.

Facebook’s new “Nearby Friends” feature could be a tool for disasters

During Tuesday’s class we discussed different technology tools that can be used to respond to disasters. Today, I read an article on about Facebook launching a new feature called “Nearby Friends” and I thought it could be an interesting tool that could be used to respond to natural disasters, though it certainly does have some drawbacks. If users choose to turn the feature on, their friends will be able to follow their location. The idea is that the feature will enable face-to-face interaction by allowing users to see which of their friends are nearby. Users are also able to choose which friends are able to access their location information. Furthermore, the location is only shared with friends who have agreed to also share their locations. The feature will automatically update the location of the user.

The initial safety and privacy concerns are mitigated since Facebook made the feature opt-in and gives users much flexibility in choosing who is allowed to view their location. Users must be cautious with who they allow to follow them and parents must be especially vigilant about their children. But, if used properly, it gives only people close to them the ability to view their location. In times of disaster, this could be extremely beneficial. Following disasters, family and friends often have a difficult time locating their loved ones. This feature has the potential to allow people to quickly locate their loved ones. It could be deployed in disaster zones for this purpose.  It is, however, limited in how much it could be used since the app would still require some type of network connection to continue sending updates.

ATMs at risk

Our speaker on Tuesday mentioned an interesting fact that most ATMs in the world rely on outdated operating systems. I found this fact interesting and researched it further. It turns out that 95 percent of the world’s ATMs run on Windows XP, a 12-year old operating system. This fact has been in the news recently because Microsoft will stop supporting Windows XP in a matter of days on April 8. The very reason that Microsoft is no longer supporting XP causes concern for ATM users: “XP no longer meets the needs of modern computing and doesn’t have the cyber-security safeguards in place to protect against the current generation of threats.” Banks have had plenty of time to switch over to newer technologies because Microsoft announced the April 8 date back in 2007. While some banks, like JP Morgan Chase, have purchased service extensions, others will let their ATM technology go unserviced. This fact puts banks and their customers at risk for cyber attacks that are becoming more and more sophisticated every day. The average consumer has no way of telling if they are using an unserviced ATM. Customers around the world will be nervous to use an ATM, but few people in developed countries will stop using them. We know that our banks and governmental regulatory agencies insure our money if hackers steal it. But people in developing nations, where there is often little trust in the financial sector or government will be even less likely to trust technology that is meant to make their lives easier. If hackers do steal money from people who use ATMs, there may not be any ways to get that money back. Unserviced ATMs are a vulnerability that hit developing countries especially hard.

Universal charger policy a solution for developmental issues?

In class on Tuesday, we discussed the challenges people in developing areas face when it comes to cell phone use. One of the things we discussed was the difficulty of charging the phones. When people have many different types of cell phones with many different types of chargers, finding replacement chargers for misplaced or broken chargers becomes difficult and expensive. As one person in class said, few people can simply go on Amazon and have a new charger sent to their houses. 

When we were discussing this in class, I thought of the European Union’s plan to make a universal phone charger mandatory for all cell phones. When I looked up the specifics of the plan to refresh my memory, I found an Agence France Presse article from Thursday discussed the European Parliament approving draft legislation for the plan. The plan now goes to the European Commission for approval. 

The article describes the legislation: “If adopted in its current form, the legislation would include all “radio” products, meaning any piece of equipment which receives or emits radio waves with the purpose of communication, including mobile phones, GPS systems, tablets and wireless car door openers.” 

A universal charger policy such as this one could be beneficial for developing countries. It would provide easier solutions to one of the most common problems with cell phones: keeping them charged. Having the same type of charger for all devices will mean that someone nearby will always have a charger to borrow. It will also reduce costs of chargers because different manufacturers would be making the same device. Charging centers would also be more easily used because only one type of charger would be necessary. People would be able to spend less time and money worrying about how to charge their phones and more time using them to the fullest potential. 

There are, however, some potential drawbacks to a universal charger policy as well. One of the major drawbacks could be that the policy would disincentivize  tech companies from innovating. Perhaps a new technology comes along that charges a phone in half the time. One company would not be able to capitalize on that development because it would either be prohibited from introducing the charger, or the entire industry would have to go along with it; perhaps creating a free rider problem. 

ICT4D challenge: rapidly-changing technology

When we began discussing the reasons why so many ICT4D projects fail, I began thinking about technology that I have become introduced to over the years. As a kid, I used a computer with dial-up internet, watched VHS movies, and listened to music from cassette tapes and CDs. All these technologies quickly became obsolete. More technologies will also likely become obsolete quickly. In fact, a tech blog named 10 technologies that it predicts will soon be obsolete. They include landline phones, computer mice and external computer hard drives.  The rapidly-changing nature of technology makes it difficult for development to keep up. It is a reason why success in ICT4D is so difficult.

Technology has developed rapidly even in the past decade and it often seems as if that development continues to speed up. Even the original iPhone’s operating system is no longer supported by Apple.  When technology works correctly, whether a tool is obsolete or not doesn’t matter much, as long as it is making life easier for the user. When technology doesn’t work correctly, we have a problem. When I take my broken iPhone to the Apple Store, the solution more often than not is to replace my phone (sometimes I’m lucky and still have Apple Care and other times I need to buy a new one). Fixing and supporting old technologies is difficult and expensive.

These problems are even more difficult to solve in developing countries. Often, a tech company will come into a community with fancy new devices. Even with the best intentions, and even if the companies do their homework and decide that the technology is needed, wanted, and able to be easily taught and implemented, within just a few years the challenge of obsolescence comes into play.  For a project to be successful, it has to keep up with the community and offer it services and upgrades for the technology. This requires large costs, a lot of human capital, and proper infrastructure.

As is often the case in development, technological advancement is tied with many other things. For true technological advancement, there must also be educational advancements, infrastructural advancements, economic advancements, and many more. This fact often becomes frustrating. How can we do anything without doing everything? The answer, of course, is we can’t fix everything with the wave of a magic wand, but development work must do a better job of working together. Different non-profits, universities, government agencies, and businesses must collaborate to make the most impact.

After the Millennium Development Goals: partnering with business to increase access to technology.

This week we read about the Millennium Development Goals. We have done a better job of meeting some goals than others, but with the end of the Millennium Development Goals now just one year away, the question becomes what’s next?

Richard Heeks alludes to some problems with ICT4D within the MDGs:

Boss: “OK chaps, we need to apply ICTs in development. Where shall we put the computers?”

Underling no.1: “Well, sir, how about in some high-tech firms in the city that could use them to create jobs and improve exports?”

Boss: “You idiot, that’s not what poverty alleviation and social development are all about. Get out of my sight.”

Underling no.2: “I know, sir, how about putting them in a small village where there’s no electricity, most people are illiterate, and everyone is really poor.”

Boss: “Brilliant suggestion; here’s $100,000; go and do it.”

Though his example may be a bit exaggerated, it’s not too far from the truth of what has happened in some areas. Technology has developed rapidly and no longer fits into the mold of the MDGs. When was ask ourselves ‘what’s next,’ the answer has to include a more sensible technological development strategy that keeps in mind the ever-changing nature of technology.

The Guardian ran an article last week asking the very question about what will come next after the MDGs. It argued that business will have to have an important role in future development.

“The expansion of mobile and internet networks into new territories, for example, could not have taken place so quickly without the private sector,” it argued.

The article is correct. Business is a crucial player in getting affordable technology access to those who need it. It must continue to do that.  The development field must also recognize that market-based solutions are some of the most successful solutions to developmental problems and it must work with businesses and the ventures of social entrepreneurs. Heeks’ example is an important one as well. Sometimes it is more beneficial to provide resources to businesses who, on the surface, don’t seem like they need help so that they can continue to innovate and create jobs for those who need help the most.