Archive for conferences
November 4th, 2011 conferences
Here are five great posts that I have been thinking about over the last few days. I’ve tried to tweet a thought or two but am finding that difficult to do in this case. Too much subtlety for 140 characters, so I must blog. Drat.
I’m not going to try to summarize each of the posts. Each is worth a read, and as a set they are even better. At some point in the midst of this discussion (which also included @jeffswin @meowtree and and @katypearce), I added two tweets
a) As terms, #ict4d & #m4d can be problematic. Perhaps #ictd is better & broader? Simply ICT in/and D.
b) With acronyms: more letters=more problems. Healthy critiques abound. T>techno-focus, 4>paternalism D>growth
Let me expand on these assertions in something a bit closer to compete sentences.
i. As terms, #ict4d & #m4d can be problematic. See blog posts 1-5 for evidence to this effect. @nwin’s newest post with the reference to Kleine and Unwin (2009) is particularly nice here.
ii. Healthy critiques abound. That was a short way of saying that I think the discussion and criticism are important, and ultimately beneficial to the community of researchers and practitioners involved. There are problems with the 4 and with the D. Even if we march on ahead under the banner of say #ict4d or #ictd, we should know the limits and complications of the terms we use, and remain cognizant of how those terms influence or conversations with each other and with the broader worlds of development and technology (and whomever else you might talk to about ICTD
iii. T>techno-focus, 4>paternalism D>growth. Here I link each letter to a common critique of it. But to reply to @nwin, the > is not an = and I don’t mean to imply that links are iron-clad. But they are common. It is possible to be “4” development without being paternalistic, but it is also easy, if one is not thinking carefully, to use formulations of development which can slip towards paternalism. Same for confusing “D” with growth and consumption. There was a long conversation in plenary at the ICTD2010 conference about what the field “means” by “development”. We have not agreed on a common term yet – perhaps we never will.
iv. Perhaps #ictd is better & broader? Simply ICT in/and D. Personally, I like ICTD better than ICT4D, since it allows for alternate and more expansive inquiries into non-instrumental or even counter-instrumental users of technologies in “developing” contexts. (See for example, this great book by Jack Qiu – #ictd but maybe not #ict4d). Unfortunately #ict4d and #m4d get the traffic on Twitter so that’s where I go to learn from and interact with all of you.
v. With acronyms: more letters=more problems. On its own, each letter is problematic and the problems interact when the the letters are strung together. But not everyone agrees about which letters are more problematic. I have seen heated debates about “IT” vs. “ICT” let alone the R and the D. This gets worse with fragmentation #m4d #ict4rd #hci4d #ict4sd, etc. Above, @Stevesong did a bit of a rant about the M but seemed OK with the D. @Whiteafrican took strong issue with the D but seemed OK with the ICT4. Later @nwin made a strong case for keeping the “4”, since is a (welcome) challenge to think about inclusivity, intervention, and power relations in his work.
In summary, I don’t think we’re going to move off ICT4D as the default compound term, at least for a while. But I like these discussions and think it is important for the community to have them from time to time…probably quite frequently since the field/community of practice is increasingly methodologically diverse, and growing. The conversations are not easy as some might like them to be, but that is because they are about a “compound” community. Regular bouts of reflection are not just navel gazing – they should help us remain reflective, careful, and precise in the use of the terms we use to describe what we do and why we do it.
(edited 5 oct 2011)
I gave a brief talk “is this not a phone? on smarter phones and global development” as part of the 2011 WTF conference at CPUT. Contact me directly if you want the slides — they aren’t great without the accompanying spoken commentary, but perhaps useful to some.
I am at the fascinating M4D2010 conference in Kampala. As part of an afternoon session on Access & Inclusion, I will present the following short paper:
Donovan, K., & Donner, J. (2010). A note on the availability (and importance) of pre-paid mobile data in Africa. In J. Svensson & G. Wicander (Eds.), 2nd International Conference on Mobile Communication Technology for Development (M4D2010) (pp. 263-267). Karlstad, Sweden: Karlstad University.
Additional discussion of our project, particularly the crowdsourcing component, is available on Kevin’s blog.
We argue that clear and easy access to prepay data will be as essential to the widespread adoption and use of the mobile internet in developing countries as access to prepay airtime was to the adoption of the mobile telephone. In late 2009, we conducted a desk assessment of the availability of pre-pay (pay-as-you-go) data from major operators in 53 African countries. We identified at least one operator in 38 countries which offered pre-pay data, and in 3 cases we could determine that no prepay data was available. Information available from many operators was vague, incomplete, and hard to obtain, suggesting that a threshold of mainstream promotion of the service by operators may not yet have been crossed. We suggest topics for further research, both on the demand and supply sides of the prepaid data equation.
November 4th, 2010 conferences
Recently, I had the pleasure of attending and speaking at the 2010 Annual Research Conference of the South African Institute for Computer Scientists and Information Technologists (SAICSIT2010). Congratulations and thanks to the hosts, the Meraka Institute of South Africa’s CSIR. It was a great chance for me to meet more of the CS and IS research communities in South Africa, and particularly to meet lots of researchers working on ICT4D related projects.
My plenary talk covered three main themes
- I presented an overview of some of the current research conducted by my colleagues in the Technology for Emerging Markets Group at Microsoft Research India in Bangalore.
- I reviewed some current work, conducted with Shikoh Gitau and Gary Marsden, on mobile-centric internet use.
- I ventured some new ideas about the role of constraint as a unifying concept within the interdisciplinary research community of ICT4D.
Many of the slides were photo-heavy and text-light, so they don’t stand alone very well. But you can follow the links above for background on parts 1 and 2.
As for the new ideas, I’ll share a few core elements below. Comments and queries are quite welcome here – these ideas need discussion before they can be considered really stable. Indeed they are already changing a bit from the original comments at SAICSIT, so don’t treat this like a transcript.
Nouns and Adjectives: Remarks on Constraint and ICT4D
Why ICT4D? Why carve out ICT4D, when we can apply traditional approaches like Computer Science, Informatics, HCI, Psychology and Economics?
The answer, I think, is that in theory and in practice, ICT4D is inherently interdisciplinary, and usually requires collaboration or synthesis in order to be successful. I mentioned Mike Trucano’s list of “10 Worst Practices in ICT for Education” presented at Failfare (DC) as a great illustration/discussion of how many different factors can trip up would-be ICT4D interventions. I also returned to the discussion of mobile internet training we did in Khayelitsha. The successes and failures of that training could be understood from a variety of lenses, from political economies of the South African labor market, to mobile HCI, to gender and family structures, to pricing and telecommunications service provisions. No single discipline has a sufficiently broad analytic frame to account for the complexities of most ICT4D interventions or processes.
After establishing this interdisciplinary tension, I suggested that in ICT4D, constraint (economic, social, human, environmental, technical) is an implicit but critical concept, inviting contributions from multiple research perspectives. This observation was not intended as a an examination of the definitions/boundaries of “I”, “C”, “T”, “4”, or especially “D”. Instead, it simply identified a concept intentionally broad enough to facilitate interdisciplinary exchange within ICT4D. Various forms of “constraint” can be evoked as:
- Designing for constraints (economic, infrastructural, skills)
- Predicting behavior under constraints (pricing, policy)
- Reducing constraints (agency, freedom, power)
The thing that is both exciting and challenging is that the various disciplines in ICT4D are unlikely to share a single specific definition of constraint. The differences may boil down to what is being constrained – the human (user) or the technology.
For many social scientists, constraints are limits on a human being’s possible actions. These constraints range from individual-level psychological factors (skills, emotions, knowledge) to micro-social local conditions, (peer groups, families), to macro-level social constructs (cultures, institutions, economies, networks). As such, constraints both reflect and reproduce complexity, and are unavoidable products of the embeddedness of humans, technologies, and social systems; multiple constraints are always present…and will always be present. To social scientists, constraints are big, permanent fixtures in human societies – constraints are nouns, if you will, with properties of their own.
Meanwhile for many computer scientists and engineers, constraints represent the conditions under which a proposed technical solution must function. A proposed solution X must work under constraints A, B, and C or it is not a “solution”. In this way, constraints present boundaries to technical challenges, but also make them harder. (e.g., it is one thing to create an m-banking application – it is another thing to make with work for cheap handsets, low-literacy, and unreliable security protocols). Consider this slide, which reproduces some of the topics from the call for papers for the upcoming SIG-DEV event in London. The bold terms [formatting is my addition] suggest a focus on technical constraints, where a number of constraints are offered as adjectives “low-cost”, “intermittent”, “low-literacy”, “disabled”, modifying other perhaps more familiar and less problematic nouns like “networks”, “connectivity” or “languages”.
Despite these differences, “constraint” seems to me to be a term that, at least most people within ICT4D, regardless of their research background, can discuss, explore, engage, and confront. If there’s one thing that everyone in ICT4D can agree on, its that we’re working in a landscape full of conditions which can be described as constraints. This baseline commonality is not necessarily the case with some other concepts in ICT4D, from justice to productivity to agency to freedom. I haven’t actually sat down and tried to build an interdisciplinary case for the other such terms, but my hunch is that they each present more difficulties if the goal is cross-disciplinary collaboration and synthesis.
A focus on constraint as a facilitative concept brings a few things into focus for ICT4D:
1. The arrival of computer science and engineers in the conversation seems to have roughly coincided with the introduction of ICT4D as a term around 2001-2002. Before that, terms like “the digital divide’ or “the new world information order” or “Mass communications and international development” were more central. These earlier incarnations of the interdisciplinary field we now know as ICT4D were concerned with social and economic change, in using the power of information and communications media to create a more fair, more prosperous, more healthy, more heterogeneous society in a world filled with constraints on human action). However from the 1950s to the 1990s, it was the exception, rather than the norm, to have the active involvement of computer scientists and engineers who could actually build (or adapt) specific technologies to work under conditions of both technical and social/structural constraint.
2. It is difficult for a single practitioner or researcher to use constraint as an adjective and a noun at simultaneously. To move between technical and social-structural lenses, between software stacks and sustainable business models, between interface design and alternative cognitive structures, or between creating user affordances and navigating political economies is challenging; to bring them all to bear on a single ICT4D project is harder still.
3. Each approach to constraint has a logical distillation (extreme) which can undermine an ICT4D project or analysis. When constraints are approached as nouns, used to describe barriers to human action, there is a risk of analytic and practical paralysis, in which every critique offers another critique, offers a multiplicity of overlapping and semi-permanent constraints, or brings another layer of complexity to the challenges of making things better for (or with) someone else. Conversely, when constraint s are introduced as adjectives, modifying and limiting the applicability of a technical solution, the distillation (in isolation) may be a narrow focus on satisfying a problem defined by a small set of contextual factors constraints, and an unchallenged expectation that most problems can be solved via technologies, given the right resources and time horizon.
There are at least two ways to confront this breadth of concepts and constraints.
Richard Heeks proposes one approach in his article on ICT4D 2.0, suggesting that ICT4D needs “to develop or find ICT4D champions who are tribrids: They must understand enough about the three domains of computer science, IS, and development studies to draw key lessons and interact with and manage domain professionals.”(p 31). These renaissance researchers (my word, not Heeks’) are rare but not impossible to develop. Anyone with a combination of technical knowledge, the willingness to dive deeply into social scene and development theory, and the willingness to spend time in the field, with would-be users of various ICTs, might be able to become a renaissance researcher.
Alas, I’ll probably never be a tribrid or a renaissance researcher. I come from a social science background. Even though I now work at MSR in the midst of some of the best technical innovators in the domain, I can’t code my way out of a paper bag.
Which brings me to the other way we can address the interdisciplinarity of ICT4D, which is through productive collaboration. (Heeks mentions this approach as multidisciplinary teambuilding). It is not by chance that some of the best work in ICT4D comes out of labs or institutes where computer scientists, engineers, social scientists, and designers are encouraged to overlap. In South Africa, these places include the Meraka Institute (the host of SAICSIT2010), the UCT Centre in ICT4D, (where I get to hang out) and the Siyakhula Living Lab. Elsewhere, examples include my very own Technology for Emerging Markets Group at MSR India. Recently I’ve been working on a project alongside a designer and three HCI specialists, and they bring such different lenses and insights to bear on our topic. I could not be learning what I’m learning without them (details coming soon…)
In either case, via renaissance researchers or via collaborations, these vehicles for interdisciplinary exchange and synthesis are a key to good ICT4D work. Indeed, the renaissance and the collaboration mechanisms are best ways to embrace and be informed by these different forms of constraint. Conversation and collaboration can draw each view of constraint back away from its distillations, towards a nuanced but actionable middle ground where remarkable work can be done.
Paper published: A review of evidence on mobile use by micro and small enterprises in developing countries
Richard Heeks has edited a special section of the Journal of International Development, drawing on some papers from the 2009 ICTD Conference in Doha, Qatar. Thanks to helpful suggestions from Richard and from other anonymous reviewers, my paper with Marcela Escobari has been significantly updated since the conference version.
Here is a link to a pre-peer review version of the paper, which Wiley lets us host on a personal site like this. It is suitable for general reading. However, for citations, and particularly for direct quotations, please refer instead to the final and definitive version, available online from Wiley-Blackwell:
A review of evidence on mobile use by micro and small enterprises in developing countries
Jonathan Donner and Marcela X Escobari
The paper offers a systematic review of 14 studies of the use of mobile telephony by micro and small enterprises (MSEs) in the developing world, detailing findings about changes to enterprises’ internal processes and external relationships, and findings about mobile use vs. traditional landline use. Results suggest that there is currently more evidence for the benefits of mobile use accruing mostly (but not exclusively) to existing MSEs rather than new MSEs, in ways that amplify existing material and informational flows rather than transform them. The review presents a more complete picture of mobile use by MSEs than was previously available, and indentifies priorities for future research, including comparisons of the impact of mobile use across subsectors of MSEs and assessments of use of advanced services such as mobile banking and mobile commerce.
Donner, Jonathan, & Escobari, Marcela X. (2010). A review of evidence on mobile use by micro and small enterprises in developing countries. Journal of International Development, 22:5, 641-658. doi: 10.1002/jid.1717, http://www3.interscience.wiley.com/journal/123566679/abstract
Late last month I had the pleasure of attending a conference hosted by the Internet Interdisciplinary Institute of the Open University of Cataluña in Barcelona. The conference, Mobile Phones and the Internet in Latin America and Africa: What Benefits for the Most Disadvantaged? was a great opportunity to exchange insights between researchers working across disciplines and geographies. There were a number of good papers on migration and the condition of human mobility (not just wirelessness). Other highlights for me included meeting Judith Mariscal and Roxana Barrantes of DIRSI. Roxana has been gathering some excellent data in Peru on changes in household agricultural earnings pre-and post- mobile acquisition. It was also great to see Mirjam de Bruijn and Inge Brinkman, editors (w/ Francis Nyamnjoh) of Mobile phones: the new talking drums of everyday Africa. Their work, and that volume, explores mobile adoption in regions which do not appear often in the literature on ICT use, including Southeast Angola, Northern Cameroon, Chad, and Sudan.
I gave a talk based on a new paper reviewing mobile livelihood services in Africa (crop prices, virtual marketplaces, agricultural extension, etc). The paper is in draft form right now – I will be doing revisions in a few weeks before resubmitting for the conference publication. So, any comments, additions, or questions are most welcome.
Donner, J. (2009, 23-24 October). Mobile-based livelihood services in Africa: pilots and early deployments. Paper presented at the Conference on Development and Information Technologies. Mobile Phones and Internet in Latin America and Africa: What benefits for the most disadvantaged? Castelldefels, Barcelona.
The paper describes a collection of initiatives delivering various forms of support functions via mobile phones to small enterprises, small farms, and the self-employed. Using a review of 24 examples of such services currently operational in Africa, the analysis identifies five functions of mobile livelihood services: Mediated Agricultural Extension, Market Information, Virtual Marketplaces, Financial Services, and Direct Livelihood Support. It discusses the current reliance of such systems on the SMS channel, and considers their role in supporting vs. transforming existing market structures.
Drug counselling via MXit, a popular mobile chat program in South Africa.
From a longer article outlining Marlon Parker’s project, on mybroadband.co.za
MXIT, the cellphone instant messaging service best known for chatting teenagers, is now being used to help drug users on the Cape Flats kick their habit.
In the service, based in Bridgetown in Athlone, former drug users who counsel tik addicts use the messaging service as a primary method of support.
The article suggests that they are now counselling 6500 members of the community. I saw Marlon present an overview of this fascinating project at a recent UCT workshop on Researching Mobile Media in South Africa. Marlon’s blog is here.
June 18th, 2009 conferences
I have created an ”author post” version of the literature review published last year in the Information Society. The authoritative version (for citation, redistribution and archive purposes) is still here, but for your personal perusal you might want to use this version instead.
Donner, Jonathan. (2008). Research Approaches to Mobile Use in the Developing World: A Review of the Literature. The Information Society 24(3), 140-159. (alternate link to author post version)
Abstract: The paper reviews roughly 200 recent studies of mobile (cellular) phone use in the developing world, and identifies major concentrations of research. It categorizes studies along two dimensions. One dimension distinguishes studies of the determinants of mobile adoption from those that assess the impacts of mobile use, and from those focused on the interrelationships between mobile technologies and users. A secondary dimension identifies a sub-set of studies with a strong economic development perspective. The discussion considers the implications of the resulting review and typology for future research.
The 3rd IEEE/ACM International Conference on Information and Communication Technologies and Development is in the books. Congratulations and thanks to the conference organizers, hosts, and sponsors for giving the community such a comprehensive event. It was wonderful to see so many colleagues and friends from around the world. In particular, I want to thank for inviting me to speak on a panel on the mobile web.
A lot of the usual dichotomous themes in ICTD appeared during the event: qualitative/quantitative, practitioner/researcher, pilot/evaluation, ICTD/ICT4D, income/choice, etc. If anything, discussion of these themes were more diverse and orthogonal than in earlier events. As a whole, I think these tensions are fantastic. They certainly make the conference lively, but more importantly, they reflect the essence of a growing interdisciplinary field.
I presented a literature review paper, written with Marcela Escobari, on mobile use by MSEs.
Donner, J., & Escobari, M. (2009, 17-19 April). A review of the research on mobile use by micro and small enterprises (MSEs). Paper presented at ICTD2009, the Third IEEE/ACM International Conference on Information and Communications Technologies and Development, Qatar. (prepublication paper) (slides)
The paper offers a systematic review of 14 studies of the use of mobile telephony by micro and small enterprises (MSEs) in the developing world, detailing findings about changes to enterprises’ internal processes and external relationships, and findings about mobile use vs. traditional landline use. Results suggest that there is currently more evidence for the benefits of mobile use accruing mostly (but not exclusively) to existing MSEs rather than new MSEs, in ways that amplify existing material and informational flows rather than transform them. The review presents a more complete picture of mobile use by MSEs than was previously available to ICTD researchers, and indentifies priorities for future research, including comparisons of the impact of mobile use across subsectors of MSEs and assessments of use of advanced services such as mobile banking and mobile commerce.
Feedback from the audience suggested that this might become a living document, with new citations added to this framework via a wiki-style interface. I will explore this and see if I can get it rolling. In the meantime if there are citations you might suggest be incorporated into future drafts, let me know.
Speaking of collaborative content and rolling updates, please check out and contribute to http://africansignals.com/ for a great comparative resource on telco costs and options in Africa. Thanks Erik!
I haven’t been travelling very much over the past few months–the Maputo W3C workshop was my first professional trip since December–so it ended up as the first conference I’ve attended with this kind of tag scrawled on the flipchart.
Tweets emerging out of a conference don’t function all that differently than the more established practice of liveblogging, but it’s a bit odd to be aware, in almost real time, of (for example) who else is not at the conference, but following it.
There are some great advantages to these dispatches–the week before, the tables were turned and had I learned a lot following tweets at a conference I could not attend–however it does seem that the temptation to tweet, or to follow other’s tweets, may draw people’s attention further from the community in the room towards the imagined, virtual, overlapping communities to which they each belong.
Kenneth Gergen considered the implications of Absent Presence long before Twitter was a glimmer in anyone’s eye. However, as I think John Traxler mentions, Gergen’s chapter may worth another look; it seems to apply very, very well to this newest of tools/disruptions.