Computer science, meet global development

What happens when you put computer scientists, user interface (UI) specialists, human-computer-interaction (HCI) designers and non-profit work together? You get ICT4D, surely? Well, maybe not as it turns out. I just spent the weekend trying to help figure out that very question at a gathering at UC Berkeley, where people from all backgrounds got together to discuss the role of computer science in global development.

I particularly enjoy workshops which bring together a mixture of people who might not ordinarily get together. On the one hand there were out-and-out computer scientists, techies and members of academia from universities all around the world, but on the other a range of people who occupy something of the middle ground. People such as Gary Marsden, Mike Best, Nathan Eagle, Kieron Sharpey-Shafer, Jonathan Jackson and others.

It was a fascinating two days. Here are a few thoughts on the tweets, tensions and takeaways from the event.

Tweet #1

It became apparent early on that there were ‘tensions’ between high-tech implementations and a need for solutions to be ‘appropriate’, i.e. simple to adopt, use and maintain. It was noted that many computer scientists – given the choice – prefer to tackle problems that are more complex, but this didn’t mean that the end solution had to be.

Tweet #2

One of the bigger obstacles was the lack of developing country experience among many computer science students and graduates, and this was seen as a major problem for the discipline. To be fair, this situation exists in the wider ICT4D and mobile fields, too. It was noted that some of the more interesting work originated from people with field experience, and that many computer science students soon realised that their earlier ideas were doomed to failure once they’d had a chance to visit the places where they hoped to implement.

Tweet #3

A question that didn’t end up being asked openly, but one that Kieran whispered to me during a wider discussion. It turns out there are all sorts of loaded terms in ‘ICT4D’ – should it be ICT in development or ICT for development, for example, and how are we defining ICT and how are we defining development? This is one I’m happy to let others thrash out.

Tweet #4

One of the more fascinating and probing questions, this time from Tapan Parikh, one of the workshop organisers. It wonderfully encapsulates one of the bigger ‘computer science for global development’ dilemmas. Does it chase down the best and smartest technologies, or simply go for solutions which promise the biggest and widest impact?

Tweet #5

Anyone who knows me will know why I make that choice. There are too many organisations spending significant amounts of time trying to stay alive and relevant, and it detracts from where their real focus should be – impact on the ground. Many of the people I know in the NGO world have dedicated their lives to their work, and they’d gladly stuff envelopes or flip burgers to keep on track. As soon as funding and ‘ownership of a space’ become higher priorities than the work itself, alarm bells begin to ring.

Tweet #6

One of the more fascinating people at the workshop was Anil Gupta, who runs the Honey Bee Network (an Indian version of AfriGadget, I guess). Anil gave an inspiring and passionate speech about the importance of grassroots innovators, and among many of the takeaways was his challenge to the proponents of scale. (If enough of us say it, maybe people will take notice).

Tweet #7

You can generally tell when things are beginning to seriously drift off-topic when people call for more conferences as the solution. I think we need to learn how to make more of the ones we’ve already got, thank you.

Tweet #8

Towards the end of a very productive two days, a topic which I expected to be deep and complex turned out to be deeper and more complex than even I expected. Just like a babysitter who hands the baby over at the end of the evening, I was grateful not to have to deal with some of these issues as I headed out the door. Sometimes it felt like there was never going to be an easy fit, but there were some very smart people in the room.

If anyone can work through these problems, they can.

41 thoughts on “Computer science, meet global development

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  2. Brendan says:

    Solid post, even (especially?) for those of us not deep in this field. I found myself nodding several times, the fist being at this:

    “It was noted that some of the more interesting work originated from people with field experience, and that many computer science students soon realised that their earlier ideas were doomed to failure once they’d had a chance to visit the places where they hoped to implement.”

    I’ll save the cutandpastification, and leave it at that, but I could have cited some other good thuoghts. It seems like lack of local perspective/input/impetus is even more of an issue in ICT than in the nut and bolts appropriate tech work I do.

    B

  3. Ben White says:

    to some extent i disagree. it depends on where you look. if you go to kampala and the university you will find hundreds if not thousands of students with a background in computer sciences. the world is changing and we need to be aware of that.

  4. Kathryn Mathers says:

    Thought this was especially interesting:
    “One of the bigger obstacles was the lack of developing country experience among many computer science students and graduates, and this was seen as a major problem for the discipline.”
    Much as I love (and think its important) to send my (American) students into the world outside the US and hopefully teach them how to engage with that world on its own terms, surely the ‘problem’ isn’t lack of experience in the developing world amongst computer science students but lack of computer science students in the developing world?
    or maybe the lack of interest in development/social engagement amongst computer scientists in/from the developing world?

  5. Emily Wang says:

    this is really interesting! definitely something i’m struggling with right now–my hci/cs coursework vs. interest in activist/social issues

  6. kiwanja says:

    @Brendan – Glad you liked the post. It was a fascinating weekend!

    @Floost – No, I’m not, but thanks for the compliment. 🙂

    @Ben @Kathryn – I totally agree with you. And having Nathan Eagle at the meeting was great, since he’s done more than many to try and create vibrant computer science departments in developing countries, working with mobile at least

    @Emily – Join the club! I think there were many people in your shoes over the weekend.

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  20. Kathryn Mathers says:

    yes I agree, I know of excellent programs and graduates in many African countries as well, many of whom despite the programs I have worked on of trying to keep professionals etc however end up leaving and/or not getting jobs that go to ‘consultants’ and even to young American college students been paid by their universities to do internships etc the question is even more important then – if computer science matters in development, what are the ways of getting local solutions to whatever the problems are or why aren’t African computer scientists (and yes I know many that are), more involved in development? The challenges have multiple solutions from abroad and (for me) from Africa, but when the question is posed in the way it was, the answer can be very limiting.

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  27. Stephanie Jo Kent says:

    Hello, Kenny, I’m very interested in what you’re building!

    Reading this post (which I found following your Tweet about the upcoming ICT4D conference) reminds me very much of the action research project a colleague and I started this past April at the first annual Science of Team Science conference.

    We’re developing a discourse diagnosis drawing upon group relations theory and critical discourse analysis. The dynamics that you mention, particularly the tensions, are developmental features of groups and discourses which hold tremendous potential for transformative development – if we (collectively) learn how to read, recognize and respond to them (rather than react). Or at least learn how to recover – together – from the reactions! I posted a series of blogposts which can be read in chronological order here, although it may be more efficient to cut to the initial summary: Matters of Team Science.

    The historical trajectory of this burgeoning paradigm of (interdisciplinary or multidisciplinary or transdisciplinary) team science is rooted in the discipline of public health, but the dynamics are resonant with those emerging in the intersections of ICT with initiatives for social justice (i.e., “development”).

    What became almost painfully apparent during the traditional-style SciTS conference (lecture lecture lecture Q&A, lecture lecture lecture Q&A) is the disconnect between practitioners (e.g., organizational behavior, systems design) and academics (researchers and pedagogues).

    There are numerous levels of interpretational skills that are needed to facilitate cross/inter-disciplinary communication among academics, another set needed to bridge the gap between academics and practitioners, and a third set to link the beneficiaries of development services with the designers, policy-makers, and administrative implementers.

    We need to do a lot more, on the quantitative side, than simply aggregate and analyze data about use. We need to set problems for quants that address the qualitative concerns of communities of users, some of whom are bound in quite traditional forms (cultural, linguistic, ethnic, religious and other) and some which transgress the historical divisions to compose and enact shared identities based on non-demographic factors.

    Development will become much more effective when it begins to take seriously what people in these various communities find sensible and meaningful in the context of how they understand their needs and enjoy their own lives. Developers (in any field) cannot persist in assuming that the answers or solutions we find sensible are adequate or acceptable to the people who are expected to benefit from them.

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