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In search of an ICT4D mantra

In many sectors of international development it’s hard to imagine how you’d have much impact if you weren’t out in the field. After all, teachers want to be in-class. Doctors want to be in-clinic. And conservationists want to be in-situ. There’s only so much any of them can do when they’re not. Getting ‘stuck in’ is largely what it’s all about.

So why are so many ICT4D professionals happy to work remotely? And why does much of the ICT4D sector not find that odd?

In an article due to be published this week on BBC Future, I write about how technology has ‘democratised development’ and that there are “likely more people working on solving social and environmental problems in the world today than ever before in human history”. The spread of mobile technology and the Internet has made all of this possible. These are exciting times, make no mistake.

But  just because these tech-based opportunities have literally come to us in the comfort of our own homes, we mustn’t kid ourselves into believing that we don’t need to make any effort to lay the groundwork to our apps and ideas by getting out and spending time in the field. Just because the very technologies we use, by their very nature, allow us to work at-a-distance – remotely – that doesn’t mean we have to. If that doctor, or teacher, or conservationist could do their work without stepping into that Malawian clinic, or Lusaka classroom or Namibian national park, would they? I doubt it.

Last night I caught sight of a tweet from Tony Roberts. Although it sounds like something an anthropologist (or philosopher) might say, it perfectly describes an approach the ICT4D sector might like to adopt.

The beauty of the Internet, and the spread of mobile technology, is that anyone anywhere can quickly develop and distribute a mobile-based solution to a social or environmental problem, and start picking up users immediately. The technology is in place, and the distribution channel is there. All that’s needed are good, solid ideas and a drive and passion to fix a problem somewhere – and, let’s face it, there are plenty of those. All-in-all, the barriers to entry are lower than they’ve ever been.

But they’re so low we end up with a different problem.

For the doctor, teacher or conservationist, understanding the context of their patient, student or endangered species is critical for the work they do if they’re to do it well. With few exceptions, they can only get that by spending time in the field. This isn’t perceived to be the case for a programmer or coder. The result? A majority of apps written in isolation which have little chance of success.

Maybe that doesn’t matter. With the barriers to entry so low the cost of building and distributing these apps is minimal. The fact that so many people are taking an interest in fixing things should be encouraging enough. But there’s no doubt that spending time with your users, understanding their context, discussing what they need and then building a tool based on all of those things gives you the greatest chance of success.

Further reading
Social mobile: Myths and misconceptions
Mobile applications development: Observations
Rethinking Schumacher.

53 comments

1 Ken Banks { 08.27.12 at 9:32 pm }

In #ICT4D, is fieldwork a luxury or a necessity? "In search of an ICT4D mantra". http://t.co/50VfsQ8W #development

2 Nisha Ligon { 08.27.12 at 9:37 pm }

great post by @kiwanja on need for field work and locally developed innovation in #ICT4d http://t.co/fbRTf7m3

3 Melissa Tully { 08.27.12 at 9:38 pm }

MT @kiwanja: In #ICT4D, is fieldwork a luxury or a necessity? http://t.co/yNTxtBlv #development > necessity for programmers & researchers

4 Dem45 { 08.27.12 at 9:44 pm }

Great question. I’d say you always need to understand your customer (if that’s the right word), so fieldwork or experience in the field is vital

5 Michael Gallagher { 08.27.12 at 9:45 pm }

In #ICT4D, is fieldwork a luxury or a necessity? "In search of an ICT4D mantra". http://t.co/50VfsQ8W #development

6 Holly Boardman { 08.27.12 at 9:46 pm }

In #ICT4D, is fieldwork a luxury or a necessity? "In search of an ICT4D mantra". http://t.co/50VfsQ8W #development

7 changefeed { 08.27.12 at 9:49 pm }

->@kiwanja: In search of an ICT4D mantra http://t.co/TX8aORsF

8 Veena Gowda { 08.27.12 at 9:49 pm }

In search of an ICT4D mantra: In many sectors of international development it’s hard to imagine how you’d have m… http://t.co/eKR5lBJK

9 Liz A { 08.27.12 at 10:03 pm }

In #ICT4D, is fieldwork a luxury or a necessity? "In search of an ICT4D mantra". http://t.co/50VfsQ8W #development

10 ethnographymatters { 08.27.12 at 10:12 pm }

In #ICT4D, is fieldwork a luxury or a necessity? "In search of an ICT4D mantra". http://t.co/50VfsQ8W #development

11 Ryan Littman-Quinn { 08.28.12 at 2:48 am }

Word. RT @kiwanja: In #ICT4D, is fieldwork a luxury or a necessity? "In search of an ICT4D mantra". http://t.co/tlKhGkVD #development

12 In search of an ICT4D mantra | Global Health Hub: news and blogosphere aggregator { 08.28.12 at 4:24 am }

[...] View post: In search of an ICT4D mantra [...]

13 Jaume Fortuny { 08.28.12 at 6:40 am }

Work together with end users to design for success MT @kiwanja: In search of an ICT4D mantra http://t.co/Pc7WPHVm #ict4d

14 Hapee de Groot { 08.28.12 at 6:48 am }

In search of an ICT4D mantra http://t.co/HHRzmadf via @phat_controller guestblog on @kiwanja dot net

15 Jenna Burrell { 08.28.12 at 9:56 am }

Necessity! RT @kiwanja In #ICT4D, is fieldwork a luxury or a necessity? "In search of an ICT4D mantra". http://t.co/1CRiSR5c

16 Tony Roberts { 08.28.12 at 10:08 am }

In search of an ICT4D mantra @kiwanja dot net http://t.co/0DRKpYaN #ict4d

17 Nicholas Ahebwa { 08.28.12 at 10:31 am }

"The beauty of the Internet, and the spread of mobile technology, is that anyone anywhere can quickly develop and… http://t.co/nQSxuxua

18 ICT4D(개발을 위한 정보통신 기술) 프로젝트를 현지 환경에 맞게 성공시키기 « Empathy Powered { 08.28.12 at 12:51 pm }

[...] spending time with your users, understanding their context, discussing what they need and then building a tool based on all of those things gives you the greatest chance of success. - In search of an ICT4D mantra | Build it Kenny, and they will come… [...]

19 Ken Banks { 08.28.12 at 1:29 pm }

In #ICT4D, is spending time in the field a luxury or a necessity? "In search of an ICT4D mantra". http://t.co/50VfsQ8W #m4d

20 Wayan { 08.28.12 at 2:01 pm }

Ken, please tell funders that they should pay for more travel in-country. That’s the #1 constraint to more field-level research – funders refusing to pay for much travel costs. Travel from West to South and South to South or even in the same country.

21 Stephane Boyera { 08.28.12 at 2:11 pm }

a real q? till test in real life, you know nothing RT @kiwanja: is spending time in the field a luxury or a necessity?http://t.co/3Pw6oaWA

22 Ken Banks { 08.28.12 at 2:12 pm }

"Go to the people. Live with them, learn from them. Start with what they know, build with what they have". http://t.co/50VfsQ8W

23 jeff wishnie { 08.28.12 at 2:12 pm }

"Go to the people. Live with them, learn from them. Start with what they know, build with what they have". http://t.co/50VfsQ8W

24 John Sauer { 08.28.12 at 2:13 pm }

"Go to the people. Live with them, learn from them. Start with what they know, build with what they have". http://t.co/50VfsQ8W

25 Ceri Howes { 08.28.12 at 2:17 pm }

"Go to the people. Live with them, learn from them. Start with what they know, build with what they have". http://t.co/50VfsQ8W

26 kiwanja { 08.28.12 at 2:31 pm }

@Wayan – I’d say people should gain experience of the communities they want to build solutions for long before they have a project to get funded. This is not a funding issue.

27 Bonnie Koenig { 08.28.12 at 2:40 pm }

RT @kiwanja "Go to the people. Live w/ them, learn from them. Start with what they know, build with what they have" http://t.co/0iqkT2DA

28 PopTech { 08.28.12 at 3:16 pm }

"Go to the people. Live with them, learn from them. Start with what they know, build with what they have". http://t.co/jnHg14ap via @kiwanja

29 Building Markets { 08.28.12 at 3:18 pm }

RT @kiwanja "Go to the people. Live w/ them, learn from them. Start with what they know, build with what they have" http://t.co/0iqkT2DA

30 Yumna Mansour { 08.28.12 at 3:19 pm }

"Go to the people. Live with them, learn from them. Start with what they know, build with what they have". http://t.co/jnHg14ap via @kiwanja

31 IntraHealthOPEN { 08.28.12 at 3:20 pm }

RT @kiwanja "Go to the people. Live w/ them, learn from them. Start with what they know, build with what they have" http://t.co/0iqkT2DA

32 Mission MANNA { 08.28.12 at 3:23 pm }

RT @kiwanja: "Go to the people. Live with them, learn from them. Start with what they know, build with what they have". http://t.co/lydNWdXf

33 ConsiderHaiti { 08.28.12 at 3:23 pm }

RT @kiwanja: "Go to the people. Live with them, learn from them. Start with what they know, build with what they have". http://t.co/iSVBXDA2

34 Neelley Hicks { 08.28.12 at 3:25 pm }

RT @TopsyRT: In search of an ICT4D mantra http://t.co/eYGz8yCU

35 Ben Parkinson { 08.28.12 at 3:29 pm }

RT @kiwanja "Go to the people. Live w/ them, learn from them. Start with what they know, build with what they have" http://t.co/0iqkT2DA

36 Keith Williams { 08.28.12 at 3:46 pm }

Sooo see the parallels between this and #mobmin efforts http://t.co/IiKbFE35

37 Monica M. Martinez { 08.28.12 at 4:48 pm }

RT @kiwanja In #ICT4D, is spending time in the field a luxury or a necessity? "In search of an ICT4D mantra". http://t.co/hhXhuuKG #m4d

38 TechChange { 08.28.12 at 5:10 pm }

.@Kiwanja asks, "Why are so many ICT4D professionals happy to work remotely?" – In search of an #ICT4D mantra http://t.co/CqGR4Zn9 #m4d

39 Infrasound Hunter { 08.28.12 at 5:16 pm }

"Go to the people. Live with them, learn from them. Start with what they know, build with what they have". http://t.co/jnHg14ap via @kiwanja

40 Cheti { 08.28.12 at 5:28 pm }

"Go to the people. Live with them, learn from them. Start with what they know, build with what they have". http://t.co/50VfsQ8W

41 Stephanie Rank { 08.28.12 at 5:30 pm }

.@Kiwanja asks, "Why are so many ICT4D professionals happy to work remotely?" – In search of an #ICT4D mantra http://t.co/CqGR4Zn9 #m4d

42 Tony | IEDay Ideas { 08.28.12 at 8:39 pm }

Sooo see the parallels between this and #mobmin efforts http://t.co/IiKbFE35

43 Mary Thackray { 08.28.12 at 10:30 pm }

"Go to the people. Live with them, learn from them. Start with what they know, build with what they have". http://t.co/50VfsQ8W

44 Aaron Krolikowski { 08.29.12 at 9:41 am }

#ICT4D innovations have to emerge out of specific contexts – we can't do our work if we're always in the same cubicle http://t.co/RTtYrO8F

45 Wayan { 08.29.12 at 12:21 pm }

Ken, so how is one to get experience with the groups they want to help? Or even to know which groups to help?

You seem to believe that one must “go live with the people” to be able to have any meaningful impact. That would reduce those who can help to a select few who have the resources to self-fund extended travel. Now you and I have done this, and to way more places than even the average traveler, but even then you would say that to work in a new country, we would need to self-fund exploration before we could “work” there.

I will agree that people need extended, undirected time in a foreign country to understand its complexities, but I do not agree that this experience must be replicated in each country to be of assistance to a community there. Similarities do exist, and they can be used to start the intervention design, followed by in-country testing and iterations.

My overall point is that those in-country testing & iterations are not cheap, yet funders want innovative + scaleable + sustainable w/o investing in that upfront testing. I think we can both agree this is a funder issue.

46 Travis Lane { 08.30.12 at 1:55 am }

RT @TopsyRT: In search of an ICT4D mantra http://t.co/cs706lPd

47 infoasaid { 08.30.12 at 10:04 am }

"Go to the people. Live with them, learn from them. Start with what they know, build with what they have". http://t.co/50VfsQ8W

48 Agnes Lesage-Possolo { 08.30.12 at 11:39 am }

"Go to the people. Live with them, learn from them. Start with what they know, build with what they have". http://t.co/50VfsQ8W

49 Jessica Barker { 08.30.12 at 2:05 pm }

"Go to the people. Live with them, learn from them. Start with what they know, build with what they have". http://t.co/50VfsQ8W

50 Steve Davenport { 09.03.12 at 12:45 pm }

In search of an #ICT4D mantra http://t.co/ubR2EmRL #ict @zunianews

51 Selma Talha Jebril { 09.04.12 at 3:39 am }

"Go to the people. Live with them, learn from them. Start with what they know, build with what they have". http://t.co/50VfsQ8W

52 Jessica Toyota { 09.08.12 at 10:30 pm }

RT: @poptech "Go to the people. Live with them, learn from them. Start with what they know, build with what they have". http://t.co/QlAm3i7k

53 Hacking Open Data on Development Aid | Laptop Burns { 09.18.12 at 5:35 am }

[...] founder Ken Banks wrote an interesting blog recently asking why so many of us technology for development (ICT4D) types are content to work [...]

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