Bridging the academic/practitioner divide

Last year I had the pleasure of attending ICT4D 2009 in Doha, where FrontlineSMS and Ushahidi were represented in the “Technology Showcase”. The event was a bit of a gamble. The Agenda had a strong academic focus, and I for one usually tend to avoid these kinds of gatherings, which are more often than not dominated by people simply standing up and reading through papers.

As it turned out, it was largely that. If anyone was previously in any doubt, by the second day it was abundantly clear that there was, indeed, a divide between the practitioners at the event, and those who spent their time evaluating what the practitioners did. Much of the research presented made little sense to those “out in the field”, and in some cases there was such a mismatch in language that practitioners hardly recognised their own projects when they were discussed.

Last August, I attended a related event hosted by UC Berkeley in which selected members of the computer science community sought to identify their role in the practicalities of the ICT4D world. It was a fascinating event which I blogged about in “Computer science, meet global development” shortly afterwards.

There is little doubt that a number of mobile-relevant disciplines have traditionally lived largely in their own silos – practitioners, social scientists, academics and computer scientists among them. Later this year a workshop will be held in London at ICTD 2010 designed to break at least one or two more of these down. According to “Qual Meets Quant“:

The increasing ubiquity of mobile phones in developing economies has enabled the capture, for the first time in history, of massive amounts of behavioural human data in areas of interest to international development. Proper analysis of such data could provide important insight into areas from health and education to microfinance and agriculture. Unfortunately, much of the research related to mobile phones and development has been done in methodological silos: technical researchers focus on quantitative analysis; ethnographers perform in-depth qualitative research; and policy makers extrapolate policies from published research

It looks like being a great workshop, not because it’s particularly fascinating from an academic standpoint (although it could well be), but because it seeks to bring down practical barriers in how disciplines approach and study ICT4D – and aspects of mobiles-for-development in particular. The Programme and Organising Committees boast some big names in the space, with Kentaro Toyama, Nathan Eagle, Jenna Burrell, Tapan Parikh, Bill Thies and good friend Juliana Rotich among them.

Further details on the Workshop, and how to submit papers, can be foundĀ here [PDF, 100Kb].