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.

Taking on the grassroots challenge

Over the past four years FrontlineSMS has taught us a lot, and I write about it frequently (see my recent misconceptions and observations posts). One of the biggest – and most underestimated – challenges is outreach. If you’re building a tool for grassroots NGOs, particularly those working on the margins, promoting social mobile tools to them is inherently tricky.

Over the past year, and over the past few months in particular, increasing numbers of local, national and international NGOs have begun promoting FrontlineSMS themselves, to their own field offices, partners and NGO friends. This is hugely significant for us, amplifying our own efforts considerably. This short video, courtesy of United Methodist Communications (UMC), shows a handful of delegates at a recent crisis management conference talk briefly about their thoughts on the software.

They may only be a few words, but for us they speak volumes. We took on the grassroots challenge, and it’s great to see others joining in to help us.

After all, it doesn’t matter how good your mobile solutions are if no-one knows they exist.