First Published at Peace Corps Passport
I’ll be spending five days this week at the international Information and Communication Technologies for Development Conference (2015) in Singapore.
As technology (and data more general) increasingly has a role to play in nearly every project and program of Peace Corps Volunteers, it is not enough to simply know that tools exist – our Volunteers want to know what’s been proven, what tools are the most sustainable, and what’s going to be the most effective in the work with their community.
This conference is the penultimate way to share research, lessons learned, case studies, demos, and even failures among those using information and communication technologies to help bring about social change around the world.
I couldn’t be more excited, and already the connections made will have significant impacts on the shaping of our approach to Technology for Development for Peace Corps.
The formal sessions last four days – and I plan on saying a little about each day to get the conversation going. The first day was a flurry of open sessions, allowing the 200+ participants who hail from academic, government, and public/private sectors to focus on bite-sized discussions and even healthy debates on a range of different topics.
Early in the morning, I was able to see a fantastic presentation and demo from Berkeley’s Kurtis Heimerl (who MIT Review named one of their 35 under 35) and Talal Ahmad on community cellular networks.
They demoed the ability to set-up DIY mobile phone base stations where in many rural areas of the world there is no existing connectivity option. Kurtis recently founded an organization, Endaga, to market these open-hardware and open-source-based kits.
It’s pretty exciting to see innovation in this area, as mobile phone connectivity is becoming more and more a public good in Volunteer communities.
The next sessions were a little more academic in nature but turn out to have incredibly relevant lessons for weaving technology into the way that Volunteer programs are structured, trained on, and implemented.
First we heard from Helani at LIRNEasia and Laurent at IDRC around Systemic Reviews in ICTD, and then I was able to attend the session from three students at Rhodes University around the nature and trends of evaluation of ICT for Development.
The icing on the cake for the day (for me, anyway) was the book release (and formal and fascinating debate with Mike Best and Richa Kumar) of Kentaro Toyama’s forthcoming Geek Heresy: Rescuing Social Change from the Cult of Technology.
I’m really excited to dive into the book – perhaps the flight back if I can’t wait.
Day two of the conference transitioned from open-session dialogues to a conference-wide review of the most pressing research and note submissions.
The morning saw presentations clustered around education: the effectiveness of MOOCs (Massive, Open, Online, Courses), data predictions around academic performance, and using the framework of a Principal Agent model to explain design challenges for Tongue Reading in Kenya.
At lunch, we got to see some pretty amazing demos from a lot of the practitioners at the conference. Highlights for me included an eDetection App for TB detection, mLabour from Dimagi, Farmerline – a voice messaging platform, MyRide Kenya (communication within bush taxis), Tiflolibros – A digital library for the blind, a Farmery-Query system, and and an unofficial demo of Graspeo – a peer-to-peer knowledge base for low-connectivity teams.
There were many, many more demos as well! The most interesting conversation occurred with someone from IDRC where we compared the sometimes overly-bureaucratic task of competing for government-level RFPs and RFQs to the contract rider demands of Van Halen in requesting bowls of brown-only M&Ms: turns out it has less to do with rock star idiosyncrasies and more to do with affirming an attention to detail required for a Van Halen concert.
Plus it’s just nice to compare government to Van Halen. The afternoon saw presentations on disability, accessibility, and infrastructure. It started with a great presentation from Rashidujjaman Rifat on fixing and knowledge collaboration of phone repair (I am biased – the principal author, Steven Jackson, was my advisor back in Michigan and I co-authored an early paper with him on this subject!), gender and accessibility in Rwanda (an RPCV is a co-author here, and the School of Information at the University of Michigan hosts a Peace Corps Masters International program), empowerment issues in technology of Sierra Leone, and a discussion around power consumption for cellphone towers.
Finally, the last session on Day 2 saw presentations clustered around agriculture and small business development (both sectors of Peace Corps work). The first was a critical look at the digital divide with respect to mobile phone use by farmers in Malawi, then a look at Kenyan and Zambia farmer attitudes towards mobile phones, a look at mobile value-add services for women entrepreneurs in Indonesia, and finally an analytical report-out of e-Business adoption in Nigeria.
After all of the sessions, we were treated to a wonderful presentation by a local group on the Lion Dance as seen in top of this post. : )
Days 3 and 4
Day 3 started off with more plenary presentations on mobile banking, health, and e-government.
The highlights for me included an argument for more long-term approaches to design in ICTD (something I think Peace Corps Volunteers have an advantage in by their very nature, the persistence of paper and it’s continued value (a really excellent discussion and topic), community-led video education for mobile health (a scaling of Digital Green to health outcomes), and an analysis of policy and identity through Twitter in three African countries.
Day 4 was back to open-sessions, with the session Innovation Accelerator: Connecting ICTD researchers and practitioners - Workshop I co-led (facilitated by Ayan Kishore of Creative and joined by Mike Best from Georgia Tech, Jonathan Donner from Caribou Digital, and Sylvia Cadena of ISIF Asia. The sessions ended with a deeper discussion around the persistence of paper in low-resource settings, and a discussion around the transformational nature of ICTD and how to evaluate potential new frameworks for action and research.
All in all – it was a really great conference, and my synopses here don’t do justice to the level of engagement, passion, and connections that were exposed among those working in Information and Communication Technologies and Development (ICTD).
It is sometimes difficult to put researchers and practitioners into the same space and have them find common ground for ongoing efforts and inquiry into this space – but it was made abundantly clear that these groups have much to offer one another.
I will be able to benefit greatly from the ideas proposed, the practices outlined, and the opportunities for collaboration both in specific countries and projects but also at the global level for all of the work that Peace Corps engages in.
Thanks to the organizers of the conference and to Peace Corps for supporting our presence at the conference!