By Revi Sterling
The two largest general ICT for Development conferences have happened in the last month, both focusing on similar development issues, emerging technologies, and geographies. The overlap stops there: ICT4D, sponsored by and designed for the NGO community, had a smattering of funders and policy-type academics. ICTD2016, a research-specific conference, only had NGOs to the degree that they were part of a research project or because they boldly submitted their ideas to the Open Sessions and Demos part of the event, which I and my co-chairs were heavily active in trying to increase cross-pollination. It does no good to trip over each other in the same communities, or deploy TVSW projects in the same region without coordinating – OpEx issues aside – the silos in ICT for Development work against community sustainability rather than towards it.
I’ve been asked at both events if we should try to co-host them. This would be the easiest outcome at first glance. My answer at this point is no. The conferences have very different charters and expectations. Many attendees I talked to at ICT4D in Nairobi came to the event to find specific technology solutions to help their mission, be it the right bulk payments platform or rural connectivity offering. They also wanted to understand how to align their work with larger policy and funding shifts in light of the SDGs and new entities such as DIAL.
Researchers at ICTD2016 are a much smaller group and mainly focus on three things: Creating new knowledge about all aspects of ICTD; which new technologies being created at academic and industrial research labs (Microsoft, Google, etc) hold promise in helping alleviate underdevelopment; and what are the impacts of these new models in partner communities. There are long-term committees that meet at this event to discuss progress made in areas such as fieldwork ethics and data privacy – academics tend to stay in their jobs, whereas multilateral and NGO folks tend to move on to a different role or location, which makes it hard to have continuity in such groups (we’ve tried).
A mostly practitioner audience is not going to get much out of a qualitative research talk with a sample size of 8 or 25. A researcher is going to roll her or his eyes at the digital development principles because we wrote far more detailed versions of them as best practices 15 years ago as part of our human subjects review boards. That said, there are several times at both events where I wished we could teleport the whole ICTD community together. We can assist each other in some critical ways – it’s a matter of finding onramps and opportunities to cross our silos.
1. Impact data: Everyone wants it, and no one has the budget or timeline to be in the field for 2-3 years after implementation – except Ph.D. students. They need meaty topics to study in depth. Practitioners and funders need longitudinal data that is multi-method, looks at unintended outcomes, and studies spillover effects. The end result of this collaboration is a much better understanding of the actual development impact of an ICTD intervention, from both a much deeper and broader analysis.
2. Emerging crises: Everyone is all in when a disaster happens. There is both a tremendous humanitarian need as well as an opportunity to try a technology or communications intervention that was built just for something like this. How many NGOs and researchers were in Haiti? Probably too many given the lack of coordination. Dadaab? Nepal? Za’atari? UN Clusters, funders and NGOs and should find their academic “people” before disasters and nurture networks of groups that focus on landmine detection, early flood warning, refugee education, food delivery information systems and electronic voucher systems before disasters, so that the same coordination and respect can be taken into a stressful field deployment. Again, this is where academia can assist – being on the ground for long-term situations, and pulling in local and regional academics who can help with the sustainability of the solution and the transition from humanitarian response to development. This is happening, but only to a minute degree. I can envision talking about practitioner/academic models at both conferences.
3. Mutual respect: having worked in ICT for Development from within industry, academia and now a practitioner/NGO role, I have heard what all of us say about each other when we are frustrated with funding decisions, or realize that we are stepping over each other in the same community. It often boils down to “academics don’t do anything relevant” (where relevant = potential for scale) and “practitioners don’t know anything about ___________,” be it development theory, specific cultural norms, or case studies demonstrating that another set of technologies is a better fit.
The same way that we needed to have sessions at ICT for Development conferences that engendered respect and collaboration between computer scientists and social scientists when this field was nascent, we need to have now between academics and practitioners. We need these keynotes and plenaries (not just side sessions) with luminaries from research, policy, NGO and funders to talk about leveraging each other’s’ expertise. I shudder to think of the gaps we are not filling because we don’t even know what we could offer each other. At the end of the day, it’s that all that really matters?
Need help finding a researcher? Let this “recovering academic” help you with her rolodex.