Confusing ICT4D practice with the tech that is used

What is ICT4D (ICT for Development)? It’s usually defined as the application of technology in third world countries, not as technology. In other words, a technology platform or tool is not ICT4D, though it is used by ICT4D practitioners to do their work.

Ugandan hut

Around this time last year I found myself at a big event in Qatar for ICT4D academics. It was my first real brush with this community, and I had a hard time defining what it was. After all, they had big, long academic-sounding titles on all their papers and I had to do an internal academic-to-layman’s translation on most of the discussions.

That was, of course, due to the academic focus and they were buried in studies on how technology was being used to overcome poverty or help alleviate inefficiencies in the developing world. That I get. What I don’t get is why certain technologies are pigeonholed as “ICT4D tools“. Technology is agnostic and can be applied by anyone at anytime for numerous uses.

Due to Ushahidi’s roots (African born) and many of the initial uses of Ushahidi, we’ve been embraced by the ICT4D community. This is great, there is no doubt that they benefit from the tool, and that we benefit from their using it. However, we should take a minute to differentiate between purpose and use though.

For instance, labeling Ushahidi as ICT4D makes as much sense as saying the same for Mozilla. We’re a non-profit tech company, not an NGO, and this software platform isn’t just for the third world or just for non-profits.

Digging a little deeper, would people say the same of non-profit Mozilla (initially backed by grants)? How about Drupal? After all, it’s a free and open source platform (like Ushahidi) and used by a lot of NGOs and non-profits operating in developing countries? No, I doubt we would label either of them as “ICT4D apps”, though many would claim that they’re both great platforms for use in ICT4D.

That’s how we at Ushahidi think of our platform. Yes, it’s built to perform in areas where technology work in developing countries is needed, but that’s not the only industry that it’s good for. It’s a tool that is just as useful for organizations like the Washington Post and others.

Successful non-profit technology organizations are everywhere, as noted above. They’re generally funded by donations and grants in order to carry out their purpose. This doesn’t lessen their value, they are just as much a part of the technology ecosystem as their for-profit peers, though they have different mandates (ie, profit vs impact). In fact, there’s a good case to be made that non-profit organizations (and FoSS) keep their for-profit peers honest. Case-in-point: note how Firefox was able to break us out of the Internet Explorer lock-in.

Andrea Bohnstedt (who I know and is a friend) makes a good point on this in her recent article talking about the upcoming Tech4Africa conference (which I’ll be speaking at):

“Is it then still African technology? Or just technology that works in Africa, and elsewhere, too?”

The whole article is about how the ICT4D community gets more global attention for their projects than the for-profit tech community in Africa does with their tools, platforms and successes. That may well be true, or it may well be true only in the conferences that Andrea is aware of, I don’t know since I haven’t compared speakers on all of them. What I do know is that we should differentiate between the organizations behind platforms and the community that uses them, as we would in the US and Europe.

[Image via Clint Rogers Online]

9 Responses to “Confusing ICT4D practice with the tech that is used”

  1. Nana Kwabena Owusu

    Whew this post just made my day and clarified an issue for me.

    For some time now I have been wondering time and again if using Ushahidi (and other such open source projects) for a commercial project would be a betrayal of the vision on which the tool was built? It has made me a bit apprehensive about trying out an installation and playing around to see its potential.

    When I say play around since I am more into use cases than the code (to each his own) it would be along the lines of what problems can Ushahidi be used to solve. Is it suited for bus routing, reporting crime, locating fire hydrants. Unless I tinker I will not know.

    This post gives me a clear mind to tinker without feeling like a sellout if the idea is one which can be commercialized.

    Separating the tools from their use is important.

  2. Interesting comment Nana, I would maybe even go further to say that your ‘tinkering’ actually makes an important contribution to the development of the Ushahidi platform. It is exactly through the process of finding new applications for the tool that it finds new relevance and meaning. I wonder if one day there wont be entrepreneurs across the world applying this open source platform for a profit. Why not, if a guy in Amsterdam can offer the city a valuable service and get paid for it. At the same time, Ushahidi benefits from these entrepreneurs as more people who find a use for the system the more support the system and team will receive.

  3. Agreed Ben. Nana, we hope that you do use it for all different types of uses, things that we couldn’t think of and that stretch the use beyond the current paradigm.

  4. Agreed @Nana I’ve had this conversation with a number of investors and organizations interested in SwiftRiver as well. It’s ridiculous to say what we’re building is strictly ICT4D when clearly there are so many other potential applications for the technology. That’s exactly how we’re approaching development and some of the things we have in the works.

    With Ushahidi, WordPress, Drupal, I see it as being very much the same senario. Ideally the people and organizations who use these open source products, support the non-profits making them…and there’s nothing to stop you for building whatever you want, given the right set of tools and vision.

  5. Kweku

    What’s up, everybody,

    I sympathize. The elephant in the room is, if it’s African, it’s HAS GOT TO BE ICT4D. Who knows? But then again, ours are developing countries, so I don’t know that that is necessarily a bad thing in of itself, although one can make the case that we’re pidgeon-holed enough as it is. We are, surely.

    I think Ushahidi is too great to be defined, which is the highest compliment I can think of. Actually, I have my own dreams for the platform, but maybe I’ll talk about that later. My thinking is, if I may, that the identity of Ushahidi-crowd sourcing info from disaster-the Kenyan political issue of ’08 etc, etc is something that the platform must eventually transcend if it is going to evolve, and that includes Haiti, etc, as important as those are. Now, I’m aware you guys have done some great work in other things, but they haven’t been nearly as emphasized, by the media, sure, I’ll grant you that, but at least, based on the interviews I’ve read on you guys (and I’m pretty confident I’ve read them all more than once :) you guys haven’t been as vocal I would’ve liked in showing the use of the platform in outcomes which are not necessarily developmental/sterotypically African, etc.

    Maybe I’m wrong, and hopefully nobody will take this the wrong way. But the issue isn’t the funding support, but the presentation if I may. Africans, increasingly and more than ever before, are simply living their lives like everyone else in any part of the world.

    I can assure you however, that people who use Ushadihi for things which, I daresay, you guys haven’t BEGUN to dream about, are hardly worried by any of the current thinking! Maybe that’s all that should matter, at least, think about it.

    I sense the best is yet to come!

    God bless,
    Kweku

  6. @Kweku – very well said, and I agree. We’ll need to spend more time highlighting some of the deployments of Ushahidi that are non-disaster oriented. Of course, that’s a little harder to draw attention to as media is generally interested in the crisis/disaster angle. We still do focus on a tool that is useful for that type of engagement, as it gives us focus and it is the foundational use for the tool.

  7. I think the ultimate goal of any non-profit tech company working in Africa (by focus or happenstance of birth) is to graduate from ICT4D to the anonymity of just another tech company.

    That will mean that ICT in Africa is not longer special – it will be commonplace, successful, and interwoven in all our lives.