Thursday, December 08, 2005

Experiencing Technical Difficulties: The Urgent Need to Rewire and Reboot the ICT-Development Machine

Written by Amy R. West and Audrey n. Selian, Consultants for ARTICLE 19, November 2005.

"This paper seeks to examine the dangers of assuming information and communication technologies [“ICTs”] bring development, critical information and participation to all sectors of society. If developing countries are the true litmus test for any serious evaluation of sustainable development policies and their real practice on the ground, the international community must look carefully at what is happening within countries rather than solely between Countries. This then should inform the international debate on development reform and realistic, meaningful action."

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

What Works: First Mile Solutions' DakNet Takes Rural Communities Online

October 2005 paper developed by WRI with USAID funding. The subtitle is "Affordable, asynchronous Internet access for rural areas." I'm starting to like those "asynchronous" approaches that help to reach the more rural areas where the population is dispersed over a wide geographical area and 24/7 Internet access isn't essential.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Community-based Networks and Innovative Technologies: New models to serve and empower the poor, published by UNDP, 2005.

Authors: Seán Ó Siochrú and Bruce Girard

From the Summary: "The technology-development landscape is continuously evolving not only in terms of market dynamics and technology opportunities but also in terms of permitting new approaches to meeting the development and communication needs of the poor and under-served communities.

This report and its accompanying case studies consider one of these evolving options to address the problem particularly at the level of last-mile or last-inch access: an innovative combination of community-driven enterprises and the new wave of wireless and related technologies that together may have the potential to extend networks and offer new services to poor communities and to empower them to develop solutions that are more focused on their development needs. While a lot of attention is being paid to wireless and related cost-effective technologies, the focus has been mainly on connectivity and perhaps not enough on how this might permit new approaches to development at the local level that could also be effective in empowering communities."

I dream of a report that does not use the words "empower", "empowerment" and "sustainable".

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Whether it's Negroponte's $100 computer, India's Simputer or Brazil's computer for the masses, the road to mass dissemination of cheap computer technology isn't as smooth as expected.

Read more in this article in ZDNET news.

Monday, October 17, 2005

Monitoring and Evaluating Information and Communication for Development (ICD) Programmes - Guidelines - March 2005

An interesting and relatively short (21 pages with lots of bullets and short paragraphs) overview developed by DFID. Interesting in the sense that it does not focus on an assessment of technologies (IT or ICT evaluation approach) but rather on the impact of COMMUNICATION initiatives. Information and communication technologies, after all, are means to an end, not ends in themselves.

If you're looking for an in-depth look at evaluation methodologies and approaches, this is not it. If you're looking for a quick guide to help you sort through the merits of different approaches, this may be useful.

Saturday, October 01, 2005

New Media, Information and Knowledge Systems - Syllabus

Interesting course and list of readings.....

Friday, September 23, 2005

The Hard Work of Failure Analysis

When does thinking outside the box become professional suicide?
Or is it that I am paid to use my critical thinking skills and think rather than follow the crowd?
When does thinking beyond, ahead of the box become a professional asset?

Failure Analysis...
How often do we think critically about project failures? If we admit that they exist, we're more likely to explain them by blaming some external factor or some other entity. How often do we take credit for a failure?

I share a lot of the thinking of this article and wish I could find a way to put some of the insights in practice. I am convinced that we could learn a lot if we paid more attention to where projects fail. Looking at a project, I can't imagine that everything went perfectly as expected and it was a complete success. Yet almost everything is turned into a success story... Perhaps some challenges encountered are highlighted, but rarely analyzed. Have you ever read a "Lessons Learned" that started with "we messed up and this is what we've learned, so next time we'll definitely do it differently."

Do we actually learn from "lessons"? In most cases, no. At best, we learn from our own mistakes if we're paying attention, even if we don't publicize those mistakes and share them with others. But do we really need everyone to be making the same mistakes, just because we don't want to talk about them...?

Friday, August 19, 2005

Thursday, March 24, 2005

Pupils make more progress in 3Rs 'without aid of computers'

Here's an interesting reference to a study of test results in UK schools and computer use that points to the fact that students who make more use of the computer do worse in tests. I love this stuff.... Why exactly do they do worse? If they're spending their time on the computer playing games (not educational games), the effect is pretty much the same as watching TV in the sense that they're being distracted from actually doing their homework.

It is possible to make effective use of the television for educational purposes. There are educational programs and schools make use of televisions and videotapes on a regular basis to supplement textbooks. The computer isn't much different. It is possible to use a computer and educational software to supplement more traditional form of instruction, yet it is also very likely that kids will turn on the computer to play games.

I don't quite get what the research question was. Would you rather ask: "Do kids watching more TV have better test scores?" or "What kind of utilization of the TV results in improvements in test scores?"

Our experience tells us that extensive TV watching is an obvious distraction from homework and most likely to result in lower test scores. Though the clear relationship behind that statement is between the amount of homework and test results. TV isn't the only thing that can distract kids from doing their homework.

Why should we bother asking whether the amount of computer use is related to test scores? I don't care how many hours my kids are using the computers. I do care how many hours they're on the computer playing games vs. using the computer to do research for an assignment on the Internet. I also think there's much more to using a computer for educational purposes than browsing the Internet.

As for educational software, my experience has been that while they may be okay to practice an already acquired skill, they are not going to teach your kid anything new. That's not to say that all educational software is useless and it could be that when used effectively and integrated within the curriculum, some educational software is exactly what is needed to reinforce skills taught in the classroom.

Monday, March 21, 2005

The "Real" questions: The Real Digital Divide, Article in The Economist, March 10, 2005

I've always thought that the reason we keep asking the same questions and we don't get the right answers is often that we're just not asking the right questions. At this point, I'm not quite sure but what is the most important question to focus on for evaluation purposes:

1. What is the impact of technology on education?
2. How do we maximize the impact of technology on education?

I tend to lean towards question 2 as the critical one because to me it's pretty obvious that technology CAN have very beneficial impacts, yet it can also be a big waste of money. If we tried to answer the first question, my guess is that you'd get a range of studies, all quite scientific, yet showing different results. I think there are a bunch of studies that do exactly that. See, which shows hundreds of studies (probably focused on the US unfortunately) about the impact of IT in distance education. All that these studies tell us is that under certain conditions, technology works well to support education. The key is then to clearly identify these conditions and replicate with adaptations when necessary. The "with adaptations" is important because what works in the US doesn't necessarily work somewhere else and the local context is always a significant factor.

What triggered this particular reformulation of my own thoughts is the article on the Real Digital Divide in the Economist and the subsequent debate within ICT for Development circles. For the most part, there has been a reflex to try to defend what we do for a living, to justify our work by providing evidence that our work has an impact, that it's not just cell phones but that telecenters can and do provide benefits to the communities they serve, etc...

I am not convinced that our evidence is particularly strong but I am more and more convinced that this is the wrong debate. The question is not "whether", but "how". How do we make it work? How do we make sure that we've got our priorities right?

Read "The End of Poverty", by Jeffrey D. Sachs and then think about the role a telecenter can and can't play in the middle of rural Africa.
The questions become:

HOW can telecenters truly contribute to development in conditions of extreme poverty (if at all)?
What technologies (cell phones, radio, internet, PDAs.... ) are most relevant in conditions of extreme poverty?
Perhaps more importantly, what should be the priority investments?

If we have $xxx amount of money to invest in an extremely poor rural area, which is better, to put 100% of that amount in either agriculture, education or health. I don't think putting 100% in IT would make sense. This, of course, assumes a fixed, limited amount of funding available and a necessity to prioritize. If we did follow a Jeffrey Sachs type of "differential diagnosis" approach, we would need to study carefully the particular rural area where we are planning an intervention, identify what its main challenges are and develop a tailored plan for getting out of the cycle of extreme poverty and onto the development ladder. I'm not sure it makes sense to work only on one individual rural area and expect that what goes on in the rest of the country is not going to affect that area but we could assume that the same exercise is done around the country.

This, of course, allows us to fall in the trap of looking at IT as if it were a separate sector to support and as if it were competing with other sectors for funding and prioritization. If we looked a little more at IT as a potential component of all sectors, this prioritization problem would be less of an issue. The question is not whether the priority should go to IT investments vs. investments in agriculture, education, health, etc... but rather how relatively small investments in IT for agriculture, IT for education, IT for health could truly support development objectives.

Thursday, January 06, 2005


There's a word in French, "surenchère", which suits the current immediate post-Tsunami donor situation. Donors trying to outbid each other with pledges.

"We're the largest donor," says donor #1.
"No, we're the largest donor if you count this way," says donor #2
"Well, we have always been a very generous nation, we're the largest donor by far, in history, if you count that way," says donor #3.
"That's all fine," I say, "come back to me a year from now and show me what you've actually delivered. Then we'll congratulate the winner."

The newspaper this morning had several articles going in different directions.
1. We've never seen so many pledges on such a scale... it's great but... 2. there are other crises around the world that don't get as much attention but over time kill the same numbers of people if not more..... and 3. pouring money on the Tsunami relief and reconstruction will pull resources away from these equally deadly crises.

Wait a second, we're talking about pledges anyway, which is quite different from the amounts actually spent, so, yes indeed, if the billions now pledged are spent on the Tsunami area, it's very likely that resources needed in other areas will not be available, but if we can expect that the amounts disbursed will be much less than those pledged, then perhaps this redirecting of resources to the Tsunami area and away from other areas won't be that dramatic.

French Radio RFI this morning noted that the motivations for this "surenchère" are not entirely humanitarian. Of course they're not. Do we care more about this particular crisis because so many western tourists died? Probably.... but there's something that wasn't mentioned. Here in the North Virginia area and all over the United States, there are many immigrants from the affected region who have lost family members or who feel a much closer connection to the tragedy. These are people we know, our neighbors, people whose children go to school with our children. We are no longer isolated from tragedies that happen far away. To me, this is demonstrating a positive impact of globalization.