Friday, 24 February 2012

"The future is already here – it’s just not very evenly distributed"

By Emilie Wilson

I overheard this quote the other day, as I was out buying my morning coffee. It’s part of the joy of working on a university campus to be overhearing conversations such as these. The quote is attributed to William Gibson, “the "noir prophet" of the cyberpunk subgenre of science fiction”, according to WikiQuote.

Setting aside the fact that I know nothing about cyberpunk science fiction, the quote sparked a train of thought, which had begun that morning when I was looking at this excellent graphic published the Guardian website entitled “How Africa Tweets”. 

The map looks at the top 20 countries based on a 3-month analysis of geo-located Twitter traffic in Africa – no one will be surprised to see the biggest tweeters being South Africa, Kenya, Nigeria, Egypt, and Morocco. What surprised me were the presence in the ‘top twenty tweeters’ of countries like Sudan, Gabon or Angola, and absence of others such as Zimbabwe, Uganda, Botswana or Senegal (countries I associate, perhaps wrongly, as has having a decent technological infrastructure and a vibrant civil society).

With the West Africa Cable System, a 14, 000 kilometre long fibre optic submarine cable with a capacity of 5.12 terabits per second (Tbps), due to be operational in March this year, these figures are no doubt set to increase.

But what does this mean for development, and more specifically, for sharing, communicating and assimilating research which supports development?

ICT4Development – still the new kid on the block?

The development sector has a reputation for getting excited about technological innovation and hoping it will yield a quick fix to some of the most intractable problems relating to poverty and social injustice. At IDS, there is a whole Research Team devoted to analysing the interface between human development and technological progress. And ICTs have joined the fray alongside agriculture, biology, engineering and medicine – the 3rd International Conference on Mobile Communication Technology for Development is being held in Delhi next week, closely followed by the International Conference on Information and Communication Technologies and Development.
Does E.M. Rogers analysis on adopting innovation apply in this context?
IDS Knowledge Services has a small team dedicated to exploiting the opportunities afforded by innovative technology, and especially people in the South’s use of this, to improve access and demand for research. For example, the Open Application Programming Interface (API) project is designed to allow technical developers to access the datasets that sit behind renowned development research and information services, Eldis and BRIDGE. This access means they can pick and choose what data they want and need, and repurpose it by developing their own applications.

And it’s not about geeks playing with geeks - in a concrete example of how this can be used: BRIDGE has been working with Uruguayan NGO, ciedur, developing online resources that both bring together Spanish resources from BRIDGE alongside other relevant materials, in a way that is relevant to the Latin American policy context.

How is this being done? The Latin American resources are collected and shared online using an open source content management system called Drupal. A Drupal plug-in (developed by One World South Asia) allows those managing the system to automatically pull in data they want from the Eldis/BRIDGE dataset and repurpose it for their own website and online services.

And this is good because....?
  • It challenges the ‘top-down’, ‘North-South’ direction of technological innovation and editorial decision-making – IDS Knowledge Services partners develop their own applications and select the data that is relevant and useful for their contexts
  • It is relatively cheap: no need for high-tech R&D laboratories or factories, just creative minds and internet access. And these are active in abundance, not just in the Africa, but in Asia (East, South and West!) and Latin America
  • “Open” also avoids duplication and the needless funding of multiple portals and websites which all do the same thing: collect and disseminate research in the hope that access alone is what we need to get research into policy and practice.
Handy technological short-cuts enable us to focus on emerging areas of research communications and knowledge brokering such as stimulating demand for research, or supporting non-academics to be ‘evidence-literate’ (see work of Kirsty Newman at INASP). 

Some challenges for this ICT4Development model

Having been in this sector for quite a while (BRIDGE is 21 years old, Eldis is 16 years old), we are quite aware of some of the challenges to this paradigm:
  • Quality, trust and credibility: traditionally, “closed access” models for sharing research, such as peer-reviewed journals, ‘paid-for’ materials, such as books, or resources only available via a reputable institution, are supposed to guarantee all three. What happens when the credible is aggregated with the less credible? Can we maintain trust in the resources divorced from the branding and reputation of their original source? How is quality maintained once access is ‘opened’?
  • Ownership, power and access: fundamental issues around funding and publishing research are not really addressed by the ICT4D model (e.g. the incentive systems where researchers achieve greater points for promotion by publishing in prestigious closed access journals), there is still a digital-divide, even with increasing internet access (e.g. urban v rural access);  many free internet services are privately owned and developed (e.g. Google or Twitter), particularly by companies based in the global North: should we be worried about our dependence on them? See ITforChange’s excellent thinking and research around this area
  • Cost and financial sustainability: the open source model is one in which developers innovate ‘for free’, but then are more likely to be employed on the basis of their innovative contribution – but is this sustainable in the development research context? Who will pay for it?
We are still grappling with these challenges – are you?