At the United Nations

This week I participated in the Web4Dev conference, hosted by UNICEF. Despite the poor structure of the days, it was a great group of people and fascinating things happen when putting together all those people. InSTEDD, Ushahidi (thanks for the shirt Erik!), Development Seed, Open Street Map, etc. Patrick Meier covers the entire event in-depth, of course. The conference website has the presentations and the developing conversation on the wiki.

One discussion thread I found particularly interesting was on the concept of closing feedback loops. In other words, when grassroots users message information into a database, they are then able to access that information, particularly via mobile phone. While I agree that this is extremely important, the discussion was based in a one to one loop, where users that sent messages would then receive messages. This seems to lack the of understanding that social technologies is built on social capital. The people factor is what enables functionality; the economic factor enables functionality. Users don’t necessarily need to get messages back to themselves only. Rather, the community needs to get that information. There are options for this, such as making it accessible via a digital community message board. This would encourage interaction while limiting cost. Otherwise, texting a response to each persons cell phone can get very expensive, very quikcly. Whether a barbershop/beauty salon, school, or other places where people already congregate to learn. That’s what is going to make these tools more useful and more implementable.

I mentioned this to Grant Cambridge, who was demoing the Digital Doorway . Similar to Hole in The Wall in India , this is a project that drops a computer station in a rural area as an educational resource. So far they have had a lot of success in the field and I’m extremely encouraged by the amount of success they’ve had incorporating open-source projects into a functional and nearly unbreakable resource for rural communities. A man who knows something about good design, we spoke briefly about the power of introducing “town squares” as a way to maximize the benefits of social interaction and to make projects like his more powerful. This would be adding tech to communication nodes, in Clay Shirky speak, and I think it can therefore extend the impact much. He also said that they’re trying to get a “Facebook for Africa” onto those machines, based in a Drupal CMS backend. Given that’s what we’re trying to do with Digital Democracy’s virtual community center (with less of a focus on Africa and more on being lightweight and secure), this seems like it could evolve into a strong partnership. Can we couple programmers from developing countries across continents to pull this off?

I also had some other tech solutions come to mind, one being a one button emergency alert that shoots your key information to the contacts of your choosing. Say, for example, a person is being kidnapped. Being able to simultaneously send personal information and location to the police, immediate relatives, and close friends can be invaluable. Change the circumstance and perhaps that alert would go to Twitter contacts and include taking a photo.

Jonathan Jackson from Dimagi tore down the house on day 2 with his announcement of a killer app – Rapid Android. The potential for this as an in-field SMS hub is huge. I want to test a few in the field ASAP. The main problem I currently see is that it will invariably become the field operator’s main cellphone and I’m not sure how it responds to incoming messages when that person moves into a deadzone.

Overall though, one of the main issues I was hoping to get into, Monitoring and Evaluation (am I really admitting to that?), was glazed over. I’m not really surprised but certainly disappointed. A man from the French Development Agency kindly pointed out that the field of ICT4D is still not being funded because there is no concrete information on benefit. Aside from anecdotal evidence and ethnographic studies, there is not much pointing to the systemic change that large-scale funders are looking to put their money into. I was part of a team that came up with some of the first findings pointing to the broad potential for technologies in research on young democracy activists for the Center for Peacebuilding International back in 2007. What we found was a correlation between access to internet and self-identification as activists among youth involved with social organizations.

There need to be more serious looks at what is happening in the sector, particularly an official connection with M&E experts to determine how progress can be successfully tracked. I also want to propose something a bit more extreme – rather than making technology an aspect of other projects, actually determining that it is good in and of itself. This is why other fields are funded. People understand that some access to health is better than none – penicillin isn’t anti-malarials, but it’s a start. Similarly, the potential that some basic technology introduces is incredible (though of course that’s still anecdotal). The techies at web4dev are visionaries. Forward thinkers looking to the future for solutions to the world’s largest problems. M&E is retrospect. Looking back to see if people are following. The big organizations as well as the grassroots, need to have a better understanding of what the technology actually is and what opportunity it provides. We can and need to confidently answer that question.


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