Rethinking “ICT4D”

ICT4D, or ICTD, standing for Information and Communication Technologies for Development, always seemed to give me an impression of being too young, too misunderstood and too in-need-of-people-to-define-it. I cannot (or rather don’t care to) trace its historical beginnings, but it seems like it was unintentionally born somewhere in the early 2000s. One clear reason for this was the growing awareness around the world to act quick in tackling global developmental challenges. I believe that another reason for this was because even though personal computers had been around all throughout the 1990s, they never became cheap enough to be considered to have a possible application in developing countries and rural regions in specific. Since prices of technology kept falling, and the more computationally powerful technologies replaced their predecessors but held on to their price tags, we arrived at a situation where we observed that cheap technologies actually crossed a threshold of acceptable level of computational power. Because these “old” technologies were capable of enabling people in developed regions to accomplish some neat tasks some x years ago, making them more productive than they were in their past, it was obvious for people to think that these had a clear use in developing regions to increase people’s productivity. As we have learned over time, this is true only under certain conditions/factors – which constitute the more human, social and system elements of what we call ICT4D or ICTD today (see Kentaro Toyama’s work). Given that we have learned this fundamental characteristic of technologies in developing contexts, shouldn’t we be rethinking the idea of how we name this field?

People, Process and Technology (Dynamics.com)I propose the need for renaming this field to Information Systems for Development, or IS4D/ISD. Information & Communication Technologies (with a blurry line of difference to IT), places its thrust on matters relating to hardware, software and sometimes technology services and their quality. ICT emphasizes the need for analyzing ready-made tools and technologies to pick-choose-match the best combination. Cost considerations are utmost critical, because an IT project almost always works under very rigid budget requirements, often determined solely by business managers. An IT project team is not required to determine the source of the problem or care to figure out what’s going wrong. It focuses on issues related to application, deployment and configuration [1] of technologies, and aims to ensure stable infrastructure.

On the other hand, Information Systems (IS) is a much wider in breadth social sciences discipline, that places the following 3 aspects at its core: People, Processes and Technology. Here, the aspect of technology can be thought to be very similar to IT/ICT, filtering out any human or process elements that exist (if any). IS places as much emphasis on People and Processes, as much as it does on technology. IS’s approach to problem solving begins with understanding organizational and system issues. It is often initiated with an open-ended series of discussions, which might end with not introducing IT to a certain purely people or process problem. Unlike IT, it doesn’t go into too much depth of applying and deploying technologies, nor does it place a lot of emphasis on working under cost boundaries. It is much more human-oriented, and is concerned with solving existing problems.

There is a lot of literature comparing the two fields. Based on what we have been learning about ICT4D, it seems like an IS approach to development problems with no single organization in mind can be a much needed framework for helping understand and address these challenges. I believe that emphasis on human and social elements in this framework will give the field tried-and-tested methodologies for ensuring right application of technologies to real problems. All that said, my recommendation is preliminary and not very well justified, but I hope somebody can make a strong case in this favor (or even challenge it to prove me wrong).

 

P.S: Despite me being a student of Information Systems, my views on the need for rethinking what we call this field is solely based on my observations, and no personal benefits.

[1] ACM +AIS + IEEE-CS Computing Curricula 2005

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