What makes for good ICTs-for-development research?
The following represents a subjective answer – feel free to add your own ideas – based on reading and reviewing ICT4D research. I draw out three good practices and three good ideas, which can be epitomised by Rob Jensen’s paper on mobile phone use by Keralan fishermen.
The Good Practices
a) Audience Focus and Dissemination: good ICT4D research identifies, focuses on and targets its particular audience. Jensen is an academic economist. He did this research and he wrote up this research for other academic economists. He chose an appropriate channel – a leading economics journal – to reach that audience. (And then reached much further through having the work summarised in The Economist.)
b) Conceptual Foundation: good ICT4D research is founded on and structured around some conceptual framework or model. Without that, research struggles for coherence and consistency. With that, it is more likely to make a longer-term contribution. Jensen’s work is rooted in welfare economics theory, to which it also makes a contribution.
c) Rigorous Methods: good ICT4D research has a methodology, and rigorously applies appropriate research methods. It also explains the methodology, methods and their application to its readers. Good narratives about ICT4D wins hearts. Good quantitative statistics win minds. But too much ICT4D “research” falls down in between: methodology-less, wishy-washy qualitative data that wins nothing. Jensen’s research avoids this: it has a rigorous quantitative foundation built on shed-loads of longitudinal field data.
The Good Ideas
d) Speaking to Development: one of the seductions of the ICT4D field’s growth is to publish in ICT4D journals for an ICT4D audience. But one’s impact (and career trajectory!) can be greater if ICT4D’s parent disciplines are targetted. Most who do this have chosen one of the fractions of informatics (information systems, human-computer interaction, computer science). But longer-term impact of both research and ICT may be better-served by targetting development studies; the reference discipline for many of those working in development agencies. Jensen speaks to development: by drawing in particular on the ideas of Joe Stiglitz, his research can be seen as part of development economics; and as work that can make a connection with economists in international agencies. That’s why Jensen’s research is one of very, very few ICT4D studies that colleagues in development studies have heard of.
e) Researching Technology-In-Use: in his book, The Shock of the Old, David Edgerton argues we should not be so obsessed by novelty and by inventing new technology; instead we should look at the actual technologies already in use. Much ICT4D research fails this test, reporting some new prototype or pilot; oftentimes in which the authors have themselves had a hand. Jensen eschews this route. He did not try to create any new technology. He did not invent. He did not seek to innovate. Instead, he researched technology-in-use: the application of mobiles within a poor community to meet their particular needs (arguably an example of grassroots innnovation).
f) Researching Income-Generating Uses of ICTs: a fair chunk of ICT4D research looks at social development: health, education, governance, community empowerment, gender equality. But the number one need of the world’s poor (there’s a clue in the name) is money. Jensen focuses on this, studying the use of ICTs in productive micro-enterprise; investigating how mobiles increase income generation in poor communities. It therefore tells us how ICTs can directly contribute to economic growth and poverty alleviation.