ICT-for-Development Research: Size and Growth

How big is the ICT4D research field?  And is it growing or shrinking?

The first question is harder to answer.  I’ll offer an estimate based on conferences (which will only attract a sub-set of the field e.g. 350 attendees at ICTD2009, and 500 authors submitting papers) and my own contact lists.  On that basis, I estimate that, worldwide, several hundred academics and several thousand PhD researchers are working specifically on ICT4D topics.  They work alongside thousands of staff in donor agencies, national governments and private firms who occasionally contribute to research outputs.  Several thousand more academic staff, particularly in business/management and informatics, undertake occasional research in the field.

What about trends?  One way to measure is through the ISI Web of Knowledge which records books, all papers in a large number of journals and some conferences.  Searching for the term ‘ict4d’ produces only 25 results, almost all during 2007-2009; too few for any real analysis.  Searching for ‘ict*’ and ‘developing countr*’ produces 395 results.  A manual review suggests the great majority are ICT4D-relevant publications, and analysis shows the following trend (note results for 2009 are incomplete as papers are still being entered): 

This shows dramatic growth in ICT4D research during the “noughties”: a nearly 2000% increase from 1999 to 2008; an average 39% annual growth rate.

In part, this might be an “ICT effect” reflecting greater use of the term.  But it does also seem to reflect more general research growth in the area of development informatics.  Publications using ‘info*’ and ‘developing countr*’ grew by 80% from 1999-2008 (7% annual average); and the narrower band of publications using ‘information technolog*’ and ‘developing countr*’ grew by 153% from 1999-2008 (from 83 to 210; an 11% annual average).

Just to check there wasn’t a general research growth effect, a cross-check with ‘political’ and ‘developing countr*’ showed a couple of hundred items per year published, but only a 14% growth in the literature from 1999-2008 (1% annual average).  A better cross-check was with just ‘developing countr*’ which showed a 57% growth (5% annual); and just ‘ict*’ which showed a 126% growth (9% annual) during the same period.

From this data, then, ICT4D research publication is growing significantly faster than cognate research areas.

We can draw a similar conclusion of high growth by looking at ICT4D-specific journals.  In 1999, these produced 33 articles.  In 2009, they produced 182 articles; a 450% rise.  This rise was very much related to growth in the number of journals: two in 1999 and eleven today (though one has yet to produce its 2009 edition, and one only produces its first edition in 2010; only one of these journals is covered by the ISI Web of Knowledge).

Given growth and items not covered by these two methods, this suggests at least 300 ICT4D journal articles will be published in 2010, and likely several hundred more under the general banner of development informatics in its broad sense.  Plus, of course, all of the books, reports and conference papers not to mention blogs, wikis and the like.  [See more consideration and detail on this in comment.]

That’s one hell of a change from 1987 when I first started academic work in the field and when, as I never tire of saying, the entire historical academic output on IT and development would fit on a single shelf of my bookcase.  And it indicates ICT4D research as a fast-growing field with all the pros (greater audience, more jobs, more collaborators, more new ideas, more impact) and cons (more to read, greater competition) that brings.


15 thoughts on “ICT-for-Development Research: Size and Growth

  1. Thank you for the insightful post! It is really interesting to see how this area of inquiry is changing over time. And your post has triggered a couple of thoughts.

    First, I think it would be interesting to see the aggregated stats for all ICT4D-related research, because I find it interesting that provided there are several hundreds academics dealing with the topic, there were only few dozens articles published at the peak. I realize that this means a lot of work and I am not sure it is on your agenda, but it would be interesting.

    Second, it would be really interesting to see a discussion about the quality and the impact of published ICT4D scholarship. For example, where does it stand in comparison with more traditional development scholarship? I think this would really valuable discussion to have.

    Just a couple of thoughts and thanks again for sharing those stats!

    1. Dima raises some good questions. I’ll only respond in this comment to the first issue; that of the match/mismatch between number of people in the field and outputs. First, a reminder that the output described in my blog entry is not a few dozen articles; that’s all ISI’s Web of Knowledge (WoK) captures: I estimated at least 300 ICT4D articles. Taking the low side of my “several hundred”, which would be 200 academics and 2,000 PhD researchers, this figure doesn’t look so unreasonable. But it still needs further thought. I’ll offer the following:

      – On reflection, the 300 figure is an underestimate (well, I did say “at least”). It comes pretty much from adding all articles in specialist ICT4D journals to all those in WoK that arise from a search on ‘ict*’ and ‘developing countr*’. But there are more than this: there are a lot of other ICT4D-relevant articles in WoK than the graph indicates; and there are a lot of non-WoK-registered articles on ICT4D outside specialist ICT4D journals.

      On the first issue, I searched using various other ICT4D-relevant terms but excluding ‘ict*’ (e.g. ‘mobile’ AND ‘developing countr*’ NOT ‘ict*’) on WoK, then looked through the results to eliminate those not related to ICT4D. I’m not going to do that with all possible search terms, but it suggests using this method you can at least double the figures shown in the graph. Then exclude ‘developing countr*’ but search for individual regions (e.g. ‘africa*’) and then countries (e.g. ‘tanzania*’). Each of those searches produces a handful of unique articles per year. Even just an initial foray into this method suggests there could easily be 300 journal articles per year relating to ICT4D on WoK though (see below) with a moderate boundary on the topic such that I’d prefer to call it “development informatics”.

      On the second issue, a look at various informatics-related non-WoK journals suggests these publish articles on ICT4D. Examples: Journal of Community Informatics; journals on e-government such as Electronic Journal of e-Government; journals on e-learning such as Electronic Journal of e-Learning; journals on knowledge management such as Electronic Journal of Knowledge Management; plus others on telecommunications, communications and development, information management, information systems; most if not all journals produced by IGI Press; journals produced by various developing country institutions; and so on. I can’t give any exact extrapolation but it seems not unreasonable to add these to those on WoK and say there could be 1,000 development informatics journal articles being produced per year.

      – In research-intensive universities like Manchester, staff are producing 3-4 refereed journal articles per year. But that’s not the norm for the vast majority of academics across the world. In many resource-poor universities, for example, the opportunities, support infrastructure, contacts, and norms will be very different, and staff there may rarely be able to produce such articles. So the average ratio of articles: academics could be quite low.

      – Particularly in a field like ICT4D, the closed-access journal article of the type WoK indexes will not be the norm for publication. I have discussed other types of journal article, but think of all the other research outputs: books (admittedly rare), book chapters, online reports, micro-research through blogging and wikis, and most of all, conference papers: those 500 authors submitting to ICTD2009 come from both core ICT4D researchers and the marginal/occasional group I mentioned, but that’s still a lot of people and a lot of papers for just one conference. There are relatively few international ICT4D conferences every year, but there are several conferences with ICT4D streams and lots more with ICT4D papers; and you can start multiplying that up several times if you go down to regional conferences then national conferences then workshops. There must be at least 1,000 ICT4D conference papers per year and probably a lot more (though admittedly a number of those will go on to become journal articles or book chapters).

      – All the outputs I’ve talked about are English language. There are, I am reliably informed, other languages out there in the world with their own journals, conferences, reports, books, etc.

      – And finally, there’s the question of where we set the boundaries of ICT4D. There are various “sliders” you can apply. Geography/income: just the low-income countries, or spreading up to “anyone but OECD”? Objectives: just the MDGs, or broadening to all socio-economic and political change? Discipline: just information systems and development studies, or pushing out into information management, communications, HCI, computer science, knowledge management, and others? ICT4D can often be quite narrowly defined. That’s why I prefer “development informatics” which can allow for a broader set of definitions on all three dimensions.

      Using that broader “development informatics” definition, we can easily be looking at 1,000 English-language journal articles per year and over 1,000 other English-language public domain written outputs. On that basis, “several hundred academics and several thousand PhD researchers” still looks OK to me.

      But it would be great if others have data to offer.

  2. Hi Richard

    Thanks for another interesting piece of research.

    Ref “And it indicates ICT4D research as a fast-growing field with all the pros (greater audience, more jobs, more collaborators, more new ideas, more impact) …… that brings.”

    Maybe now that there are so many more people involved it might be timely to raise my hand again ref possible research and collaboration. See Dadamac Academic -Practitioner Collaborations http://www.dadamac.net/node/213.

    I have been greatly encouraged recently by the number of references I have heard about the need for collaboration and participation at an earlier stage than has been usual in the past. I am hopeful that there are people in the ICT4D community who take this seriously. After all ICT4D people must be the ideal group to make use of the Internet at an early stage in their planning – and it is a great way to engage with the people they will be working with in the field, or their representatives.

    An example of some practical, non-academic research we did with Marcus Simmons my serve to demonstrate how effectively things can happen on the ground when you are able to cut through some of the “top-down” structures and connect directly. http://www.dadamac.net/projects/ecodome

    You also mention ” ICT4D research as a fast-growing field with all the ….cons (more to read, greater competition) that brings.” I genuinely believe that academics who work closely with practitioners will often have an edge over those that don’t – and will do work of more practical use.

  3. Hi Richard,
    I am voracious reader of your ICT writings particularly those emphasizing demand led ICT.We deeply feel blend of participatory research and ICT will generate solid spade work for demand led ICT. eXPERIENTIAL LEARNING EL when blened in ICT genrates organic knowledge for change k4c.What would say?

    1. What can I do but agree working, as I do, at Manchester University, the home of Enid Mumford – a champion of action research for information systems, and of Reg Revans – the founding light of action learning (with the University still hosting the Revans Academy for Action Learning and Research).

      This sparks two thoughts.

      First, that my characterisation of research in terms of published material is a conservative one. In a broader sense of experiencing, reflecting and building knowledge, all ICT4D practitioners are researchers.

      Second, that the translation of experiential learning into published ICT4D research – especially into published research that will have an impact on others – is very poor. Though one group that has cracked this nut is the team based around University of Oslo, working on the HISP health IS project.

    1. So if I’ve understood the GV discussion, it’s about who’s writing online about ICT4D. I think I’d draw the same conclusion as from earlier comments here: that there’s a larger world of ICT4D “research” (in the sense of knowledge-building) out there once you break beyond the confines of academic research, but that making connections between the worlds may be difficult. That’s partly about the different norms and incentives in the different parts of the ICT4D universe; something we’ve not talked about.

      I’m not going to list all the names of those who are publishing – there are hundreds! But in scanning down the authors on the WoK-listed items, the one thing that struck me is how few of the names I know. (I did – of course! – look to see if I was there in the list of items shown in the graph; only once, despite having 20 ICT4D-related items in WoK. That supports the conclusion from an earlier comment; that my search on ict* an developing countr* is only throwing up a (small) sub-set of ICT4D literature.)

      This all leads me back to the original questions and reinforces my sense that, even in terms of just the academic world, the field of those doing ICT4D research is relatively big and growing bigger.

  4. Richard, Thanks for the work in providing a “milestone” of progress along the ICT for development road. I suspect that in terms of such a measurement we are at the middle (or end) of the measurable age. A revolution is truly consolidated when it becomes omnipresent and references fade into the background.

    I have just returned to urban India from rural India and the cell phone is so omnipresent here, as it is increasingly everywhere, that nobody bothers to talk about cell phones for development any more than they talk about oxygen for development. Both are just there and absolutely essential for things that would have never considered a phone a decade ago.

    There will still be things to research, and to count, but they will be more about what enables, or stands in the way of, using ICTs for social equality, economic equity, justice and peace. The search phrase list will increasingly look like the dictionary and ICT will be like yeast in bread making. If you want the loaf to rise, you need a little yeast. If you want development you need a little ICT somewhere in the mix.

    Sam Lanfranco
    Distributed Knowledge Project

  5. Hi Richard! Great post.

    Have a look at Google’s search aggregation tool: Google Insights, a favorite of mine, to see the global trends of Google Searches for “ict4d”.


    Notice that searches for the term peaked in April 2004 and have been declining since. It is especially interesting to look at the headlines and the implications they may have on global interest, though this data might be more on the demand rather than supply of ICT4D research

    Certainly not without limitations, but interesting dataset to monitor. I wonder if other keywords are indicative of trends in ICTs and development.


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