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From ICT4D to D4D?

10 December 2014 13 comments

The UN Secretary General’s Synthesis Report on the Post-2015 Agenda was released on 4th December.  It’s just one document but could be bellwether of future development priorities.

It represents the culmination of a historical trajectory in the relative presence of “ICT” vs “data” in the development discourse.  As discussed in a more detailed post-2015 vs. MDG agenda analysis, ICTs outpolled data at the turn of the century in the Millennium Development Goals.  In early post-2015 development agenda documents, this reversed – data was mentioned three times more than ICTs.  In the Synthesis Report, the ratio is close to 10:1.  Data is mentioned 39 times; ICT just four times.

What would it mean if data replaces ICTs as the core focus for informatics[1] in international development?

For many years there have been concerns about the techno-centricity of ICT4D: the assumption that technology, alone, can be sufficient to generate development; and the failure to recognise the wider contextual factors that govern the impacts of technology.  Moving to a data-centric view helps a bit: it moves us to think about the stuff that technology handles, rather than the technology per se.

But it doesn’t help a lot.  As Information Systems 101 teaches, it is information, not data, that has value and adds value.  And a data-centric view is not inherently better than a techno-centric one at recognising the importance of context.  For both these reasons, as I’ve discussed earlier in this blog, it looks like many “data-for-development (D4D)” initiatives to date are stuck at the very first upstream step of the process – they produce data but only rarely produce results.

For the academic community working in the sub-discipline of development informatics, a relative shift from ICT4D to D4D will mean a requirement for new research focus and skills.  At the least, we will need to add new research projects and research competencies around data and decision sciences.  At the most, these might partly replace – at least in relative weight – technical computing activities and capabilities.

That reorientation will certainly be true of the practitioner community, leading to demand for new postgraduates programmes – MSc Data for Development and the like.  Just as with ICT4D, there will be a key role for practitioner hybrids – those with the ability to bridge between the world of data and the world of development – and a need for training programmes to help develop such roles.  Arguably the most valuable role – to some extent trailled in my work on ICT4D 2.0 – will be the development informatics “tribrid”, that bridges the three worlds of ICT, data systems, and development.

The existing academic wateringholes and channels of development informatics will need to respond.  In particular, the main ICT4D conferences and journals will need to decide whether to make a clear and strong extension of their remit into D4D.  Mark Graham and I have made a first step with the 2015 IFIP WG9.4 conference in Sri Lanka; adding a “Data Revolution in International Development” track.  This is an example of academic tribridisation: ensuring technology, data and development are covered in one place.  It will be interesting to see what the ICTD conference series, and the main journals, do about the coming D4D wave and whether they also tribridise.

Some of the policy and practice wateringholes have already responded.  One well-placed convocation is the World Telecommunication / ICT Indicators Symposium.  This has, for some time, covered data, ICT and development and could grow to become a key tribrid location.  More important but more difficult will be whether the WSIS follow-up process can do the same.  As previously analysed, and unless it takes some decisive action, WSIS runs the risk of seeing the data-for-development bandwagon roll past it.

There are no doubt other implications of the limelight shifting from ICT4D to D4D: do add your own thoughts.  These implications include value judgements.  Data is not the same as technology, and the international development agenda risks taking its eye off ICT just at the moment when a digital development paradigm is emerging; a moment when ICT moves from being a tool for development to the platform for development.

Without a better connection between D4D and ICT4D we also risk losing all the lessons of the latter for the former, and turning the clock back to zero for those now entering the development informatics field riding in the data caravan.  It is the privilege of those new to a field to believe they are reinventing the world.  It is the burden of those experienced in a field to know they are not.

[1] “Informatics” is the complex of data, information, knowledge, information systems, and information and communication technologies.

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