From ICT4D to D4D?

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.


13 thoughts on “From ICT4D to D4D?

    1. It could be if the ICT4D community makes it so. More likely, D4D and ICT4D will be two intersecting sets and what I’ve painted above will then be about how large that intersection is. But if D4D were to really gain momentum, ICT4D might become a subset of D4D.

  1. Richard I agree with you that from a human development perspective the data-centricity of D4D is no more useful that a techno-centric ICT4D. What would be progressive in my opinion, is to see technology not as a noun but as a verb; to move away from seeing technology as artefact in favour of seeing technology as a human process. If our objective is ‘human development’ what would be most useful would be to understand technology as ‘the human process of applying knowledge, materials and human resources to solve human-defined problems’. In my view, such a human-centred perspective is the best defence against the creep of technicism and a technocratic worldview, which is facilitated both by data-centric and techno-centric visions of development.

    1. Amartya sends his approval. One challenge is the increasing disappearance of humans from both technology and data processes; for example in the rise of “algorithmic regulation”.

  2. How about Information for Development (I4D) as a compromise between ICT4D and D4D? I4D would also promote inclusion since it relatively easier to use Partcipatory Rural Appraisal (PRA) techniques to engage grassroots by asking them the question “What Information (not what data or technology) do you need to support this development project”?

    1. That ought to represent progress: I4D may not inherently recognise context but it does move us towards what adds value. The difficulty is that any such move within the international development field would have a “back to the future” feel since I4D as a concept is probably associated an earlier era: UNESCO/UNISIST in the 1980s; Talero/Gaudette and the World Bank in the 1990s; and more generally the discussions on information society, national information infrastructure; etc. It reflects the problem of having to come up with something apparently novel in order to grab attention. That’s part of ICT4D’s problem: habituation.

  3. Comments from Facebook discussion:

    Winston George: Nice piece. Coming from where I am coming from, finding critical data to assist with making better decisions has always been a challenge. I am of the view that this has limited or come at a cost to development. I agree with you that the core between the D4D and the ICT4D is information. Like you said it is information that gives value to the critical development decisions. I have always called for an information policy in organizations and more so in Government so that the whole stream from data-information-ICTs are addressed to derive maximum benefit and development for countries. So a possible area for research in this regard is the extent to which countries or governments have cohesive policies between data, information, ICT and development continuum.

    Richard B. Heeks: That’s a valuable point. Policy coherence remains a general focal interest in development, and a specific interest in development informatics ( e.g.
    I’m sure you’re right that there is value in a particular focus on measuring and improving the three-way coherence between data policy, ICT policy, and development policy.

    Winston George: Good paper. I am currently involved in a project right now that may develop an intrument for a study or actually do the study on the impact of Broadband on Economic Growth especially the liberalization of telecommunications in the Eastern Caribbean.

    Arzak Khan: Will it be just Data or open data? Governments have huge resources of data but hardly have the people or process in place to utilize it for better policy making, improved governance and transparency. I wonder if the migration from ICT4D towards D4D is the step to involve all stakeholders in development process.

    Richard B. Heeks: On the resource issue – exactly right. We’re in danger of creating more and more data that sits unused unless we turn equal attention in development to the “downstream” tasks of turning data into information and decisions and actions and results. Unused ICTs were the “rusting tractors” of the 2000s. Unused data will be the rusting tractors of the 2010s.

  4. It seems to me that this notion of D4D is deriving its strength from the massive “Big Data” wave currently sweeping across the informatics terrain. Granted, data has always existed and it is as old as civilisation itself, what is new though is how to properly harness data for development within clearly defined boundaries so as to add “value ” to it.
    You need data to drive ICT just the same way you need data to generate information. I don’t see an urgent need to separate both fields, they should rather work together to achieve a common goal- DEVELOPMENT.

  5. I fail to understand anyone’s logic that puts this data topic forward as an either-or equation. Doing so simply reflects the gross immaturity of thought in this area. I have to ask, “where are the grownups?”

    Two Comments:

    First, this is but yet another over-hyped new topic that has been preceded by dozens of others over the last several decades. This current data centric focus is the new and current hot topic, and as in all things technology-related , it is initially overblown beyond reality. It will over time take its rightful balance and in fact will make considerable contributions to the whole.

    Second, the ultimate value is not this or that…it’s not D4D or ICT4D. Rather, it’s the ecosystem of all things digital, what would potential better be expressed as Digital Development. And no, not Digital for Development (D4D). It’s not Digitsl for anything, it is rather all-things-digital as an integrated component of development.

    1. The 4D moniker is crucial since it draws stakeholders’ attention to the fact that we are narrowing focus on the application of ICT in Development rather than in say the private sector. Some challenges are peculiar to the development landscape ( see my article here: ). Digital Development would not immediately communicate this focus since other terms like Software Development don’t. In my view your comment about “grownups” does not advance any value adding narrative but serves to reverse your otherwise useful contribution to this thread.

      1. Chris, my comments on “grown ups” was a light hearted joke. Didn’t mean to offend anyone. That said, in truth, this ICT4D theme has been going on 2+ decades now that I’ve been engaged in this space–nothing new here in that regard. And it was going on well before I became engaged in the early 1990s.

        My main point is simply that this is not an either-or equation…technology or data. It is both. From my view, it is a very broad ecosystem, and a whole lot more than technology and data. And that whole includes mostly the private sector, and yes, private sector software development as well.

        My concern with any “4D” nameplate is that it somehow places the efforts parallel to a range of things outside the traditional “Development” industry…making it separate when it is not. And the ICT verse Data nameplate simply focuses on but one of a large number of pieces that must be pulled into an integrated whole–“digitization” as some like to call it, if any real gain is to be gained.

        Simply my view after working this for some time now.

  6. My thoughts exactly. There’s already a huge amount of data that exists. The challenge has always been how to ensure access to vital knowledge and information to help communities make informed decisions that affect their livelihoods.

    Rapid advances in the ICTs sector have presented valuable opportunities to provide access to this data

    I believe ICT4D is still a relevant concept which should be accelerated

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