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 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.Follow @CDIManchester
 “Informatics” is the complex of data, information, knowledge, information systems, and information and communication technologies.
Pose the following to data-revolution-for-development activists: “Show me an initiative of yours that has led to scaled, sustained development outcomes”.
If – as likely – they struggle, there’s a simple reason. We have not yet connected the data revolution to a praxis revolution for development. The data revolution takes advantage of technical changes to deliver new volume, speed, and variety of data. The praxis revolution makes changes to development processes and structures in order to turn that data into development outcomes.
Perhaps data activists never took, or fell asleep during, Information Systems 101. Because the very first session of that course teaches you the information value chain. You’ll find variants of the example below in Chapter 1 of most information systems textbooks.
It explains that data per se is worthless. Value – and development results – only derive from information used in decisions that are implemented as actions. To make that happen you also need the intelligence to process the data into information; the imperative that motivates you to run the whole chain through; and the soft capabilities and hard resources to access data and take action.
It is – relatively – easy to deliver the new data and to attack the ‘access’ issue by lowering skill and technological barriers for development decision makers, for example via good data analytic and visualisation techniques. It is much more difficult to address the praxis components of the chain. That’s not just a question of providing information-, decision-, and action-related skills and other resources for individuals. It will typically require:
– new, more evidence-based decision-making processes
– new, more agile decision-making structures
– new institutional values and incentives that orient towards these new decision-making modes.
At present, that does not seem to be happening. If we create a quasi-heatmap of the focus for some key data-revolution-for-development (DReD) sources, then we see that almost all the focus lies at the source of the value chain or before (prioritisation, digitisation, standardisation, etc of data). There is a very little thought given to the development impact of data. And the “wings” of intelligence and imperative, and the core of praxis (information-decision-action) are missing.
“Heatmap” of Key Data-Revolution-for-Development Sources
Of course that’s partly understandable: there’s a clue in the term data revolution; in the remit set for organisations like Global Pulse; and in the technical profiles of most of those involved.
And the limited incursion of techies into praxis is partly welcome. As Evgeny Morozov has noted, the techie prescription for praxis is algorithimic regulation – a steady incursion of automation into the downstream stages of the value chain which assumes digital decisions and actions are some apolitical and rational optimum, which denies the importance of politics and thus neuters political debate, and which diverts attention from the causes of society’s ills to their effects with the attitude: “there’s an app for that”.
So, at present, we face two future problematic streams. One in which a great deal of money is wasted on DReD initiatives that make no impact. One in which a technocentric view of praxis prevails.
Both require the same solution. First, an explicit recognition of information value chains in the design and implementation of all DReD projects. Second, a more multidisciplinary approach to these initiatives which incorporates participants capable of both debating and delivering the praxis revolution: those with information systems, organisation development and political economy skills are probably more relevant than decision scientists – to paraphrase Morozov, we’ve got quite enough Kahnemans and could do with a few more Machiavellis.Follow @CDIManchester
 Analysis of the content of: http://devinit.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/09/Data-Revolution-DI-briefing.pdf; http://www.opendataresearch.org/content/2014/667/researching-emerging-impacts-open-data-oddc-conceptual-framework; and http://www.unglobalpulse.org/research/projects. A fuller and more robust analysis will require more sources and co-coding of content.
ICT4D projects and policies can best be understood through a value chain model. As shown in Figure 1 below, this builds on a standard input—process—output model to create a sequence of linked ICT-for-development resources and processes. The model can be used for projects and policies in various ways: to trace their history; to analyse their content; to assess and evaluate.
The ICT4D value chain offers four main domains that can be the focus for historical or content analysis or evaluation:
- Readiness: the systemic prerequisites for any ICT4D initiative; both the foundational precursors that we might conceptualise mainly at the national level such as ICT infrastructure, skills and policy; and the more specific inputs (both ‘hard’ and ‘soft’) that feed into any individual initiative. Assessment could focus on the presence/absence of these resources and capabilities, or the strategy that converts precursors into inputs.
- Availability: implementation of an ICT4D initiative turns the inputs into a set of tangible ICT deliverables; typical among which might be a telecentre or mobile phones. Again, assessment can focus on either the delivered resources and/or the delivery process.
- Uptake: the processes by which access to the technology is turned into actual usage; also noting that key concerns around this process and its ability to contribute to development have related to the sustainability of this use over time, and – for various innovations that are prototyped – the potential or actuality of scaling-up. In practice, usage indicators are more often assessed than the various uptake processes.
- Impact: which can be divided into three sub-elements:
- Outputs: the micro-level behavioural changes associated with technology use.
- Outcomes: the wider costs and benefits associated with ICT.
- Development Impacts: the contribution of the ICT to broader development goals.
Figure 1: The ICT4D Value Chain
How has interest in these four domains changed over time?
One way to trace this is through key staging posts for the ICT4D community:
- The Digital Opportunity Taskforce (DOTForce) arose from the 2000 G8 summit in Okinawa. In 2001, it produced its “Digital Opportunities for All” report which encompassed four focal areas. Three – readiness, connectivity and human capacity – were related only to the Readiness domain; and one – participation in e-networks – looked mainly at Readiness and Availability issues.
- In 2003, the first World Summit on the Information Society was held in Geneva. Its main report was, tellingly, entitled “Building the Information Society” and not surprisingly the main focus was on building ICT connection and access; again looking mostly at the Readiness and Availability domains.
- The second World Summit on the Information Society was held in Tunis in 2005. Unlike its predecessor, its agenda did start to talk about impact. It still had a strong focus on precursors like financing and governance, but it included additional discussion about the application of ICTs, thus starting to encompass the Uptake and Impact domains.
- The largest subsequent meeting was the GK3 event in Kuala Lumpur at the end of 2007. It was shaped by twelve main sub-themes. Analysing these shows a fairly even spread across the four domains, though with Impact by now the largest single focus, followed by Availability.
There has been no subsequent comparable single event in the area drawing together many thousands of participants as these staging posts did; rather, a growing number of smaller events drawing several hundreds. However, a useful bellwether is the Information and Communications for Development Report produced by the World Bank. In its 2009 edition, the ratio of mentions of ‘readiness’ to ‘impact’ was 1:35.
Such evidence is best seen as straws in the wind rather than definitive, but it does suggest a similar pattern to that seen in other areas of ICT application, and summarised in Figure 2.
Figure 2: Changing Focus of ICT4D Priorities Over Time
Whatever the exact shape of the graph, it reflects the relative lack of attention that has been paid to ICTs’ contribution to development until quite recently. That is problematic because, as you move from left to right along the value chain, assessment becomes more difficult, more costly but also more valuable. Of course there has been literature assessing the connection to development including the summary Compendium on Impact Assessment of ICT4D Projects, and the 2010 Journal of International Development policy arena: “Do Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) Contribute to Development?“.
However, donor agencies, governments, academic departments and others must still do more to shift the focus of attention along the ICT4D value chain; and to demonstrate ICTs’ development impact.
Mountain regions are home to one-tenth of the world’s population. Yet they are also among the poorest, most-remote and most-excluded areas. Can ICTs address these issues?
Maybe. But, to date, there has been very little research on this: partly because mountain areas are the last places on earth to get connected; partly due to the lack of conceptual frameworks attuned to the specific conditions of these areas.
Manchester’s Centre for Development Informatics has published a working paper – Remoteness, Exclusion and Telecentres in Mountain Regions: http://bit.ly/Hvkk4 – which develops two simple frameworks. One looks at the positive and negative impacts that ICTs have on resources moving into and out of mountain communities. The other looks at the “information chain” (see below): the set of actions and complementary inputs required for information to have a resultant development impact.
Using these frameworks to analyse the impact of a telecentre set up within a poor community in the high Andes, we found ICTs enabling new and positive resource flows for the two key user groups: teenaged school students and young farmers. These flows help to maintain social networks. They also support information searches that have improved agricultural practice so long as other information chain resources have been available. But non-use and ineffective use of the telecentre are found where information chain resources are lacking.
ICTs have some impact on intangible elements of remoteness. In this particular example, they also offer access to some previously-excluded resources. But they have not really addressed the systemic exclusions faced by mountain communities. And they so far appear to be a technology of inequality; favouring those residents who begin with better resource endowments.
On this basis, we recommend that mountain ICT projects need to be:
- “Info-centric“: focusing less on the technology and more on the data that technology carries.
- “Chain-centric“: attending to the additional information chain resources – over and above technology and data – that are required in order to turn digital data into development results.
- “Socio-centric“: recognising that new information chain resources are mainly provided by individuals’ social contact networks.
- “Econo-centric“: being especially mindful of ICT uses that enable new or more productive income-generating activities.
But this work is just a small start: we need much more research to be done as ICTs diffuse into mountain communities; work that takes account of the specific geographies of those communities.