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There's Not an App for That

Monday, May 23, 2011 - 11:43
The United Nations' agency for ICTs, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), marks today, 17 May, as World Telecommunication and Information Society Day (WTISD). As we celebrate this day, with the emphasis on “Better life in rural communities with ICTs”, SANGONeT is pleased to announce that its 7th annual conference will focus on Information Communication Technologies for Rural Development (ICT4RD) with a theme titled, “Rural Realities, Real Solutions”

Comments

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I totally agree with you Kenneth and add that the information MUST be packaged in a manner easily understood by the end user. Otherwise we can have all the information centers, points and persons having loads and loads of information that may be viable but is only accumulating dust on the shelves. Ednah (via Facefook)
This is a great stride! Inadequate information at rural level especially among smallholder farmers could be sighted as one of the major factors depriving them the ability to exploit their potential to participate favorably in prevailing markets inhibiting them to increase their income and livelihood opportunities. ICT4RD solutions long awaited in many Sub-Saharan Africa's rural poor especially Zambia's! Kenneth (via Facebook)
Lack of water management in a sustainable way, and little respect for knowledge from the ground. Living is knowledge, surviving with almost nothing, is knowledge, indeed. Local community development plans takes the back seat when national strategies are produced in a centeralised way. Social media could changed all that. I certainly hope so. Desiree (via Facebook)
Dear All. ICT has a very important tool for reaching mass and the vast population had not yet been utilized in the Developing world and it should be put as an priority into the Agenda of this Conference.We had no time on Research on this matter..This may not hinder such a prime factor of Human Development.THANK YOU FOR inclussion of the Developing world and its peasants. Nicodemus (via Facebook)

There is a real need to separate the ICT4D wheat from the ICT4D chaff; your post is well timed and brings welcome balance to the debate. Global ICT companies are increasingly present spending marketing budgets on Apps competitions and ICT4D events in order to add the allure of 'ending poverty' to their brands. Such marketing hype around ICT4D will not help bring balance and clarity. Thanks then to SangoNet for using November's conference to focus in on "Rural Realities & Real Solutions". Anyone interested in this post may also want to read "Why Apps can't Transform Society" and "People's Power - Have we got an App for That? which I have previously posted on the subject.
http://laptopburns.wordpress.com/2011/05/03/why-apps-cant-transform-society/
Todays Aidwatch blog is similarly cautious and also references the @ict4d Jester. See you in November!

Thanks William and Tony. @William: Agreed - thats a useful variable; Interesting to see if irs measureable anyway thats not anecdotal. @Tony. Was just coming back to reference your posts and the AidWatch post - (here http://aidwatchers.com/2011/05/poverty-is-there-an-app-for-that/ )
There is a real need to separate the ICT4D wheat from the ICT4D chaff; your post is well timed and brings welcome balance to the debate. Global ICT companies are increasingly present spending marketing budgets on Apps competitions and ICT4D events in order to add the allure of 'ending poverty' to their brands. Such marketing hype around ICT4D will not help bring balance and clarity. Thanks then to SangoNet for using November's conference to focus in on "Rural Realities & Real Solutions". Anyone interested in this post may also want to read "Why Apps can't Transform Society" and "People's Power - Have we got an App for That? which I have previously posted on the subject. Todays Aidwatch blog is similarly cautious and also references the @ict4d Jester. See you in November! http://laptopburns.wordpress.com/2011/05/03/why-apps-cant-transform-society/
Great post Matthew and David and I'm delighted that SangoNet has taken the initiative to organise a conference around such an important topic. As someone who's relatively new to the ICT 4RD space, I've been bold enough to stick my neck out and post some thoughts about the characteristics of successful market access projects, and the role that ICT can play, on the techfortrade blog.   I suspect your development innovation curve may well reveal that a common characteristic of successful projects is that the project was supported by a funder that was prepared to 'stick with it' and allow the project adequate time to get established.  
The United Nations' agency for ICTs, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), marks today, 17 May, as World Telecommunication and Information Society Day (WTISD). The purpose of the day is to “help raise awareness of the possibilities that the use of the Internet and other information and communication technologies (ICTs) can bring to societies and economies, as well as of ways to bridge the digital divide”. This year the theme of the day is “Better life in rural communities with ICTs”.

It is a vital - if optimistic - theme. Over three quarters of the world's poor live in rural areas. They lack economic opportunities, have difficulty accessing basic services, have a limited voice in governance and remain extremely vulnerable to shocks. In Sub-Saharan Africa they account for 67% of the total population and rural poverty in this region is deepening. Rural areas in South Africa share similar characteristics. (IFAD Rural Poverty Report 2011)

But the extent to which information communication technologies (ICTs) have the ability to improve the lives of the rural poor is debatable. There is no doubt that the use of ICTs among poor people is growing rapidly. Coverage reaches further than roads, electricity, sanitation and clean water. ICTs - and in particular mobile technology - provide access to information and communication, complement successful development initiatives, drive innovation, and empower communities and individuals to co-create new solutions.

On the other side, however, is an understandable reaction to the inevitable hype.  Competitions and challenges have created a slightly unrealistic environment - at once hypercompetitive and unsustainable - perhaps a case of the ICT4D sector mirroring the commercial tech bubble?

The slightly snarky – but usefully cynical - ict4djester.org talks amusingly of recycled presentations – tweaked slightly from pitches to VCs to Apps4Dev competitions to grant applications. This - and the more constructive Mobileactive.org's Failfare.org methodology (undefensively talking through ICT4D failures) suggests that it is difficult to actually understand the difference between a great plausible idea, and something that actually works.

Maybe. But there are some exciting and effective ICT4D projects. And it is not atypical of deeply innovative phases for there to be a flurry of projects, prototypes, pilots – and the non-profit equivalent of exuberant venture capital – inflows of grants to the field of ICT4D. And maybe it takes a crowded podium/appstore/innovation lab, etc. to separate (and the agricultural analogy is deliberate) the wheat from the chaff.  And perhaps one of the most exciting aspects is that much of the hype - the events, the formation of app labs, techno-hubs, living labs and the solutions themselves - is happening in the countries and regions most affected by rural poverty. In India, here in South Africa, and even more so just up the road in Nairobi where “technology” and “technology for development” don't sound like completely different fields.

And sometimes the hype is really just a question over-promising. The pragmatic assistance of existing workflows while saving money and improving efficiencies -maybe not by an order of magnitude, but incrementally. Surveys, field logistics, event and training management, appointment reminders, crowd-sourced mapping are all achievable, useful and scalable – in the context of existing well-designed programmes. A dose of humility is useful: deploying an app that tracks and maps treadle pump sales and installations is cool (Forms! GPS! Photos!) and ensures useful information to the NGO supplying them. But it is not the app that is irrigating previously rain-fed fields...

Larger-scale successful uses of ICTs in rural development include improved access to markets, financial services and employment; increased access to education and healthcare; improvement in emergency and disaster relief; and improvement in transparency and public participation through the use of mobile phones in citizen journalism.

Ciara Aucoin has put together a great list of some of the interesting “Human Development” Apps.

And it is easy to throw around the names of projects and products that have made the field seem so exciting and full of potential - m-Pesa, Ushahidi, e-seva, eSoko - or the nascent projects just starting to bubble to visibility like Jamiix.com

But how can we try and measure the value and impact of these tools in support of rural development, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa?

So, as we celebrate WTISD today, with the emphasis on “Better life in rural communities with ICTs”, SANGONeT is pleased to announce that its 7th annual conference will focus on Information Communication Technologies for Rural Development (ICT4RD) with a theme titled, “Rural Realities, Real Solutions.”

The conference will be held from the 1-3 November 2011 at the Wanderers Club in Johannesburg, South Africa.

Amongst other things, the conference agenda will include a critical review of three keywords that are constantly thrown around in conference presentations and grant applications - scale, sustainability and replication. What is the status of existing ICT4RD projects? Why are so many ICT4D/ICT4RD projects stuck in pilots? What are the secrets of those projects and products that have broken free and are successfully scaling and replicating? Is there a “development innovation curve where we can map successful methods and projects?

The conference will bring together more than 250 key innovators, implementers, social entrepreneurs and thinkers from across the developing world to explore how ICT innovations can benefit rural populations in Sub-Saharan Africa. It will assess the current state of ICT4RD projects, products and policies; create an environment for matchmaking and deep knowledge-sharing; and contribute to the successful use of ICTs in response to the realities of rural development.

The real success requirements of many ICT4RD projects depend less on great software development and more on good research, effective local capacity, influence, great networks and relationships - the types of things a good NGO does well and has done well through many developmental, technological and methodological phases.

And there's not an app for that.

Click here for more information about the 2011 SANGONeT Conference or assist us in shaping the conference agenda by sharing your views and comments on Facebook, on Twitter, or by replying to ict4rd@ngopulse.org.

Matthew de Gale manages SANGONeT’s “Mobile Services for African Agriculture” programme.

David Barnard is the Executive Director of SANGONeT.
Author(s): 
Matthew de Gale
Matthew de Gale
Author(s): 
David Barnard