What Not to Expect from ICTD Research and Interventions

MD4SG
MD4SG
May 22, 2020 · 5 min read

This post is a summary of a recent MD4SG talk by Dr. Araba Sey from Research ICT Africa. This blog series represents our members’ reflections on the monthly MD4SG Colloquium on different topics related to mechanism design and access to opportunity. Our previous talks can be found on our Youtube channel.

“Concepts have “bewitching power”: even when conceptual constellations do not deliver on their promise, in the sense that there is no logical link between the apparent intentionality of a concept and its real impact, human beings will persist in believing in the concept.”

- Ineke Buskens, 2014

In her April 2020 MD4SG Colloquium talk, Dr. Araba Sey drew from decades of experience working on academic and policy-oriented information and communication technology for development (ICTD) research and teaching around the world to address issues regarding researcher expectations when working in developing contexts. She highlighted Buskens’ quote as one that has driven her work and calls researchers to reflect on the potential effects of their blindspots on the work that they do and the people they set out to impact.

Sey centered her talk on what not to expect from ICTD research. While it is hard to say what to expect in ICTD research with certainty, a healthy dose of hope and skepticism helps prepare researchers for things that could potentially fail while keeping them optimistic that things would work as expected. She highlighted two bewitching factors stemming from the role of information and communication technologies (ICTs) and participatory research in the global development agenda.

ICTs are a cornerstone for development in modern times and present issues like the COVID-19 pandemic bring to light the fact that people who can benefit the most from technology are often the people who have least access to them. In efforts to bring the benefits of technology to the people who most need them, Sey highlighted that researchers should not expect that:

  1. ICTD/ICT4D is a new phenomenon: From mass media, telecommunication, computers, the Internet, social networks, drones and most recently, artificial intelligence, there have been successive attempts to apply novel technologies to address development challenges. Even when the technology and historical context may have changed, the language and practices that develop around these developments are the same. Doing impactful work with any new form of technology requires an understanding of past attempts by researchers to address similar problems.
  2. Basic ICT access is no longer a challenge: The assumption that access to basic — personal, convenient, affordable — ICT is widespread and no longer a challenge in low income countries is simply untrue. Shared access venues like community centers, cyber cafes and libraries which were often the major means of internet access are not operational during a pandemic. Research shows that these public access venues were the only source of access to the Internet for at least a third (33%) of survey respondents; and over 55% of respondents would see a decrease in their ICTs if public access venues were no longer available. It is imperative for researchers to think about how to adapt their work to capture the types of access people have and to explore collaborations with people that may be able to fill existing gaps.
  3. Old technologies have become redundant: While smartphones may appear to be ubiquitous in the Western world today, compact disks are still a primary means of accessing media content, and radio sets are the most dominant form of information technology in some parts of the world. In most cases, people combine newer and older technologies to maximise benefits derived. Research on public access ICTs show that most people (about 96%) who use cyber-cafes also have mobile phones but go to these venues because they believe those places address critical needs such as getting help from the support staff which the mobile phones were unable to meet. Researchers should exercise caution when introducing newer technological tools instead of leveraging existing functional infrastructures.
  4. You will find clear answers in your work: ICTD research can present results that are contradictory or inconsistent. Funding may be cut off when results are not positive, impact is not immediately obvious or findings do not align with funders’ expectations. The types of challenges that ICTD research attempts to address are complex; hence, it takes a lot of work to figure out what the right questions are and what real answers look like. These often differ at national and local levels. Researchers need to think critically about ways in which technological advancement brings benefits but also widens existing socio-economic inequalities or creates new ones.
  5. Your digital solution will eliminate analog barriers: The path from intervention to impact is rarely linear. Research on the use of computing services in public libraries in Vietnam showed that analog factors were more prevalent than digital factors in limiting the use of these access venues. For example, certain people who desired to use the libraries could not do so after a tiring day in the farm; this implied that the solution did not lie solely in the digital service offered. ICTD researchers often grapple with this interplay between social inclusion and digital inclusion.

Participatory research has the objective of handing power from the researcher to research participants, who are often community members or community-based organizations. In participatory research, participants have control over the research agenda, the process, and activities. It requires lots of engagement with the community since the researcher takes on the role of a facilitator. This can present new challenges. Researchers should therefore not expect that:

6. Your sample population will have time for you: Doing ICTD research takes time — yours and those of your participants. There are no guarantees that your participants can afford the time. The researcher will need to consider who in the community will be involved (direct members, representations, local research institutions, community organizations, etc) and the frequency of their involvement because the access one has will determine how much one can do.

7. Collaboration will be straight-forward because you and your partners want the same thing: Applying participatory methods do not automatically translate to smooth collaborations. Most projects, even with the best of partners, can end up being 60% negotiation and 40% research. Partners can have unseen, sometimes contrasting agendas or priorities. For example, a subset of partners may be interested in demonstrating impact quickly while another subset may prioritize building research capacity of local partners; it is almost impossible to fit these goals on the same project timeline.

8. Doing things “right” will get you the “right” results: No matter how one defines “right”, one cannot expect that because they have done things the way that they’re expected to be done, they will get the results that they want. Participatory research requires that one relinquishes control over the process to your community or your partners, sometimes potentially compromising rigor of methods.

ICTD research can thus be very challenging and it does not always align with academic research timelines and reward systems. Understanding how these problems are situated within historical, social and cultural contexts can help researchers define the reach and limits of digital technologies, explore the role of existing technological solutions and seek collaborative opportunities to fill gaps.

Written by Ifeoma Okoh and Daniel Nkemelu on behalf of the MD4SG Development Working Group.

MD4SG

Mechanism Design for Social Good

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Using algorithms, optimization, and mechanism design to improve access to opportunity for historically underserved and disadvantaged communities

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MD4SG is a multi-institutional, interdisciplinary initiative working to improve access to opportunity for under-served and disadvantaged communities. md4sg.com

MD4SG

Using algorithms, optimization, and mechanism design to improve access to opportunity for historically underserved and disadvantaged communities

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