What I meant to say at... The New York Techsalon, on our hopes and fears for 2015!

3 minute read

Welcome to a new blog post series, in which we post a rough account of what we said at events and on panels, based on our notes. The probability that the text makes more sense than the spoken word did—and includes fewer bad jokes—is high.

At SIMLab, we are working on some of the wicked, tech-adjacent (often human) problems that arise when you’re using technology in social change work. That means, not how to get a specific tool working, or how to get a connection or power in a remote location, although both are important; but what else happens when we use technology in a development or aid (or activism, or journalism…) project, to power balances, evidence bases, budget tracking, staff training, organizational development, and a host of other issues. We’ll be tackling a number of specific challenges in 2015, of which more later. But in general, in ‘ICT4D’ or ICT for development work, I hope that we become more collaborative; more focussed on local impact and usable learning and less on ‘scale’ (whatever that really means); and cut down on the number of parachute projects in which an external technologist arrives in a place to implement an idea untethered from the political, bureaucratic, geographic, infrastructural and cultural landscape in which they’re arriving.

At the project level, I hope we can learn more from each project we undertake, and make it easy to access and share what that learning. I hope we implement responsible and ethical data practices, and make them part of our safeguarding and protection requirements. SIMLab is working on how to better monitor and evaluate the contribution technology makes to projects, and will continue to look at data ethics throughout 2015.

But I hope we can collectively do more of this at the sector level. Anna, our SIMLab Governance Director, wrote me in an email recently:

Asking project-level folks to take on the burden of proving sector-wide impact limits project-level learning (depletes resources) and overwhelms sector-wide learning with a lot of noise.

I’d agree, and I’d also recommend Dave Algoso’s excellent recent post on case studies, which is very relevant here. Exhorting people to learn and share learning doesn’t solve the absorption problem. We probably need a better sectoral community of practice, and a way (a resource? A group of people?) to turn many shared evaluation reports (itself a dream) into usable, accessible knowledge.

Finally, looking at the technology itself; I hope that we’ll not build only for a smartphone future, ignoring the power and access problems that keep people using feature phones, and get real about what mobile industry statistics really mean. Many, many people still get their information through more inclusive technologies, like feature phones, radio, and human networks, and those channels need to be better understood and utilized.

And I think it’s time to look carefully at what a decade or more of funding and working on innovation in this area has wrought, and why. We need to examine what we think ‘innovation’ is—sometimes it might not be the technology that needs to change, but the implementation methodology. How many times does a practitioner need the resources to do their development work better, but have to cloak it in a shiny new ICT wrapping to get it funded? Perhaps the field should fund the field - why not have a revolving fund administered by practitioners, for practitioners, topped up by subscriptions and grants, with the quid pro quo being that accessible learning I mentioned earlier?

Overall I have a sense of optimism about ICT4D, and of forward progress, but I think the balance is at times more in favour of expensive big ideas without substantive underpinnings, than in the slow, careful work of supporting and learning from locally-implemented good ideas that use appropriate, sustainable tools. My hope for 2015 is that we continue to make steps in the right direction.