Empowerment through Knowledge*

History of IDIA

Jacques Steyn

My own story in the field of Development Informatics, or ICT4D, began in the 1990s when the web was privatized, and I was a web and multimedia consultant. Being based on the African continent, daily frustrating technological practice under the constraints of ICT in a developing region continuously underscored the obvious fact that what works in Silicon Valley or New York cannot be replicated in contexts on the wrong side of the digital divide.

In 1999 I delivered a paper at a New Media conference in Poitiers (France), mainly on statistic of the differences of the two sides of the divide - e.g. that New York had more landline phones than the entire African continent. This conference was before the dot com crash, and the mood was optimistic to the extreme. Some noises from the podium promised that the world would be connected within the next five years. My own more negative outlook was dismissed by the conference chair with some annoyance. ICT4D was then not a well-established term, and many who operated in that arena did not know about other similar work. That was particularly the case in South Africa.

There are still optimists who think ICTs and connectivity will benefit the global south - while benefit is defined in many different ways. Although in some ICT4D circles gave up on economic benefits, there are still circles who cling to this belief, and papers assuming economics welfare to be the primary goal are still published.

Today Development Informatics or ICT4D is investigated by perhaps any and all disciplines, and there is much more collaboration and understanding of the domain. When IDIA was established, coming from an application development background to this domain, I was not aware of the work done in this field in other disciplines. Today engineers, Information Systems scientists, Computer Scientists, Information Sciences, and many more other disciplines make contributions to the field. Each brings their own flavor, paradigms and conceptual frameworks, research methods and preferred theories to the table.

What follows is a brief history of how and why IDIA was established. Having come to ICT4D from an applications development approach, I was unaware of other initiatives also active in this space. For example, IFIP9.4, established many years before IDIA, also addressed ICT4D. Some projects were under way in India. My personal philosophy is about cooperation rather than duplication. Had I known about the other initiatives, I probably would have thrown my energies at some other outlet.


In 2005 Prof Don Schauder (founder of CCNR - Centre for Community Networking Research) and Prof Graeme Johanson represented the Australian civil society at WSIS in Tunis. Both Don and Graeme are Information Scientists with a keen interest in Community Informatics, addressing concerns about the digital divide in societies.

Later that year Don invited Judy Backhouse, at the time the Head of the School of IT at Monash South Africa, and myself to visit IITB in Puwai, Mumbai, India. Graeme could not join.

The purpose of the visit was to explore what IITB was doing in the space of ICT in the context of a developing region (India). We also visited Baramati Agricultural Center and Vidnyan Ashram near Pune, about 150Km from Mumbai and a 7 hour drive on the Indian roads.

Two Indian friends, Jacques Steyn, Judy Backhouse, Don Schauder.

Prof Krithi Ramramrithan of IITB was our host:

2006 - formal beginnings

Now being Head of the School of IT at the Monash campus in South Africa, and being well aware of the challenges regarding ICT on the African continent, I focused the school's research efforts on what was eventually called Development Informatics. I had considerable debate with myself what to call such a discipline, and used my colleagues as soundboards. I even considered developmental informatics, but that could have been confused with developmental child and youth studies in other disciplines. I was a bit hesitant about its social meaning, as it suggested some kind of social snobbism - implying that those on the receiving end were not on the same "progressive path of cultural evolution", a notion I did not support. There already was a discipline called Development Studies, and choosing a totally novel name would have no known hook. One would then have to explain two things: the name and the field of interest. In one sense, development also linked to product development, with which I was happy, coming from that background. So I made the decision to stick to development - perhaps not the wisest choice, but in my view it sounded more like an academic discipline than the catchword ITC4D which at that stage began to gain popularity. From the point of our school's research agenda, and our involvement with Community Informatics through CIRN in Melbourne, I settled on Development Informatics, which I regarded as a "sub-discipline" of Social Informatics. I was of the opinion that what Europeans (and Americans) called development did not suffer from the same constraints as development in the (pick your word:) third world, developing regions, bottom of the pyramid, global south, etc. In my view special needs Social Informatics required a different name - hence Development informatics. But the focus is socio-technical.

IDIA began its life with a few workshops in the greater Johannesburg area. The purpose was to find out what kind of projects different players were busy with. So projects were introduced in 5-minute presentation slots, with another 5 to explore overlaps with other projects, and explore possibilities of cooperation. Although we learned from academics, NGOs, government and even business what they were busy with, no cooperation followed.

Academic funding depends on research output, so we had to change the workshop format into a conference format to provide justification for academics to participate.

It was decided to establish a forum or association. I thought that we could learn not only from fellow South Africans, but also from other developing regions in the world, so I extended the vision to beyond the boundaries of South Africa. So the word International was added.

So my colleagues Braam van der Vyver, Jan Meyer and myself decided to establish a more formal organization. The purpose would be to establish a platform for exchanging experiences in the field of Development Informatics (DI), with regards to both theoretical research and practice-based research.

The International Development Informatics Association was born.

2006 Conference

Theme:Constructing and sharing memory: community informatics, identity and empowerment,

In October 2006, colleague Braam van der Vyver and myself joined the3rd CIRN conference in Prato (Italy), organized by our Melbourne colleague Larry Stillman. From the IDIA perspective the purpose was not to have a paper presentation stream, but a round table discussion on the challenges of DI and how it differs from CI.

The general conference theme wasConstructing and sharing memory: community informatics, identity and empowerment, and Braam and myself managed the DI stream. Attendance was dismal, and I almost gave up on the idea of IDIA. It was decided to try once more with an official stream at the 2007 CIRN conference.

At that stage the Community Informatics (CI) community focused on the divide within developed regions. Communities in focus were such as inner city kids or the elderly or urban poor - within the highly developed world. There was not much interest in the developing world among participants in these fora.

2007: 1st IDIA Conference
Prato, Italy

Theme: Challenges of Development Informatics in developing regions.

In 2007 our first proper conference was planned - with conference papers. As there is so much intersection between the interests of Community Informatics (CI) and Development Informatics (DI), and as our Melbourne colleagues, particularly Larry Stillman, were willing to look after the organization and logistic, and kindly offered to host the IDIA stream.

The IDIA conference Participants from 18 countries attended, although only 8 papers of the combined conferences might be regarded as related to DI. A panel discussion was also held.

2008: 2nd IDIA Conference
Prato, Italy

Theme:ICTs for Social Inclusion: What is the Reality?

This conference was again held in conjunction with the CI conference managed by CIRN, and our Melbourne colleagues.

2009: 3rd IDIA Conference
Kruger National Park, South Africa

Theme: Digitally Empowering Communities: Learning from Development Informatics Practice

Prato is in a highly developed region, and the conference attended mostly by Europeans. This is somewhat paradoxical, and might be viewed as some form of neo-colonialism. I decided to in future rather have IDIA conferences in developing regions, also as an attempt to draw in more stakeholders and roleplayers of the developing regions.

The IDIA2009 conference was thus held in the Kruger National Park. Braam van der Vyver, Jan Meyer, Paul Plantinga and myself managed the conference. The conference was attended by 102 academics and researchers in the field of Development informatics.

2010: 4th IDIA Conference
Cape Town, South Africa

Theme: Exploring Success and Failure in Development Informatics: Innovation, Research and Practice

Participants came from 33 countries.

2011: 5th IDIA Conference
Lima, Peru

Theme: ICT for development: people, policy and practice

2012: 6th IDIA Conference
Istanbul, Turkey

Theme: Alleviating Digital Poverty with ICT innovation in emerging economies. Will ICT Rights make a difference?

2013: 7th IDIA Conference
Bangkok, Thailand

Theme: Public and private access to ICTs in developing regions

2014: 8th IDIA Conference
Port Elizabeth, South Africa

Theme: ICTs for inclusive communities in developing societies

2015: 9th IDIA Conference

Theme: Beyond development. Time for a new ICT4D paradigm?