Vol 2: ICTs and Sustainable Solutions for the Digital Divide: Practical Approaches

Development Informatics and Regional Information Technologies:
Theory, Practice and the Digital Divide

Editors: Jacques Steyn, Jean-Paul van Belle, Eduardo Mansilla Villanueva


Introduction

Development Informatics is the discipline focusing on the development of systems of Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) in constrained or under-developed contexts. Although Development Informatics covers a very wide spectrum of ICT aspects, our interest in this volume is in social computing, covering the experiences and needs of “ordinary” users (or citizens) of technology, as opposed to military, government or corporate and business users. In Volume 1 of this book set, the focus is on the theoretical issues of Development Informatics, or more precisely, the lack of theory, with the contributions in that volume covering aspects that need to be considered for the construction of a theory.

This volume focuses on case studies and covers Development Informatics or ICT4D projects and use of ICT in the geographical regions of Australasia and the Pacific Ocean, Africa, and Latin America. It is hoped that the case studies might inform the goal of eventually developing models and a theory of the use of technology, particularly ICT, among the many diverse cultures on the planet. Most of these cultures are found in economically poor contexts, or geographically remote areas which makes connectivity costly and ICT resources relatively scarce. Although the discipline of Development Informatics is also interested in the technical aspects of ICT (for example, how to provide affordable network access to remote communities), the focus of the chapters in this volume is on the human side of ICT, investigating issues such as the importance of the community, social, cultural and psychological factors and economic sustainability.

The geographical region of Australasia and the Pacific Ocean includes a wide variety of cultures, countries with different levels of economic development, and with different levels of access to Information and Communication Technology networks and devices. It is also the region where the majority of global population lives (3.8 billion, which is about 56%), mainly due to the population sizes of India and China. The many islands in the region require expensive submarine cables or satellite technology for global connectivity. Island populations are also relatively small, with the exception of Indonesia, resulting in a relatively small tax base and the lack of economies of scale, hampering infrastructure development.

Africa is the poorest continent on the planet, the least connected, suffers from numerous problems, and has a population approaching 1 billion. Although there is a trend toward urbanization, the majority of its population (60% - according to Tibaijuka, undated) are still agriculturalists, living in rural areas.

While Latin America is a region with significant similarities among its vast population of almost 600 million (CIA Yearbook - in the Appendix of Steyn, this volume), such as the same language spoken in more than 30 countries, it consists of a diverse collection of cultures, made up of a combination of original communities, mestizaje, an ethnic as well as cultural mixture of European and Aboriginal communities. There is also a clear divide between urban and rural communities, as well as social and economic practices, which are defining factors in the way groups of people relate to the world, being it more localized within the borders of the country or, as it is now more common through technology, the global community. Calculated by using the Gini coefficient, this region shows the most inequality.

The chapters are organized thematically rather than geographically. This organization should not give the impression that the chapters fit neatly into these main themes. On a more detailed level, most chapters touch on the same issues. The notes in the Introduction on the contributions are not intended to be summaries of the chapters. Rather, some aspects are highlighted, and implications for ICT4D projects are noted. The implications are our own interpretations, and not necessarily made explicit as such by the authors of the chapters.

Public access to ICT and telecentres

The participative research methodology is favored by many researchers in the ICT4D arena, with varying degrees of success. Poline Bala, in her chapter Re-thinking methodology through the e-Bario Project. From Participatory methods to a relational approach to ICT for Rural Development in Sarawak, East Malaysia. From Participatory methods to a relational approach to ICT for Rural Development in Sarawak, East Malaysia, relates experiences from the e-Bario ICT project in the Kelabit highlands of Malaysia, and cautions against rushing into communities with technologies without first investigating and understanding the historical, political and social context. Working with complex participants such as humans poses many problems. Even though the participatory method has a set of problems of its own, at least it does not suffer the problems of top-down projects. One implication of the conclusion of Bala's chapter is that ICT4D research and activity within communities cannot be done without project members from many different disciplines - among others cultural studies, psychology and sociology. Such projects should never be attempted by technologists or politicians alone, and with politics is meant outsiders in position of power, including well-meaning NGO's. Another implication is that such projects are time consuming, and thus should be planned for the long-term. There are no quick-fixes.

The Kedaikom project presented in the chapter Bringing the internet to the rural area: a case study of the 'Kedaikom' project in Malaysia by Zulkefli bin Ibrahim, Ainin Sulaiman and Tengku M. Faziharudean, documents the Malaysian Government’s undertaking to bring Internet access to rural areas in Malaysia. The political vision is to turn Malaysia into an information society by year 2020. To achieve this, the Kedaikom project was launched to offer internet access by means of telecenters in rural communities. The authors document the impact in this study. They conclude that telecentres should serve as public spaces for community interactions. In other words, telecentres should function as one of the activities on the village square. The focus of telecentres may be ICT, but this should fit in with community life. Even in highly developed regions internet cafés often serve coffee and even meals, and as locations to meet friends and “hang out”. Public ICT access centres should be designed to fit in with such social places and meet broader community needs than just to serve as access points.

Caroline Pade Khene, Ingrid Siebörger, Hannah Thinyane and Lorenzo Dalvit report in their chapter The Siyakhula living lab: a holistic approach to rural development through the development and deployment of an ICT communication platform in rural South Africa on their research into a living lab model for ICT projects. The Siyakhula Living Lab involves a holistic approach to bringing modern ICT infrastructures to rural areas. The emphasis is connecting the community by means of a sophisticated communications infrastructure to promote and exploit the tourism potential in the Eastern Cape, one of the most underdeveloped and poorest regions in South Africa. Although sophisticated technologies such as satellite and WiMax were used, the main emphasis on the implementation of the labs was to adhere to ‘best ICT4D practices’ by using local champions and community-based resources such as schools. Initially focusing on the e-marketing of local crafts and eco-tourism, the possibilities of e-government, e-health and e-learning were later explored and incorporated. Again, the non-technical contexts, the sociocultural and political aspects, are very important. Issues encountered that had impact on the project are such as deliberate misinformation by participants, trust, language, gender and age, and political constraints. It is concluded that the need for public-private partnerships, capacity and local content development are important for the successful deployment of ICT system in rural and poor communities.

In the chapter Does IT Help or Not? Computers for Development in the Andes, Antonio Díaz Andrade reviews a telecentre in the small Peruvian village Huanico. This Infocentro, the local name for a telecentre, was financed by foreign donors. Geographical isolation and a harsh environment were just some of the challenges. The outcome of experiences at the Infocentro did not match the expectations of the planners. Díaz Andrade analyzes the disconnection between the expected results and the actual reception of the usage of the Infocentro. He concludes that ICT might be a nice to have, but in communities that lack the basics of human needs (we may add, such as illustrated in Maslow's hierarchy of needs), they are not very useful, especially as local needs are not met. Communication infrastructure is not as important as other infrastructures that deal with lower level needs. Also, if the information supplied by ICT is not locally relevant, a telecentre will not be successful.

In the chapter Digital Doorways, Kim Gush, Ruth de Villiers, Ronel Smith and Grant Cambridge report on an initiative of the South African government to introduce robust, kiosk-like computers in rural and poor communities. The Digital Doorways project aims to provide unassisted computer-based computer literacy skills to impoverished communities, an idea which was inspired by Sugata Mithra's hole-in-the-wall concept, adapted to both African circumstances and recent technology evolutions, and based on mesh networking and open source software. The first phase had demonstrated the technical proof-of-concept quite convincingly by using a robust kiosk-based delivery system driven by open source content. However, going beyond the typical 'technical feasibility' stage, this project then expanded its reach and scope. This chapter reports on the current 'mass-roll-out' phase which focuses on the usability and design challenges. The empirical data was based on a roll-out of about two hundred Digital Doorway units across South Africa. The authors use data obtained from observations and user interviews to critically assess the project and which points towards the critical importance of social and contextual conditions (such as full community ownership and participation) for long term sustainability.

The importance of understanding culture before ICTs are implemented is relevant not only for social communication goals, or basic ICT access such as at telecentres. Cultural and psychological issues also influence the failure or success of large-scale e-governance operations. In her chapter, Information and Communication Technologies in Administrative Reform for Development: Exploring the Case of Property Tax Systems in Karnataka, India, Shefali Virkar shows why an ICT Property Tax System deployed in India failed. The system was developed to improve tax governance operations, but failed to first analyze the socio-cultural perceptions of tax in India. There was no consideration of plain human psychology or human nature. In this project the administrative process was streamlined by a new ICT system, yet revenue from tax collection itself remained surprisingly unchanged. Prior to the installation of the system, tax officers personally assessed the values of properties and taxes were levied accordingly. The ICT system expected owners to declare the values of their properties objectively and by themselves, but typically of human nature, they undervalued their properties in order to pay less tax. Again, this case demonstrates that a holistic approach is required for the implementation of ICT systems. We are human, after all.

Cultural and social matters

Remote and rural communities all over the globe are on the wrong side of the digital divide. This is true not only of the poorer countries, but also in highly developed regions such as Canada and Australia. Most of the Australian population is concentrated on the east and south coasts, with the exception of a few cities, such as Perth and Darwin, while the remainder of this vast country with its land surface larger than that of the USA, is sparsely populated. The Northern Territories is a vast area with little connectivity outside the main centers. There are many remote Aboriginal communities in this area. Community cultures are local, and are not homogeneous, even if a particular culture dominates in a country. A generic European culture may dominate in Australia. But it does not follow that all communities within this economically highly developed region share the values of the dominant culture. If the rights of minorities are to be respected, it means that dominant cultures cannot enforce their own technological and economic views on minorities.

In their chapter Localisation of Indigenous Content: Libraries and Knowledge Centres and the Our Story Database in the Northern Territory, Gibson, Gibson, Lloyd and Richmond demonstrate the importance of distinguishing between the technological aspects of ICT projects and the cultural and community factors. The Our Story database case concerns a more advance use of ICTs for documenting the cultural heritage of an aboriginal community in a variety of physical materials as well as digital multimedia content. Even though strong consideration is given to community inputs, the issues of trust and understanding, sometimes radically different viewpoints from non-Western thinkers on technologies, are brought to the fore. Again, cultural issues cannot be disregarded when ICT is established in communities. What may work in one culture, may not work in another. What works in New York among ICT aficionados is not universal.

In their chapter, Mobile phones, diasporas and developing countries; a case study of connectedness among Chinese in Italy, Graeme Johanson and Tom Denison report on the use of ICT, specifically mobile phones, by migrant Chinese workers in Prato, Italy. Although some of these 30'000 Chinese, mainly textile workers, have been in Prato for more than a decade, they do not regard the city as their home, and plan to return to China. They work here mainly to support their family back home. It is questionable whether China is to be regarded as a developing or developed country. Whichever way China is perceived, the relevance of the Chinese community in Prato is that they are socially remote from the Italian community in Prato, and geographically remote from their families and real homes. ICT is thus a very important tool for them to maintain their social relationships back in China, and used for their psychological well-being.

One of the social dimensions in culture is gender perceptions and relations which influence interactions with technology. Dorothea Kleine's chapter "The men never say that they do not know" - Telecentres as gendered spaces - Telecentres as gendered spaces investigates the social dimension of gender in the use of ICT in a small village in Chile. Her exploration reveals a very gendered space, where some uses and practices are the realm of males and others of females, bringing into question the current setup of telecentres that assume a gender-neutral perspective. In a heavily-gendered society, as Chile and many other countries of Latin America are, female users of ICT are relegated but at the same time, allowed more leeway in terms of asking questions, while males are supposed to know all that is needed to know, and are not supposed to require assistance, especially if it is to come from a female. Saving their masculine gender faces is very important to males, even if this results in less effective use of ICT. Commercial cybercafes are designed around the demands of male-styled usage and lack floor plans that allow a mother to bring a pram. Understanding human needs and behavior thus has implications even for the design of ICT contexts, such as the spaces in which ICT is used.

Mixed media and localization

The importance of human factors is also evident in Anand Chand's chapter, Reducing digital divide. The case of the Reducing digital divide. The case of the ‘People First Network’ (PFNet) in the Solomon Islands, which reports on the People First Network (PFnet) in the Solomon Islands, which consists of about a thousand small islands scattered across an area of about 28,400 square kilometers. The total population of all the Pacific islands is only about 15 million. Villages on the islands are small. For example, Sasamunga on the island of Choiseul in the Solomon Islands has a population of only about one hundred people, while it is approximately 1,000 miles away from Honiara, the capital of the Solomon Islands. Distances are immense, and population density sparse, which means that connectivity technologies are expensive to implement. To overcome this, different media (paper, radio, phone and internet) are mixed together in the chain of communication.

The “PFnet model was founded on the three principles of ‘community ownership’, ‘community participation’, and ‘community management’ ”. Following a community based operator model, the projects were managed by members of the communities. One finding of this research was that the general perception of community members was that 78% of the managers were not ‘doing their work properly’, yet to the contrary the project is regarded as a success as, despite these perceived problems, many benefits were obtained through the project. Although this ICT project has some economical benefits, the most important reported result is communication with family members. The implication of this is that the drive of ICT4D to get communities economically active and to join in the global neo-capitalist economy, is misguided. The success of ICT4D projects should not primarily be measured with reference to economics, but to social communication. Quality of life is increased not only by economics, but primarily by social and psychological well-being.

The PFnet system also demonstrates that a mixed media approach can have many benefits. Many activists argue for individual access either through individual network computers or mobile phones. Although such a goal admirable, it is not achievable with the current state of technology and economic disparities. The PFnet system uses a combination of written letters, public email centres and radio (including shortwave radio) for communication. Centre operators act as intermediaries between individuals and other systems, and consequently individuals do not have to be literate, either in language or with devices.

The importance of the integration of media is also evident in the chapter Stronger Voices? Experiences from Paraguay with Interactive ICTs, by Claire E. Buré. The operation of a community radio station in the outskirts of Asunción, Paraguay's capital, is investigated. In this case traditional communication technologies such as radio and telephony are integrated with the Internet. Since the production of pertinent information for the immediate needs of the community is important, this chapter shows how a community that creates knowledge and turns their members into knowledge users can use the potential of technology to their collective benefit.

Managing ICT4D

Projects need to be managed. Traditional project management theory originated against the backdrop of engineering of particularly large building constructions, and later of military projects. Large business corporations followed this model. Initially software development projects also followed traditional models of Project Management, such as the waterfall approach. The explosion of ICT in the 1990s showed that the traditional models are not efficient in managing projects for the extremely fast pace of ICT development. Several new methodologies were developed and operate under the banner of agile methodologies. One important characteristic of agile methodologies is the introduction of the human factor. Clients are much more involved, and the focus is often more on relationships than on technology. Managing donor projects (such as those of the ADB, World Bank and IMF) in developing regions also should not follow the classic project management model. Channa Gunawardena and David Brown did research on ICT initiatives implemented in Laos, Sri Lanka and Vietnam, and conclude in their chapter Donor Project funded ICT Initiatives in the Vocational and Technical Education (VTE) Sector of Asian Developing Countries: A Systems Approach to Managing Project Intervention Processes, that a soft systems methodology, rather than a traditional method, should be followed in managing donor projects.

The iREACH project in Cambodia involved the target community as active participants. Where ICT was adapted to the local needs of different population segments, the project was deemed to be more effective. Helena Grunfeld, Seán Ó Siochrú, Brian Unger and Sarun Im report in their chapter iREACH: Lessons from a Community Owned ICT Network in Cambodia on their experiences with this project, and the lessons learned. Like the PFnet project in the Solomon Islands, a community based operator model was followed, but this aspect requires more research and findings are not conclusive yet whether this model was a success. As with so many other ICT4D projects, the iREACH project has problems with economic sustainability. This leads to the question whether the maintenance of ICT infrastructure should be the responsibility of local communities, or whether they should be centrally funded, along with other government infrastructure responsibilities, such as energy, health and transport.

Informed planning and cooperation

Government responsibilities are not restricted to the hardware of infrastructure. Required support involves multiple dimensions such as financial or economic sustainability, cultural or social sustainability, technological sustainability, political or institutional sustainability and environmental sustainability, as Rajendra Kumar points out in the chapter Why Institutional Partnerships Matter: A Regional Innovation Systems Approach to Making the ICT for Development Projects More Successful and Sustainable. Stakeholders from all spheres should collaborate to make telecentres a success. Kumar comes to this conclusion based on his research into the failure of Indian telecenters - the SARI (Sustainable Access in Rural India) project in Melur Taluka of Tamil Nadu.

Government responsibilities are not restricted to the hardware of infrastructure. Required support involves multiple dimensions such as financial or economic sustainability, cultural or social sustainability, technological sustainability, political or institutional sustainability and environmental sustainability, as Rajendra Kumar points out in the chapter . Stakeholders from all spheres should collaborate to make telecentres a success. Kumar comes to this conclusion based on his research into the failure of Indian telecenters - the SARI (Sustainable Access in Rural India) project in Melur Taluka of Tamil Nadu.

In the chapter by Vincent Shaw and Jørn Braa, "Developed in the South" – an evolutionary and prototyping approach to developing scalable and sustainable health information systems, some conclusions of a decade's worth of experience in ICT health information systems in Zambia, Liberia, South Africa, Malawi, Botswana, Nigeria, and Namibia are presented. Important considerations for deploying ICT systems, among others, are participatory development, integration between media (not only computers) and systems, and integrated cooperation between role players. Although some of the issues encountered are technical, such as lack of access to ICTs and reliable power, the case again illustrates the overwhelming impact of social and political practices on projects. The authors concentrate their discussion on the key issues traditionally associated with ICT projects on the continent, namely scalability and sustainability. The former is significantly enhanced by technical “hierarchical clustering” ability and open source approaches while the latter depends crucially on the local human resources and support networks.

Planning and policy are informed by statistics. Planning ICT deployment in developing regions is typically done on the basis of statistics supplied by the World bank, the ITU and the CIA Yearbook. In the chapter The role of statistics in Development Informatics, Jacques Steyn cautions against the uncritical use of such statistics. An appendix summarizes statistics of the global presence (by country) of landline phones, mobile phones and the Internet.

Conclusion

The most important conclusion reached from the contributions to this volume is that the socio-psychological domain of computing is essential in any Development Informatics project. The notion that one size fits all in deploying ICT systems does not work. It does not work consistently across the many different cultures on this planet, and neither does it scale down to projects in small villages, due to factors such as gender roles (as in the case of Chile) or local politics (as in the case of the Solomon Islands). Although not all authors state it explicitly, they all seem to be in agreement that the active participation of targeted communities is essential in the development of ICT systems. An understanding of human nature and values people adhere to is important, as in the case of Indian tax-payers, who understate property values.

The relevance of technological determinism in ICT4D projects is questionable. Technological tools are used within cultural contexts for culturally relevant purposes. There may indeed be a causal feedback loop between technology and culture, but the causality is never one-directional, linear or simple. The complex whole of humanity needs to be understood in ICT4D circles. And within this complexity, even though there might be common global traits among the peoples on this planet, there is also much diversity. The consideration of pluralism, rather than globalism, seems to be a basic requirement for the field of Development Informatics. The appropriation (or not) of technology cannot be understood without understanding the complex socio-psychological and cultural domains of human plurality.

Jacques Steyn, Jean-Paul van Belle, Eduardo Mansilla Villanueva

References

Oldenburg, R., (2001). Celebrating the Third Place: Inspiring Stories about the "Great Good Places" at the Heart of Our Communities. New York: Marlowe and Company.

Tibaijuka, A.K. (undated). UN Habitat. Second COASAD General Assembly and Pan-African Congress on Food Security, Trade and Sustainable Development, Nairobi, Kenya. http://www.unhabitat.org/content.asp?cid=1352&catid=14&typeid=8&subMenuId=0 Last accessed 2010.