Beki Grinter

ITID: special issue on HCI4D

In C@tM, computer science, HCI, ICT4D, research on March 30, 2010 at 5:17 pm

The Information Technologies and International Development Journal (co-edited by Georgia Tech’s very own Mike Best) had a (fairly recent) edition on HCI4D.

Some things I wanted to note, some of which won’t be a surprise to everyone, and weren’t necessarily even to me. But, they did cause me to stop and take pause.

Defining development is non-trivial, and contentious. You can imagine why. Some approaches focus on economic development, others on the UN’s Millenium Development Goals, other on people’s lives, freedom and access to resources. All of these contain, what deep down we can understand as values. Perhaps not everyone shares them. Also, whose values are they, there’s always the inevitable question of what it means for people in the developed world to define what development means for those in the developing world.

The distinction between ICTD and ICT4D. The former is working in developing regions, the latter is to accomplish a development outcome. HCI4D has settled on the latter, which implies a degree of commitment to development.

One of the papers in the journal provides a condensed history of HCI4D. It reads as if the U.S. was a relatively late player to the field. Early projects in France, but also (less surprisingly) in South Africa and Brazil where the governments saw a need to support this work as a means to develop their own countries.

A discussion of participation raised some salient questions. While participatory design is frequently referred to as a method for HCI4D, who participates and how? A great framing of this question was financially. How much control over the budget of the project do the participants have, which ones? Also, who controls the definition of success and failure on the project? Is it those with the methods for evaluation, or those being subject to that evaluation?

Perennial questions of power relations and sustainability come out. Power relations between the researchers and the people who are the subjects of that research. Sustainability, I think is related, its the ability for those who are subject to the research to be able to not just shape it as it proceeds, but if it’s actually useful, they get to keep it and continue to develop it themselves. Which in turn requires capacity building.

Another piece argued that one of the challenges for HCI4D was that it required interdisciplinary. In this case a hybrid between the need for technical innovation as a central outcome (a value held by Computer Science) and the need to move beyond critics of techno-centricism that are found in the Social Sciences. What’s needed is somehow room for both, potentially not in equal balance, but driven by outcomes. Driven by development. This made me wonder about HCC, Human-Centered Computing was a vision of something “in between” a place for reconfiguring this balance.

How is HCI4D different from ICT4D research? We believe that this question is ill-posed. Instead, the question should be: How can and does HCI contribute to ICT4D? It does so not by attempting to establish itself as a new field, but by bringing HCI issues to the forefront within the continuum of ICT4D research.

I really like this formulation by Winters and Toyama in their guest editorial.

Finally, I want to reflect on this

The seedlings for design aimed at improving human well-being and meeting basic needs (Design for Development, or DfD) trace back at least to the Marshall Plan.

says Krista Donaldson. The Marshall Plan is quite personal for me, because one member of my family grew up with it. And she raves about it still to this day. I can, based on the above, understand people who might not find it quite so compelling. But at least for this one person it’s given her a lifelong feeling of good will towards the United States, which has certainly helped my own migration here.

She also provides a three phase approach towards development. The first phase was characterised by reconstruction from WWII until the early 1960s. The second phase was Alternative ACtions, (lasting until the early 70s) which questioned the first phase and posited different approaches such as the Appropriate Technology movement. Mixed responses, the third phase, is an expression of the larger scale interest in this arena of research. And along the way, sustainability, not just of product, but of product in environment (which I would guess includes the green notion of sustainability as part of that) is a focus. I also find her observation that wind up radios, developed for low-income markets, are more prevalent in middle-income ones. This reminds me of a challenge for any manufacturer of how you make very cheap products for development, while not simultaneously undercutting your own markets at home. A corporate dilemma (or perhaps it’s just the wrong economic model).

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