Beki Grinter

ICTD: Is it the Right Categorisation

In C@tM, computer science, discipline, HCI, ICT4D, research on March 14, 2012 at 9:42 am

Erik Hersman writes about why he doesn’t like the term ICT4D. The opening lines really resonate with me. If a project involving technology is done in poor parts of places like the United States or Europe it does not get the label ICTD. So, why does it get that label if its done in sub-Saharan Africa?

It echoes the remarks I blogged about from the opening talk where the speaker asked how we would feel if the focus of One Laptop Per Child was Alabama? Or, I think, in many parts of the United States. What would we be saying? I’m already aware that people in low-income neighborhoods can and do feel that they are the ongoing target of the United States’ medical community’s criticism and unfairly so. And they resist the messaging, viewing it as discriminatory.

Erik Hersman goes on to write about a variety of African start ups. Are they ICT4D? MixIt for example. What about technologies like Ushahidi, which started in Africa but has been used in settings that are not ICT4D.

At one level you could view this as a labeling problem. But there is also a research community gathering around it. As this field gains traction and matures, it seems like it’s a good time to ask whether its the right grouping. I’ve long held the view that we ought to look for common points of intersection for ICT interventions in any economically disadvantaged community. We’ve called this Computing at the Margins here at Georgia Tech, not sure that that’s the right label either, but the grouping is broader, and the idea is that what might be shared in common is that what these groups need is not more access to the same technologies, but technologies that speak more specifically to values that these groups hold (i.e., systems designed for them).

But here at ICTD 2012 I’m asking myself a second set of questions, fueled by the blog post that was referenced in the ICTD 2012 twitter stream, the plenary and other remarks I think I have heard during the sessions. And the questions are:

If the people who live in the places, who are technical innovators, (colleagues and partners) find this term problematic, should we?

Is ICTD a form of “othering” (of course you can ask this about Computing at the Margins too).

p.s. There’s been more written about ICT4D/ICTD with resources gathered here and there are a lot more dimensions to the debate about the name and the goals of the enterprise than those I’ve blogged about.

  1. i struggle with this label too, and find it problematic/aggravating for exactly the reasons Hersman states in the beginning.

    would it be less condescending to use “with” as opposed to “for” or “4” ?
    this would imply that the stance of the researcher is to work with the people on the ground, right? i know that my work would fall squarely in that kind of area, simply based on the methodology i choose (ethnography, participant observations etc)

    however, the downside of this is that it implies that the places for this type of work are “under” development – or not as developed as the places we, middle-to-upper class, affluent, educated researchers come from, and this is a value laden territory to be stomping around in, don’t you think?

    imho, this may be a deeper problem than i can get at here, but it seems like the common thread or evaluation for work in our field (IT, HCI, ICT…) is this idea of impact – and what is more noble than an “under”-developed area in the world where we can make “real-world” impact?

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