Beki Grinter

Posts Tagged ‘ictd2012’

ICTD: Talking about talking about Kenya

In academic management, discipline, empirical, ICT4D, research on March 29, 2012 at 12:38 pm

My final ICTD post has taken a while to write, I wanted to have some time to reflect upon the experience. The experience in question was watching a series of talks focused on Kenya from both Kenyan and non-Kenyan researchers. Here’s a post that summarizes one concern that was raised for non-Kenyan researchers, the “researcher effect.”

But I think there was something else going on (I think it might be the “othering effect” and I would welcome feedback on that). I felt that I was sensing a significant difference in the way that Kenya was being discussed when I compared foreigners talking about Kenya and Kenyans talking about Kenya. At ICTD, I heard from Kenyans about the excitement surrounding the vibrant technology innovation culture. Its a technology culture that’s not just having impact on Kenya, but all around the world. Ushahidi is a great example of this. By contrast, the talks from foreigners seemed to focus more on problems, ones that needed and could be addressed through technology. It was well meant of course.

But these two discourses are very different. One is a discourse of opportunity and the other a discourse of problems. And I think thinking about these differences and discourses is very important because the United States (and countries like it) have an abundance of the types of institutions that produce and control the production of scholarly discourse. This gives us a disproportionate control over it including what constitutes knowledge about places and people who are not in the United States. We have great power to amplify perceptions of other places and people and give them value through the legitimacy conferred on all scholarship.

Also, I think it’s a real win of ICTD that there are enough people here who are not foreign to remind us of how foreigners talk about their home. That’s a real strength of the ICTD conference. I’ve been wondering what it would be like if more of our participants came to CHI. What would they think about the ways that we talk about them?

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.

Talking about Failures in Research

In computer science, discipline, ICT4D, research on March 13, 2012 at 10:23 am

The last open session I attended yesterday focused on failures in ICTD. What I learned was that there are clearly a number of different ways in which projects can fail in their deployed environment (i.e., not failures in the laboratory). But it is not clear that writing about that type of failure is accepted. So, one reason to have this open session was to openly account for failure, and the role that failure plays in terms of the knowledge it generates.

There’s a lot to say about this. Here are my thoughts, caveat if I sound vaguer than usual its also because some of the people asked that their talks be off the record. Not only does this suggest the magnitude of the difficulties associated with talking about failure, but I’m also trying to preserve the privacy here.

Study Design and Values. I’ve heard this before, but once again, new examples of how methods designed in the West and for Western settings just don’t translate well because they make all sorts of assumptions. Ideas about time yielded some fabulous examples. Assuming that people’s orientation towards time are the same as Western notions of what it means for an activity to start, the day to start, the academic year. Its easy to see beliefs about time as being highly problematic for study design.

Interestingly one thing that came up during this session was how school can compete with the harvest, i.e. people will stop sending their children to school when it is time to harvest crops—and that reminded me of my Grandfather who had very similar experiences as a child in rural England. I guess he didn’t participate in research that took place in school during the harvest either.

Methods and Foundations. I think the way I have written about the above is as a practical problem, constraints that have to be accounted for and worked into the study design that doesn’t fail. That would be a fair reading, but I think I heard something else too. Again, an example. Individual assessment, the evaluation of how an individual does with something (a test, a system, both, more). Individual assessment makes two assumptions—that it is individuals (rather than say groups) that should be assessed and that assessment is a legitimate and useful outcome. This is not just perhaps a methods challenge, but also rather more. Assessment is core to any discipline whose knowledge outcomes have to be proved through evaluation. Problematizing assessment problematizes that type of knowledge production.

Sponsors. In more than just this session there have been discussions about the role of sponsors. As an outsider, it seems to me that there are a wider array of potential funders for this research. But, that wider array is matched by a wider array of desired outcomes. What happens when the actual experience doesn’t match the desired outcomes. Sometimes it’s easy to see the influence of sponsors. I’ve written about my own experiences in Industrial Research, understanding why the corporation pays for research and what implications that that has for your research. Applying for grants is also writing about outcomes to sponsors: sponsors do shape outcomes. Even if the sponsor asks for “good science” as an outcome, that’s still a value, and with respect to failure it’s worth asking whether that constitutes “good science” and if it does why its largely hidden from the outputs of current “good science.”

Taboo Topics. Another failure mode seems to be to ignore topics that are pervasive in practice and central to the experience of ICTs but are difficult when put into explicit research focus. All of my experiences with the study of religion and ICTs gives me unique insight into what its like to take up these taboo research topics. What can I say other than to thank all the people who made that possible, but most of all Susan Wyche (but the others include the reviewers of the papers, those who came to talks, those who built on the work, those who wrote letters in support of both myself and Susan—in other words the entire community that it takes to assess and determine the legitimacy of the scholarship). I also thought I heard that by avoiding these topics, the situation is not just that major causes for appropriation and rejection of technologies might be missed, but that given that these influences would be at work anyway, their presence in practice but absence in scholarship would lead to very problematic results (under-explained outcomes).

Finally, I wondered about my intellectual roots. I wondered does HCI and the other fields I come from do any better? What is our culture of discussing failure? I can think of examples where I know of reports of systems that were deployed and the researchers turned up to discuss what worked and what didn’t work. But that wasn’t systems that the community built and I don’t have a good answer to how we talk about failure closer to home. But now I know it’s a good question to ask.

Open Sessions, Othering and ICTD

In academia, computer science, discipline, ICT4D, research on March 13, 2012 at 9:20 am

ICTD has a new-to-me idea of the open session. People volunteer to coordinate a session around a particular topic. The conference attendee is free to go to any that they are interested in. Yesterday I attended one on anthropological debates and how they pertain to ICTD. The topic of “othering” was discussed. And one of the things I like about ICTD is that there were plenty of opportunities to hear from those who live in places that are much more likely to be othered… I was reminded of the keynote I blogged about earlier, the remark about why Alabama is not the focus for One Laptop Per Child, to make a point about how we talk about those who are the object of that focus.

I think I would have felt like an outsider in ICTD anyway. I’ve not published here, watching my co-chairs interact with their community, I am aware that I have not got the same history with this community (although I plan on working to change that!). But, what I am most enjoying about ICTD is these other ways in which I am feeling sensitized to a variety of issues. Fabulous stuff, keep it up ICTD!

ICTD: The first post

In ICT4D, research on March 12, 2012 at 10:59 am

Just listened to the keynote by David Kobia from Ushahidi.

Lots to say about the keynote, but here are just a few thoughts. He began by talking about his time in Alabama, where he studied Computer Science. Along the way he pointed out that Alabama faces challenges, challenges that are sometimes attributed to the developing world as if they are not present in the developed world. Developed countries are economically uneven. Then he asked how people would feel if they heard One Laptop Per Child people talk about deploying these machines to Alabama. He left it unsaid, but I presumed that the question was how would we feel if we were talked about in those terms. He also reminded me of the curious artificial split that this conference itself makes, D does not stand for Developed but rather Developing, so not Alabama then.

If I understand the history correctly, Ushahidi (and other things like it) have been very influential in creating a tech innovation culture in Kenya. This has morphed into things like the iHub, a space in Nairobi where people can come together to build systems and share ideas and so forth. iHub has spawned research @ ihub promoting African based African focused research. And he said, several times, that it was going to be important. I believe him. All their sponsors are technical companies from the Developed world, and I wondered how that worked.