The ICTD2009 conference was held at Carnegie Mellon’s University in Doha, Qatar – A recently completed, futuristic building rising from the desert. The conference started with some thematic workshops on ICT4D research, mobiles and ICT4D definitions, followed by 2 days of peer-reviewed paper presentations, posters and demos, and a couple of big name keynotes. Papers were grouped into those looking at heathcare, e-government, social enterprise, community content, education and games. Major recurring themes were mobile platforms, qualitative v quantitative method, evaluation and generalisability/scalability.
Bill Gates’ keynote began by focusing on the big problems in development that his Foundation is targeting — childhood mortality, immunisation and education. Perhaps to deliberately deemphasise ICT, he introduced it only later in his talk, where he talked about scalability and learning to recognise those projects with a genuine impact while recognising failures (citing Digital Green and M-Pesa as successful examples). In doing so, there was some feeling that he was not giving due regard to the importance of localised, context-dependent solutions (eg Richard Heeks’ response)
Earlier in the day, a very interesting study by Melissa Ho and colleagues on ICT for health in Ghana had compared a top-down, government-sponsored solution with a more bottom-up practitioner-led initiative. Both solutions dealt with communication and referrals between health care professionals, the former being based on a web platform and the latter a mobile solution. The study found more uptake with the latter, though interestingly this also seemed to have some unintended consequences, such as doctors’ phones going off at inopportune moments. This seemed to typify the delicate balance between over-structured “official” systems which struggle for uptake and the unstructured, occasionally chaotic outcomes with a user-led approach. The interesting question for me is whether such community-led work can develop sufficient structure and conformity for the solution to work efficiently into the long term.
Among the other (mostly very good) presentations that stood out for me was that by Aishwarya Ratan et al from Microsoft Research on Kelsa+, which did an ethnographic study of off-duty workers using a PC, capturing some compelling footage of workers teaching themselves basic computing through peer observation and experimentation.
The poster presentations and system demos were great, and although I didn’t get round to all of them I had a very good live demo of Frontline SMS linked to Ushahidi for participatory crisis reporting and a look at the Moca system for remote diagnosis in healthcare.
In his closing keynote, Carlos Braga of the World Bank talked about the global financial crisis and how it will continue to hit developing countries hard. While acknowledging the role of ICT in the credit crisis (through enabling complex but opaque derivative calculations), it is increasingly shown to play a strong role in economic growth. Braga compared the development trajectories of South Korea and Ghana, attributing a large amount of the divergence between the two on the better harnessing of knowledge in Korea. Braga also made use of the excellent animated bubble chart for GDP growth from Gapminder World
In sum, it was a privilege to get to sample the range of quality research and innovation going on in the ICT4D space. While the theoretical navel-gazing was occasionally wearing, there were also real signs of an emerging, more balanced synergy between the power of ICT and the headline issues in global development.