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Information and Communication Technology for Development (ICT4D) Initiatives – Issues to Consider for Developing Effective Methodology

I have been working to understand how e-learning might stimulate notions of self-help to foster empowerment and well-being among those living in situations of poverty in Bangladesh. Here, by e-learning, I mean learning anything with the help of electronic means (computer, mobile, television, and radio and internet technology) that might eventually help them have better control over their life and well-being. I am keen to understand how e-learning might link knowledge community with the ones living in rural areas and to understand how to rethink the way e-learning is established and implemented, transcending its limited involvement in formal education only.

Bangladesh is one of the countries that ‘officially’ demonstrated impressive performance in the areas of ICT4D. I take full responsibility of highlighting the word – officially. This does not mean that ICT4D did nothing in this country rather imply that the officially recognised performance might not be found impressive in reality, especially if sustainability is considered. Nevertheless, the country achieved success in spreading mobile network which might be contributed to the market and policy environment. This strong telecommunication network has created a basic platform for ICT4D which many commercial interventions are capitalising from. I used the word ‘capitalising’ because the major issue in availing services offered by those interventions targeting those in situations of poverty, is the cost burden. Government has provided impressive number of information centres at local levels which marginally charge for the services but still there exists non-monetary other costs and structural barriers that have been limiting access of the excluded.

From my experience of interacting with several key stakeholders, who partially represent the knowledge community of ICT4D research paradigm, and some beneficiaries, I am presenting following issues that might offer insights on the reality that might guide as a shadow structure to develop ICT4D research methodology.

1. Do concerned bodies ‘really’ want to empower the marginal rural people in a ‘sustainable’ manner? – The age old query about the politics of development.

2. Development is rarely considered in a holistic manner. Either ICT or Development gets higher priority overshadowing the other.

3. Contents are hardly designed and developed in a bottom up manner, reflecting more of what the knowledge community thinks will help the beneficiaries rather than what the beneficiaries actually need and want.

4. Interventions are designed in such a way that they fail to retain the impressive influx of initial beneficiaries. Commercialisation of those interventions is another reason for the failure due to significant cost load upon the marginal people.

5. Pace of technological change embedded in production philosophy is not in favour of the marginal people. They are not interested to accept newer technology after months.

6. Potential beneficiaries do not want to go to technology rather expect it to reach them in their own way and within their known reality.

7. Consideration of cultural variations is pivotal in achieving sustainability that in a way demands bottom up approach – in designing the device, contents as well as the nature of intervention.

8. Scopes for mix technology is rarely considered in initiatives where a particular technology is utilised. Differences in age, gender, social capital and level of education ………….

9. In addition to making the interventions need-based, there appear two options for project sustainability: either government takes the control or NGOs do it with fund support from donors. Both have positive and negative implications and given the contextual reality making a trade-off is difficult.

10. The philosophy of commercially feasible option of Brick and Click model is hardly considered in ICT4D initiatives. The ‘Brick’ part is generally overshadowed by the ‘Click’ one and like the dot com crush consequence of gold rush towards digital, ICT4D initiatives suffer from sustainability.

11. Dress code is a vital issue to get access to respondents in a way when they will speak their minds. It should be such that they will not feel either inferior or superior. If they feel either superior or inferior then they hardly participate or generally filter their words in the conversation process which most of the times present an image away from reality.

12. Respondent’s current and recent project involvements should be considered to strategically control the flow of speech so that focus is not distracted and to filter out recency effects over his/her response. However, it depends on the judgemental accuracy of the interviewer. This is important particularly for interviews with open ended questions to minimise deviations from intended areas of inquiry.

13. Interviews sometimes appear game of minds, so for some respondents while interviewing, updating them very briefly about your experience in related areas might boost them up to speak effectively; while it might back fire for some others. The decision to do this is judgemental and should be dynamically taken. It absolutely depends upon interviewer’s adaptation skill.

ICT4D is generally concerned with developing countries though my experience of a research project with project aim similar to ICT4D reveals that some of the issues mentioned about are also true for the UK as well, particularly for digital inclusion projects.

 

The author, Abureza M Muzareba, is a PhD researcher at the University of Sheffield, UK.

The domestication of telecare systems by older people

“With one foot planted in theoretical sources and the other in the results obtained from empirical research into the practice of technology and [older people], the area of [assistive] technology and [older people] could in all likelihood contribute important and groundbreaking knowledge.” (Östlund, 2004: 59)

Introduction

The ‘problem’ of an ageing population has been one of the major talking points over recent years and is often described using terms such as ‘time bombs’ and ‘tsunamis’. In addition, the discourse around the ageing population has been associated with the notion that health and social care services are having to do more with less. One means of limiting the ‘burden’ (that is often attributed to older people) on health and social care services has been to invest in assistive technologies such as telecare systems at a national level. (This has led to some criticism with regards to technological determinism and the polarisation of debate, which can be explored here.)

Telecare systems typically consist of a base unit that plugs in to a telephone line and a personal alarm that, when activated, connects a user to a call monitoring centre. In most instances, telecare systems aim to support older people who have fallen or who require additional support to help them remain living at home in later life. However, despite efforts to establish both the clinical and cost effectiveness of telecare systems (see, for example, this resource) there has been little research that has investigated the perspective of users of the assistive technology.

Domestication as a theoretical perspective

Domestication theory, which was established in the early 1990s to explore the process of information and communications technologies (ICTs) entering people’s households and impacting on their everyday lives, is one way of presenting the user’s perspective. (For a recent summary of domestication theory, see this resource.) While there are numerous other ways of approaching this issue, such as social constructionist, feminist or semiotic approaches, domestication theory situates the user at the centre of technological change processes. (For further exploration of the different approaches to users, see this resource.) Domestication theory itself proposes that technological change occurs across four interrelated stages:

  • Appropriation: the point at which an ICT leaves the world of the commodity and is taken possession of and ‘owned’ by users.
  • Objectification: the display of an ICT within the household, which can reveal the norms and principles of the household’s sense of itself and its place in society.
  • Incorporation: the integration of an ICT into the temporal dimensions of the household, which includes any negotiations that surround sharing and use.
  • Conversion: the sharing of an ICT outside of the household, which can include claims of status when used in conversation with others.

Currently, it is unknown as to how and whether these four interrelated processes of domestication are applicable to the study of telecare systems. The aim of my thesis is therefore:

  1. To establish and update domestication theory from a theoretical standpoint, with a particular focus on an ICT designed to support health and social care services
  2. To present new empirical findings that emerge through the application of domestication theory to the use of telecare systems by older people.

In addition, my thesis will dive further into the historical roots of domestication theory to establish how ICTs are ‘socially shaped’ in their design and production, and so confront users not as neutral objects but as technologies that aim to meet social and political ends. For more information, please view my presentations on SlideShare or contact me via Twitter.

Mark Hawker is a third-year PhD Student in the Department of Sociological Studies, University of Sheffield. His departmental website can be found here.

The Meaning of Data: On the development of open access to research data

Openness and transparency in science is hailed by policy makers, funders and scientists as a trend that will drive better science, faster advancement and innovation and wider socio-economic benefits. On-going research, aiming to deliver policy recommendations for Open Access to Research Data, reveals that policy on open data may be driven by a strong belief in, rather than evidence of, the above benefits. Furthermore, in the minds of scientists, current policy still lacks a clear route to operationalise open access to publically funded research data.

Reading the current policy literature on the broader topic of on open science will show that opening access to publically funded research data is perceived to have the potential to drive faster progress in science, by minimizing duplication of effort, and offering scientists a wider range of data to use for re-analysis, comparison, integration and testing. Furthermore, there is a belief that open access to publically funded research data will yield economic benefits from re-use, as can be seen by references to data as an untapped resource, currency, and a public good in the sense that its production is funded by public money and thus should be accessible to the general public.

When interviewing practicing scientists within five academic disciplines, for the RECODE project, a more complex picture emerges.  Although the scientists are generally very positive about open access to research data, their concerns regarding operationalisation of open research data policies highlight issues which could prove to become significant barriers to implementation.

One key point, which all of the scientists mentioned concerns practices to establish the ‘meaning’ of data, which is necessary for successful re-use and integration.  Data without sufficient explanation e.g. metadata, coding, and description of research design and questions, is ill, or not, usable for further research.  Opening up access to publicly funded research data is thus significantly more complex than simply placing a spread sheet or a database online.

“people can do limited work with a dataset that is not well documented. I do worry that people will just think “Oh I need to archive my data and then it’s done” but it goes beyond archiving. The key question here is, “is the data set going to be re-useable 40 years down the line, when you are not around anymore?” Just because it is archived, does not mean it is reusable.” (Scientist, Archaeology)

‘The disadvantage, especially with experimental work to put it in such a format that it can be directly and easily used by others, that involves quite a bit of work. That is in my view quite a substantial hurdle. It is one thing to put data in an Open Access data base but it is another thing to put it in such a way that you do not need an extensive explanation to be able to use it.’ (Scientist, Health Research)

In many cases, significant work is needed on data to establish the necessary context.  This includes time consuming tasks of establishing the necessary context outlined above.  For some types of data, e.g. particle physics experimental data a secondary user would need ‘the reconstruction programs, the simulation and its database, the programs that handle the simulation and (…) access to the physics generators’ (Scientist, Particle Physics).  In the scientists’ view, all the extra data work is currently neither funded nor rewarded in terms of academic recognition.    As the peer reviewed paper is still the key measure for academic success, the incentive to spend time on writing metadata for secondary users is not present.

With regard to funding for data work, whilst the scientists agree that this would serve as a driver for furthering open research data policies, their concern is that whilst funding for research is overall dwindling an emphasis will be placed on opening up access to all publicly funded research data irrespective of how relevant, or useable it is to the wider population.

‘You might end up wasting millions of pounds and then only 10 people are interested, that is a waste of money and work.’ (Scientist, Particle Physics)

An example of this would be the petabytes of data which are yielded each year from the Large Hadron Collider experiment.  The data requires specialist knowledge and equipment to be understood and used.  The sheer size of the data also means that it would be an expensive undertaking to provide storage and long term data management.

It is clear that no one open data policy will suit all disciplines, and the key issue for policy makers is to ensure the participation of the research communities in further implementation of open data access so that the data is made open in ways that make it ‘accessible; intelligible; assessable; and usable’. Without these four points, which are highlighted in the Royal Society report, Science as an Open Enterprise, the full benefits of Open Access to Research Data may not be realised.

University of Sheffield is one of the partners of the RECODE project, which is an EU FP7 funded project focused on providing policy recommendations for open access to research data in Europe.  See http://recodeproject.eu/.

Thordis Sveinsdottir, Research Associate, Department of Sociological Studies, University of Sheffield. t.sveinsdottir@sheffield.ac.uk.