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Libraries and ICTD

I’m on my way to Veracruz, Mexico to spend a week with Gates Foundation global library grantees for what they call the Peer Learning Meeting. Ever since we started studying libraries about 18 months ago I’ve been wondering, why is it that these institutions of information access haven’t registered on my ICTD radar in the decade I’ve been in this field? Have I simply been blind to libraries, or are there other explanations? Since posing this question to myself my first observation is that the library and ICTD communities simply don’t intersect — in journals, conferences or communities of practice. I didn’t run into any library professionals at GK3, and at my first IFLA last year I didn’t find anyone I knew from the ICTD world. Why is this? For one, libraries have a far longer history (going back millennia) and so its community is naturally well defined and established. In my opinion this makes it somewhat impenetrable to people outside libraries. On the other side, the ICTD world’s infatuation with telecenters probably blinded it to considering existing institutions like libraries. From an implementation viewpoint, it also comes down to which ministry controls which program. Where telecom ministries have been in charge of providing universal access they will tend to go with telecenters or other such schemes, rather than work with ministries of culture that oversee libraries. Political realities.

But things might be changing. In a recent CIS study of public access centers in 25 countries we found a keen interest among stakeholders to both revisit libraries and explore how the different models of public access (commercial cybercafés, donor/public telecenters, libraries) can each contribute their respective strengths to creating something better. Some of our country researchers reported that the act of carrying out this research itself caused their political stakeholders to look at libraries in a new light. They had passed them over as old institutions of dusty books, not as modern information providers. Telecenter fatigue may also be contributing to this resurgent interest. Something to continue following. On the academic side we see many information and library schools hiring new faculty who come out of the ICTD field. UCLA, Berkeley, our UW among others. I attended last year’s iConference at UCLA expecting to be just as lonely as I was at IFLA and I was pleasantly surprised to meet so many like-minded folks.

Which brings me back to my upcoming week with 70 library professionals and other experts from around the world. I’m excited to see how we can bring together our experiences and ideas to make libraries a stronger institution for using ICT in development. After this week, the next step on this ‘bridging libraries and ICT’ excursion will be an informal session at ICTD2009 where I’ve invited representatives of IFLA, UNESCO and other library folks to attend and discuss the question – what is the relevance of this ICTD research findings and demonstrations to libraries? We’ll then turn the tables and do a similar session at the 2009 IFLA congress this summer.

ICT4D, ICTD, or what?

I’ve been re-thinking “ICT4D” and “ICTD” recently, and increasingly coming to the conclusion that I should avoid these terms in reference to the work CIS does in favor of something like “underserved communities and low resource environments” or other descriptor that avoids these acronyms.

One of the problems with “ICT4D” is that it connotes different things to different people – with most definitions swirling around the application of (primarily digital) ICT to interventions that have an explicit developmental goal such as health, education, government transparency, or others of the sort found in the MDGs. As such, there is a tendency to ignore issues that do not correspond to the conventional development goals (quality of life, games, social movements, etc.), or what might be simply described as any use of ICT in a developing world context. This was brought home recently when Joyojeet Pal mentioned that the paper he submitted to ICTD2009 on depictions of computers in popular Indian cinema was critiqued for not being within scope. To me, it is incredibly relevant to understand how the computer has become a symbol of aspiration within a society, how that symbol has changed over time, is the computer used for good or ill, what effect this has on people’s views of technology’s promise or pitfalls, and so on. In order to accommodate a broader scope many people have turned to the term “ICTD,” or ICT and development, to place the emphasis on the phenomenon of ICT use in developing countries, irrespective of whether there is a “developmental” goal or not. Despite the good intentions behind this I’m afraid the nuance is lost on most people so I don’t think it serves our community long term. And, I hate acronyms.

There are other problems too – such as what constitutes “development” and is it meaningful to continue to lump countries into developing or developed buckets (I think not) – but these are topics for another day.

All of this is also fueled by continuing discussions about whether ICTD is a field, or if there is a field, what would it be called. This has been debated on the community informatics list among others. A number of us will be taking this up at an ICTD Curriculum Workshop at Doha. Looking forward to it, though rather than hold my breath waiting for a critical mass to emerge I think I’ll simply describe CIS’s work in plain language.

Sad news

While working on a couple of blog posts, this week was interrupted by the sad news of two friends who suddenly passed away.  The first was the captain of my soccer team, Rachel Hulscher, who was found dead in a local park. She was the one who recruited me to play and it was her “we’re here to have fun, who cares if we win or lose” attitude that attracted me to the team.  Our team owes its spirit to her.

Yesterday brought the tragic news that my research colleague Amy Mahan died. Amy coordinated the Learning Initiatives on Reforms for Network Economies (LIRNE.NET) from Montevideo, Uruguay, and leaves behind a family with young child.  Her death was sudden and unexpected — just two weeks ago she confirmed her participation at a workshop I’m organizing in Doha next month.  I have only known Amy for little more than a year, but as I find is typical of our field, our collective dedication to making the world a better place leads to the formation of strong friendships that quickly transcend our professional relationships. That our field attracts such individuals is probably what I most love about the work I do, and what produces such sadness when we lose someone.

On the brighter side, we also learned this week that CIS colleague/friend Ricardo Gomez received a clean bill of health after two thyroid cancer operations and radiation treatment. Ricardo just lost his wife to cancer last year as he chronicled on his blog, and so we were all devasted when his condition was discovered last November. For now the prognosis is good, but the news of this week only serves as stark reminder of how precious life is.  My life was enriched by Rachel and Amy. My thoughts are with their families and friends.

ICTD and blogging

For many yearsI’ve been researching  how people in developing countries use information and communication technologies (ICTs) to improve their lives…and here I am with my first blog post.

The ICT and Development field has a number of great research blogs. That said, two observations strike me as interesting  — One, most of the blogs I follow for work are outside the “ICTD” arena.  This is the stuff I think is very relevant to understanding the current and future of ICTs in developing countries.  And two, most of my ICTD research colleagues don’t have blogs. I have no idea whether our field is ahead or behind other academic disciplines, but I would certainly think we should be at the forefront of using 2.0.

With that I’ll start writing and make my small contribution. I’ll be covering  ICTD of course, but also anything else that I find tangentially intersesting.