Curating Knowledge in the Future

Volume 2    Issue 9    September 2017

Two years ago, together with former colleagues at the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) and supported by the School of International Futures (SOIF), I worked on a research project that used foresight tools to explore ‘knowledge sharing in the digital age’. The ‘foresight approach’ involves a range of methods for getting perspectives on the future and creating a roadmap to inform policy and practice.  We were looking 15 years ahead and engaged with a range of stakeholders, mainly from the African context. Through workshops and interviews we identified key drivers of change and used the foresight tools to describe different imagined scenarios. The result was policy recommendations for achieving preferred outcomes in a world characterised by the freedoms which we would like to enjoy. In this briefing, I have chosen to revisit this topic as a short ‘thought piece’.

ICTs play an ever-increasing role in supporting innovation and in how knowledge is created and shared.  Our society is being reshaped for better and for worse, and the effects of ICTs are not neutral. For almost any ICT you can name, there are good and bad affordances. For example, take the role of drones in gathering data: we can celebrate some aspects of the role they can play in collecting life-saving information in a disaster situation such as the Nepal earthquake in May 2015. We can also resent and challenge the intrusiveness, invasion of privacy and danger to air travel that can result if their use is not regulated. However, if the information they can help to gather is not made freely available, and simply supports powerful people in wealthy organisations or governments, then what are the implications for future generations?

The digital divide exists within a daunting set of growing inequalities related to economic opportunity, power and knowledge. The ways in which knowledge is mediated and made available in our society is having a major impact on these other divides. Mediation itself takes place in different ways between people, between people and ICT devices, and between ICT devices.   The last category may sound surprising, but in a world where we now refer to the ‘internet of things’ and some of those ‘things’ themselves reflect growing ‘artificial intelligence’, it could be argued that knowledge can increasingly be developed by, and shared between, technology based non-human objects.  In simple ways, and without artificial intelligence driving it, we already see music devices and gadgets updating their software, and home devices such as Amazon’s Alexa products, playing a role in both mediating communication, and pushing and pulling information between the human world and the online repositories of digital files and products.

The world is now characterised by news and social media platforms’ intent on delivering alternative facts, fake news and fake research results. Alongside this they harvest insights through algorithms that analyse our online behaviours and preferences.  ‘Big data’ becomes big business driven by a global internet machine which if we are not careful will support the interests of ‘the few not the many’ (to turn around an overused party-political phrase!). So, what are our options for creating a future where we can retain a sense of identity, values and freedoms?  I certainly do not claim to have the solutions to such huge global challenges facing society, but offer three suggestions to the ICT4D community, all of which underpin the way knowledge can be created and shared in a digital age:

  1. Support ‘Openness’. Open models are discussed in the book Open Development (Smith and Reilly, 2013). These approaches have their challenges and total openness is likely to be unachievable, as systems are rarely totally open. However, open approaches support a different knowledge economy agenda that is more inclusive, accessible and aimed at addressing inequalities.
  2. Advocate for ‘Net Neutrality’. This principle and why it is so important is explained effectively in YouTube videos by Common Craft and Now this. Retaining total net neutrality may not be realistic. However, the principle of equitable access to internet based services is one of huge significance in determining how the internet develops and how knowledge is created and shared. If net neutrality is sacrificed, inequalities in terms of access and usage will flourish in the digital world.
  3. Develop skilled and trusted ‘knowledge intermediaries’. More and more information is held digitally. It is increasingly challenging to validate and assess the quality of what is found on the Internet. Skilled data scientists and information management professionals are in a sense the new librarians. We need trusted experts who work to provide knowledge as a public good for civil society, so that we can hold governments and big corporations to account, and access knowledge openly that enables us and our children to gain the best education and quality of life that we can.

We face what at times appear to be irresistible and negative forces, where freedoms are under threat and security and surveillance is growing.  Yet, the world is now a far more connected place, and writing this in Yangon, I reflect that the scope for interacting with and learning from people, from diverse locations, cultures and backgrounds, is growing day by day.  As ordinary people develop connections through their use of ICTS, they can seek to be more empowered and create an open movement and strong voice that can help lead us all to a brighter future.

The ICT4D community is well placed to ensure that ICTs are used for future good. I recommend developing skills in the foresight approach as a means to understand and shape the future. In some of my own work with Development Dreamers I have been experimenting with lighter versions of the foresight approach and will be happy to network and collaborate with others who have an interest in this.


SDG Stories: UNESCO Chair contributing on sustainability of ICT systems

e_sdg-goals_icons-individual-rgb-09In the run-up to this year’s UN General Assembly, the Office of the DG of the UN Office in Geneva has launched a novel initiative on big conversations driving the big goals of the SDGs as part of their Perception Change Project.  The UNESCO Chair in ICT4D is delighted to have been invited to participate in this initiative, alongside other leading figures in the ICT4D world including Houlin Zhao (SG of the ITU, and one of our Honorary Patrons), Kathy Calvin (President and CEIO, UN Foundation), and Nicholas Negroponte (Founder MIT Media Lab).

Our stories are about the question “What are the biggest hopes and challenges we face in providing reliable ICT access to communities as we work towards improved sustainable development?

This was my response:

Seeing the eyes of a group of street children in Ethiopia light up when I let them play with my laptop in February 2002 convinced me in an instant of the potential of technology to be used effectively for learning by some of the poorest people in the world.  However, the plethora of global initiatives that have been designed to use ICTs to contribute to reducing poverty through economic growth over the last 15 years have had the consequence of dramatically increasing inequality at the same time.  The poorest and most marginalised have not benefited sufficiently from the promise of ICTs.

Few people pay appropriate attention to the dark side of technology, and yet we must understand this, and change it, if this potential is fully to be realised for all.  In the context of the SDGs, there is a fundamental challenge.  To be sure ICTs can contribute to the achievement of the SDGs, but few people sufficiently highlight their unsustainability: ICTs have seriously negative environmental impacts, and their usual business model is built on a fundamentally unsustainable logic.  In terms of environmental impact, for example, they have contributed to substantially increased electricity demand, and the amount of waste in space is now presenting very serious threats to future satellite deployment.  The business model, whereby people are encouraged to replace their mobile phones every couple of years, and new hardware often requires the next generation of software, which in turn then requires new hardware, is good for business, but not for sustainability.

If we are serious about using ICTs for sustainable development, we must do much more to address negative aspects such as these, so that the poorest individuals, communities and countries can indeed benefit.

Follow the stories at:, or on Twitter using #sdgstories.

Revisiting our (Disciplinary) Geographies of Development

Volume 2    Issue 5    May 2017

The fundamentals of ICT4D as an area of practice and research have been revisited several times since the early days, emphasising the limits of technological determination, as well as the problematics made invisible by simplistic definitions of the ‘4D’ (e.g. Toyama, 2015). Recent events and issues in what are considered advanced economies open up to scrutiny yet another, deeply embedded view: that advanced and developing economies can be mapped jointly onto geographical areas, separating North and South and distinguishing the advanced economies in Europe, North America and some Asian countries from emerging economies in Africa and Latin America.

This taxonomy is infused in the fundamentals of ICT4D as a discipline and has many implications. It also reinforces the donor-recipient humanitarian pattern evident from the beginnings of development practice, by assigning semi-permanent labels to countries and actors that are either on the giving or on the receiving side. The consequences of this have been amply debated, especially by Latin American scholars, noting how being on the receiving end hinders self-directed action towards change. These conceptual categories tend to render us impervious to the problems that are right on our doorstep: Europe, for instance, has been recently facing issues that are central to ICT4D practice and research. The number of people seeking refugee status in EU countries, for example, rose steadily to reach around 1.3 million in 2015 and 2016 (Eurostat). However, the migrant and refugee crisis is just one side of the coin. Europe also faces challenges that are endemic to the continent, some associated with the process of redress after the 2007/08 financial crisis. To this we can add inequalities, social exclusion and marginalisation based on gender, religion and ethnic belonging.

Since 2009, I have conducted research with disadvantaged groups in Europe, particularly one of the continent’s most vulnerable populations – the Roma minority. The Roma are widely considered to be the most discriminated and socially excluded European minority group, facing widespread poverty, low literacy and digital literacy, and lack of access to quality education and housing. Numerous efforts and programmes for social inclusion and economic redress have targeted the Roma. Outcomes are often unsustainable and limited, and true change and development have yet to be achieved. In my ICT4D research I have addressed issues around voice, social inclusion and cultural affirmation of the Roma (e.g. Sabiescu, 2013; Hagedorn-Saupe et al., 2015, Ch.5) and brought it in dialogue with the situation of other vulnerable groups across both North and South, most recently, within the EU project EduMAP, which takes a development communication lens to understand how adult education across the EU can better serve the needs of vulnerable youth. What the Roma example points out is that clear-cut distinctions and firm boundaries between developed and developing contexts are illusory. Poverty, inequality and exclusion, along with the issues posed by unequal access to technology and information literacy levels permeate both developed and developing regions. There is thus scope for ICT4D research and practice to contribute to more equal, inclusive, and tolerant societies in all parts of the world. This could be developed in collaboration, bringing together ICT4D and interdisciplinary perspectives for research and practice across regions historically targeted by development programmes, and what are considered advanced economies. It is also important to encourage cross-disciplinary dialogue and exchange through events that link across various disciplinary traditions and geographical areas of focus.

Steps are being taken already by ICT4D researchers and practitioners that look not only outside but also within advanced economic regions. The International Development Informatics Association Conference (IDIA) has thus chosen a European country (Romania) for its 10th edition. Its call for papers emphasises the same vantage point captured above: that a closer, unbiased look at our contemporary societies and economies compels us to acknowledge that in essence ICT4D perspectives, tools and sensibilities are equally needed across North and South, developed and developing regions.

Post-Conflict and ICTs: Coverage, Stupidity or What Else?

Volume 2    Issue 2    February 2017

Many countries are using information and communication technologies (ICTs) in their government organisations.  In the current geopolitical situation of some world regions, there are emerging challenges related to situations of post-conflict.  These situations often involve the reintegration of ex-combatant and victim groups to the economic, cultural and social spheres of life. How to ensure adequate appropriation and empowerment of these groups via ICTs involves a complex set of issues to address by different actors.

The tip of the iceberg for ICT experts and policy makers is the legacy of initiatives whose initial aims were to transform societies into citizen-centred ones.  In post-conflict situations, a transition to citizenship by the above groups requires thinking of long-term measures to first re-establishing a sense of belonging to society and secondly restoring trust in government organisations.  Developing countries could have advanced in rolling out communications, telephone and internet networks to several geographical areas.  They could have made available online many services and platforms to organisations and citizens.   But have they tackled the root causes that led people to become marginalised in the first place?  Are the methods promoting participative decision making inclusive of people and their concerns for a better life together?

In 2007 I became interested in the evaluation of e-government in Colombia and wanted to explore how this phenomenon was pervading government organisations at national, regional and local level(s) of decision making and what opportunities could be discerned to enhance citizens’ participation.  After some interviews and analyses during 2007 and 2011, it became clear to me that e-government was in need of adopting a more systemic view of how the use of ICTs is conceived of, planned and implemented (Córdoba-Pachón and Orr, 2009; Córdoba-Pachón, 2014, 2015).

There are opportunities for citizens’ participation which could be enhanced by enabling the purposes of ICT to be openly discussed and if necessary reformulated before any policy or investment is finalised.  A systemic view of e-government required also to explore if and how citizens’ participation (does not) take place so that the causes of their (un) willingness to appropriate and feel empowered by ICTs could be identified and addressed.  These could be basic problems of access to public services, corruption or economic marginalisation.

In 2016, the Colombian Government had already envisaged a clear direction for the role of information and communication technologies (ICTs) to support post-conflict. According to a newspaper article in El Tiempo, ICTs were seen as fundamental to improve among other sectors the business, agricultural and educational.   Education in the use of ICTs as well as through ICTs for ex-combatants and victims is to be contracted with public and private institutions.  Also, according to El Espectador, competitions for ideas for digital products are being sponsored or funded by the Colombian National Department for Science, Technology and Innovation.

Still, legacy thinking about ICTs could be reinforced.  Investments on coverage, service penetration and achievement of measurable service goals seem to benefit government at the potential expense of marginalised groups. It is still assumed that they are to become users and that they somehow are ‘stupid’ and subordinated to experts (Rose, 2003). Centralisation, coverage and standardisation seem to privilege a market-oriented view of populations.

Alternative views about the role(s) of ICTs to support post-conflict are needed.  These could be developed collaboratively by different political actors.  The support of academics would be to enable them to design meaningful and holistic plans to enable inclusive reintegration both locally and in relation to what happens elsewhere.  In this regard, systems methodologies and creativity ideas could offer some support for stakeholders to work together and be supported rather than directed by ICT experts or policy makers.  The door is open for ICT4D researchers and practitioners to venture to involved or influenced by the UNESCO chair explore the multifarious complexities of post-conflict situations in the global arena and provide adequate thinking and practice to benefit the most vulnerable.

Gender and ICTs – a Long Way still to Go…

Volume 1   Issue 3   December 2016

The launch of “EQUALS: The Global Partnership for Gender Equality in the Digital Age” by the ITU and UN Women in September 2016 is to be welcomed.  However, it highlights that much still remains to be done at the interface between technology and gender, despite all of the efforts made over the last two decades. We suggest that there are four key areas where further action is necessary.

First, the word “gender” is all too often equated simply with “women”, and ignores the diversity of genders encapsulated in the acronym LGBTIQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Intersex, Queer and Questioning).  Indeed, whilst women are frequently marginalised through ICTs, the challenges faced by gay and lesbian people are often at least as bad, as witnessed by the hacking to death of gay activists who used online media in Bangladesh in 2015 and 2016.  Using “gender’ rather than “women” for initiatives that explicitly focus on women also seems to devalue the very important work that still needs to be done to enable and empower women to use ICTs safely and productively.

Second, we are dismayed that the harassment of women at international ICT events still remains commonplace, as exemplified by recent high profile incidents.  Undoubtedly, this is in part related to the male domination of the ICT sector more generally, which is itself something that the EQUALS initiative seeks to address.  However, such male behaviour is unacceptable, and conference organisers need to address it unequivocally.  We call upon all conference organisers who have not already done so to put in place clear guidelines on expected behaviours and actions taken should they be broken.  The Geek Feminism Wiki has an excellent conference anti-harassment policy template that could serve as a model for organisers to build on.

Third, there is good evidence that online sexual harassment is much more widespread than is often thought, particularly in the conservative societies of North Africa, the Middle East and South Asia as reported by the BBC in their recent stories on sex, honour and blackmail in an online world.  Our own ongoing research in Pakistan has highlighted the very extensive amount of sexual harassment using mobile devices there.  Whilst women suffer most from such harassment, it is important to note that men too are harassed.  Interestingly, preliminary results from our online survey suggest that although social media are used for harassment, most often it occurs through calls and text messages.  The implications of posting images on social media have recently been highlighted by the apparent honour killing of Pakistani model Qandeel Baloch, but this is just the tip of an iceberg, with many women in Pakistan living in fear of retribution should family members see imagery that others may have posted.  Most worryingly, our survey shows that 40% of respondents think that when women are sexually harassed through their mobile devices, they are usually or sometimes to blame for it.

Finally, we argue that men need to become much more involved in challenging the unacceptable ICT related behaviours of other men. Initiatives led by women for women have not yet made the necessary inroads into changing male behaviour, although they have often provided valuable advice about safe online behaviour for women and support for those who have been abused online.  Multimedia resources can be used very effectively to share advice and information online, and men should be encouraged to stand up and complain publicly when they witness unacceptable behaviour. Likewise, there is a growing movement for men not to participate in conference panels or sessions in which women are not also involved. Organisations such as the National Organization for Men Against Sexism (NOMAS) and Men Stopping Violence also provide an example of what can be done to develop grassroots male initiatives to counter sexism.

Very much more needs to be done, though, if women and men are to benefit equally from the appropriate use of ICTs.  This is an agenda that requires urgent attention, and it is something that everyone involved in ICT4D can, and should, act upon.

ICT Solutions in Proactive Disaster Mapping

Volume 1   Issue 1   October 2016

Prompted by Dunn et al.’s (1997) article in Area that examined the appropriateness of GIS for ‘development’ (scare quotes in the original) I delivered a presentation on GIS4D for the 2015 ICTD conference in Singapore together with Ollie Parsons from the GSMA. A 20-year-old article on GIS (Geographic Information Systems) might seem an odd choice of topic, except perhaps to re-visit times past.  In this case, however, many of the issues brought up by the original GIS4D article are still unresolved.  Old questions are constantly being re-worked in new guises.

For example, what is GIS?  Does it include people or is it fundamentally just software?  If it includes people, where do they fit in, and how is their participation enrolled?  Once participating, do ‘experts’, or indeed expert systems tend to take over?  And last (but not least), can computers incorporate cultural systems and beliefs?

The latest round of debate revolves around GIS for disaster management.  In Haiti, Nepal, and Liberia, earthquakes and disease have recently occurred.  Logistically, one of the biggest problems is how to target areas for immediate assistance.  For example, where is an Ebola victim located?

Existing base-maps in many areas are simply lacking information.  The advantage we have today over past iterations of participatory GIS in response to local needs is the existence of open source and free mapping tools such as OpenStreetMap (OSM).  After disasters, OSM tends to fill in very quickly.

The problem we raised at the Singapore ICTD conference is that maps produced quickly in response to a disaster may fill an immediate need, but the maps themselves will be around for a long time.  Quickly produced disaster maps are not always very accurate or complete, and can consequently be misleading.

Now, ‘proactive’ disaster mappers are trying to fill in the maps before disasters occur, often using drones or Google Earth imagery to do so.  The problem here is that very little thought has been given to ‘classic’ issues of cartography such as scale, extent, and density of coverage; appropriateness of field protocols, positionality, and frequency of update.  These are all important considerations for GIS disaster mapping (Tomaszewski, 2015).

The purpose of this short briefing then is to put the question to you, the reader, as the presenters put it to their Singapore audience: are there more sensitive ways of doing disaster mapping that avoid ‘blackboxing’ communities (i.e. associating specific locales with disaster), and that look more towards long term mapping needs?

This is also a question of impact and collaboration which, in turn, revolves around multi-disciplinarity and new ways of being inclusive.  The involvement of local knowledge keepers, experts, and residents should combine with that held by outside experts, anthropologists, and mappers more in tune with cultural protocols and long term commitments that academic ethnographers have long held dear.

Mapping needs to be more ethnographic, but not only that.  Maps will become more robust, and hold more meaning for both the etic (outsider) and local sensibilities, if they combine geographic and emic (insider) views alongside each other. This will lead to more positive long-term impacts, and can hopefully avoid algorithmic (search engine) tagging of places with negative connotations.

More work needs to be done in this area, even as new disasters arise, with appropriate and necessary (but measured) responses that consult the maps and sensibilities for better ‘ground truthing’ what they depict.


Dunn, Christine E., Atkins, Peter J., and Townsend, Janet G.  1997.  GIS for Development: A Contradiction in Terms?  Area.  29.2.  151-159.

Tomaszewski, Brian.  2015.  GIS for Disaster Management.  CRC Press.