Information and communication technologies for development | Blogs

  • How to best finance ICT extension services in low and middle-income countries?


    September 11th, 2018

    The inherent functionality of ICT to easily transfer information helps to overcome barriers of traditional extension services. ICT extension services improve quality of agricultural information, reduce travelling time for visits, enable frequent communication between farmers and agents as well as increase accountability. More important, ICT extension services can reach large target groups – e.g. rural farmers and nomads – who otherwise excluded from the system, and for a fraction of costs of traditional extension.

    ICT extension services face barriers similar to traditional ones. Fiscal sustainability is one of them. The question of “who has to pay for the service” has become troublesome especially for NGOs. Should farmers as the end-users of ICT extension services pay their fair share? Should it be the responsibility of governments who have the mandate to provide access to information? What if private sectors take over the operation of ICT extension services?  This post explores the subject and different pricing models that have been created to serve end-users in low and middle income countries.

    Pressure over fiscal sustainability

    ICT extension services can be divided into two categories according to its value: commercial and noncommercial[1]. Commercial ICT extension services are typically private funded or private operated. They earn profit for medium term operation, i.e. over two years period, by charging fee from transaction (e.g. mobile payment) and information provision (e.g. membership fee). Noncommercial ICT extension services do not charge fee to end-users – e.g. low income farmers. The focus is non-monetary benefits such as knowledge improvement and behaviour change. By design, noncommercial ICT extension services are fully dependent on public funding, either from governments and donors.

    Fiscal sustainability remains a concern. Especially for noncommercial category that are often perceived as inefficient and financially unsustainable, mainly due to higher operational cost (than commercial ones), budget shrinks and weak political commitment[2]. Pressure to find alternative revenue streams has increased even though the circumstances are not always aligned with commercial goals. The flaw in the argument of “fiscal sustainability” is the focus: it often concentrates on how ICT extension services can make money instead of business model development/improvement.

    Business model for ICT extension services

    The concept of business model goes beyond economic value. Business model has other interconnected elements: the value of proposition, customer, internal capability, competitive strategy and growth[3]. These factors have positive or negative implications toward the use and repeat-use of ICT extension services, and ultimately its success. The value of proposition and customer elements are closely linked with system quality, information quality and service quality[4]. System quality is the desired characteristics such as usability, availability, reliability and response time, e.g. download time. Information quality deals with content issues such as personalized, completeness, relevancy, easy to understand and secure – if ICT extension services equipped with online payment. Information must include weather, price, tips, products and so on. Service quality is the overall support provided to customers, delivered internally or outsourced. Poor support will translate into lost customers or lost end-users.

    Business model should be carefully planned and implemented in all stages of ICT extension service development [1], not by the end of funding circle. The pilot (proof of concept stage) designs a prototype, followed by rigours user acceptance testing for small target groups. Typically, services are available for free, and with main goal to gain access to market. If successful, stage 1 (scalability stage) will improve and expand services to larger market. For commercial ICT extension services, membership fee or transaction fee is applied in this stage. Noncommercial ICT extension services pledge to funders for increased financial support. ICT extension services have to demonstrate high value to justify the costs of scaling up. ICT extension services may need to cease their operation if evidence suggested otherwise. Stage 2 (sustainability stage) is when ICT extension services become profitable. While marketing efforts become a priority to attract investors, business plan has to focus on improving the quality of services to reach the scale required for profitability.

    Pricing models for ICT extension services

    Creating business case for ICT extension services, especially those aiming for the bottom of pyramid “BOP” consumers, is tough. The World Bank report on Mobile Apps for Agricultural and Rural Development[1] validates this thesis. Only 15 percent (out of 92 studied apps) generates revenues over shares of SMS, transaction fees, or membership fees. Other 85 percent is dependent on government, donor or CRS funding for startup and operation costs. Table below gives example of pricing models, some overlap with each other, employed by ICT extension services (see table).

    Table: Pricing models of ICT extension services. (Source: adapted from the Qiang, et al., 2012 and GSMA, 2016).

    Charging fee to end-users, known as business-to-customer “B2C” approach, seems reasonable but difficult to apply in practice. Firstly, many end-users are farmers with low disposable income. Take into consideration, farmers still need to pay for capital costs, e.g. mobile phone, data connection or mobile credit, to access (noncommercial) ICT extension services. Secondly, farmers’ ability to pay and their willingness to pay do not always translate into actual payment. The experience of Tigo Kilimo, an agricultural value added service in Tanzania, demonstrates this dilemma[5]. Users increased by ten times within five months when SMS fee was removed. But when asked how much the service should cost, 80 percent of surveyed users agreed that the service should not be free (see chart). Thirdly, ICT extension services that rely on direct revenue from end-users can only attain fiscal sustainability through scale [6]. iCow service in Kenya charges farmers KES9 ($0.09) to receive 3 SMS tips per week; iCow’s  fiscal sustainability depends on recurring payment of 150,000 regular users and expansion into the region.

    Chart: Tigo Kilimo user’s willingness to pay (source: GSMA, 2018)

    To date, viable for B2C approach where end-users pay periodic subscription or through pay-as-you-go (PAYG) model are SMS, USSD, IVR and helplines. Any of them requires partnership with Mobile Network Operator (MNOs), and for two main reasons. End-users of ICT extension services are also MNO customers. MNOs are equipped with advance technology to reach the scale, both existing and potential end-users living in rural areas, and in a position to quickly implement the pricing models.

    Rather than relying on single revenue from end-users, ICT extension services can opt for businesses-to-business (B2B) transactions. Typically, ICT extension services cross subsidies end-users in exchange for marketing purposes by adopting B2B approach. It is also possible for commercial ICT services to combine B2C and B2B approaches.

    Digital Green which operates in several countries earns B2B revenues by creating videos, training and technology platforms for government, donor and private companies[7]. Digital Green determines pricing based on factors such as type of organisation, duration of engagement and support needs. For example, Digital Green covers costs of technology development and training while the government pays for the capital cost and operational cost. When working with private companies, all expenditures including technology development, training, capital and operational costs are covered by the partners.

    The question whether ICT extension services are best financed by the private, public or through joint efforts depends on its characteristics and local situations[8]. This requires research, planning and investment. In principle, ICT extension services should balance the different interests, needs and motivations of stakeholders. Regardless the option, farmers should have control and protection about the information and services they need and receive. Furthermore, technology adoption and advancement should be supported with broader regulatory intervention to foster innovation and to minimise commercial risks.

    Reference: 

    [1] Qiang, C.Z., Kuek, S.C., Dymond, A. and Esselaar, S., 2012. Mobile applications for agriculture and rural development.

    [2] Magesa, M.M., Michael, K. and Ko, J., 2014. Agricultural market information services in developing countries: A review. Advances in Computer Science: an International Journal3(3), pp.38-47.

    [3] Morris, M., Schindehutte, M. and Allen, J., 2005. The entrepreneur’s business model: toward a unified perspective. Journal of business research58(6), pp.726-735.

    [4] Delone, W.H. and McLean, E.R., 2003. The DeLone and McLean model of information systems success: a ten-year update. Journal of management information systems19(4), pp.9-30.

    [5] GSMA, 2016. Agricultural Value-added Services (Agri VAS) Toolkit 2.0. How to design, develop and market next generation VAS for the rural market. Available at: https://www.gsma.com/mobilefordevelopment/wp-content/uploads/2016/05/mAgri-VAS-Toolkit-2016.pdf [Accessed on 15 August 2018].

    [6] GSMA, 2015. Agricultural value-added services (Agri VAS): market opportunity and emerging business models. Available at: https://www.gsma.com/mobilefordevelopment/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/Agricultural-value-added-services-market-opportunity-and-emerging-business-models.pdf [Accessed on 15 August 2018].

    [7] World Bank, 2017. Agriculture ICT Extension Services. Available at: https://www.innovationpolicyplatform.org/system/files/4_Agri%20ICT%20Extension_Agri_Nov20.pdf [Accessed on 1t August 2018]

    [8] Anderson, J.R. and Feder, G., 2004. Agricultural extension: Good intentions and hard realities. The World Bank Research Observer19(1), pp.41-60.

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  • Market based resilience building in Bangladesh


    July 26th, 2018

    For the past week I have been visiting the Practical Action programme in Bangladesh to support their work on resilience programming. I attended the wrap up meeting of the GRP Project, worked with the consultant team undertaking the final external evaluation of the project, helped staff in the flood resilience programme design activities for the next phase of the project and attended the meeting of the Markets Development forum.

    Bangladesh is a relatively young nation achieving independence in 1971 and being described by the then US foreign secretary as a bottomless basket. The country has progressed considerably in the recent past and Bangladesh set a landmark record in poverty alleviation by reducing it by 24.6% between 2000 and 2016, meaning more than 20.5 million people escaped the poverty line to find better lives for themselves. Bangladesh has also been praised in the world media for its outstanding successes with regards to various socio-economic indicators, such as the rate of literacy and life expectancy.

    A demonstration of the commitment of the country to a market driven development approach was clearly demonstrated at the Markets Development Day that I was fortunate enough to attend. I gained a deeper insights into their valuable contribution to market driven development particularly as I was invited to provide the conference wrap up, due to the last minute withdrawal of the pre-agreed speaker. In summarising the conference I was made aware of the diversity of challenges matched to the wealth of critical thinking by the development actors in this forum.

    The Market Development Forum is a forum of over 25 likeminded organisations exploring the use of markets based approaches to poverty reduction. As highlighted above Bangladesh has made significant gains in this area, but this is not felt equally by everyone. The theme of this year’s conference recognises this with the topic “Unblocking barriers to markets” with specific focus on the following;

    • Youth and jobs, in recognition of the rapidly growing youth population facing challenges with inadequate growth in the jobs markets
    • Humanitarian Context, the role of markets in humanitarian relief, especially reflecting that Bangladesh has recently seen the arrival of &&& Rohingya refugees
    • Financial inclusion, looking at linking the small scale informal financial systems developed in poor rural areas with mainstream finance and access to traditional banking and credit
    • Women’s Economic Empowerment, many economic sectors are dependent on predominantly women works with the garments sector the largest GDP revenue earner
    • Reaching the disabled, how to make markets truly inclusive and ensure that the many disabled people in Bangladesh have equal access
    • Social services, markets development on its own is inadequate this session looks at the parallel development of social systems necessary to support and stabilise poverty reduction benefits in often precarious markets

    I was impressed not only at the level of participation in the conference, but also the diversity of organisations and perspectives displayed. The presentations were excellent and the question and answer sessions expanded the discussion indicating the depth and breadth of markets development thinking in the country.

    What were some of the key take home messages I picked up from the conference?

    For the markets in humanitarian context the challenges highlighted are in the case of the refugees is the almost instantaneous impact refugees have on existing value chains. The presenter highlighted that in Cox’s Bazaar where the refugee camps are located, the labour markets has collapsed from 500bdt[1] per day to less than 100, while the price of construction materials have increased with the price of raw bamboo poles tripling in price. In the flood case study the flood severs markets, causing value chains to be broken, as access to services, input and export markets become severed. In this situations it is important not to overlook the role of markets in the pre flood disaster planning, to ensure that forecasts and weather information are used to inform the markets actors to ensure that activities are matched to expected conditions and if extreme flood events are expected the critical supplies can be pre-positions for rapid deployment in the case of a flood event becoming a human disaster. Tools such as Emergency Markets Mapping and Analysis (EMMA) and Pre-Crisis Markets Assessment (PCMA) are invaluable tools to help agencies plan for markets based engagement in humanitarian contexts.

    For the youth and job sessions the situation in Bangladesh is challenging. The country has a growing youth population but insufficient employment opportunities to offer this potential workforce. In addition the traditional education system is failing to deliver the practical skills necessary for employment. So structural changes to job markets need to start in the education system. The projects presented are looking to develop appropriate opportunities for these workers, including self-employment in formal as well as less formal emerging sectors. Finally for youth employment it is important to look at the right supporting services including Sexual and Reproductive Health, Gender Based Violence, skills training and job placements.

    In the women’s economic empowerment, the first session highlighted the differential access to information for women and men. One project explored how the provision of information to women enabled them to explore alternative livelihood opportunities. Traditional extension services are focussed on providing services to men and male dominated institutions. New technologies can provide access to formerly disconnected groups. For example SMS messages reach wider audience and voice messages can reach illiterate members. The presenters reported that access to information is certainly benefiting women’s economic empowerment. But more importantly does the access to information lead to changes in the behaviours between women and men? Early indications are that access to information, is leading to women informally helping their neighbours and men being more tolerant of women’s engagement in additional activities and accepting if meals are late.

    In my closing remarks I commented on the refreshing absence of any market maps in the presentations. It is important to recognise that they are a vital tool in markets driven development, but can provide a very unclear method to share findings with a large audience. It was great to get the core messages from their markets projects without descending into the nitty gritty of the value chain, the key actors, the supporting services, or the limits and opportunities presented by the enabling environment. My final comment was on the absence of the care economy in any of the sessions I attended. I was surprised in a forum in which gendered markets development projects were being presented that I learned little about the traditional role of women and men and the implications for the markets driven development on women’s existing role as the care giver.

    [1] BDT Bangladesh Taka (100 BDT = 90 pence)

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  • Reaching the Last Mile: Challenges and Lessons from Early Warning Systems

    Understanding Risk is a global community of researchers and practitioners working to identify, assess and communicate disaster risk. This year, the fifth Understanding Risk Forum was held in Mexico City. The Forum was attended by 1,050 people from 101 different countries and over 550 organisations, including Practical Action.

    Our session on “Reaching the last mile” focused on communicating risk effectively to the people most vulnerable to disasters. In order for people to protect themselves from hazards, they need to receive information, understand it, and be able to act on the information.

    However, there are many complex barriers faced by vulnerable communities: when information is shared via text message, people without access to a mobile phone can’t receive the information; if information is not communicated in local languages, or if technical or unclear wording is used, people who receive the information may not be able to understand it; and if people don’t know what actions to take, are afraid of losing their possessions, don’t have anywhere safe to go, or do not have decision-making power, they will not be able to act on the information.

    Within vulnerable communities, factors including age, gender, ethnicity, literacy levels, physical capacity and poverty affect the needs, priorities and abilities of people to access, understand, and respond to information.

    For example, a study that Practical Action is conducting in Nepal and Peru found that women and men often have different roles in evacuation. In addition, women experience unique difficulties evacuating related to their gender, presenting challenges related to their clothing, hair length, caring roles and responsibilities, lesser physical strength, and inability to swim. Perhaps because of these challenges, women prefer to evacuate earlier than men. However, because women lack decision-making power, they are often unable to take action until men decide to evacuate, by which time evacuation routes are more dangerous, particularly for women, presenting them with additional risks.

    We were joined in our session by colleagues from BBC Media Action, the UK Met Office, Soluciones Practicas (our Latin America office), and the German Red Cross.

    Lisa Robinson from BBC Media Action shared examples of their work in Bangladesh, where they partner with a local radio station, Oromia Radio, to broadcast a short radio magazine programme which provides practical advice on agriculture, water, sanitation and shelter.

    They also broadcast a reality television series which visits vulnerable communities as they work with their neighbours and local government to build their resilience. They have found that their audiences and listeners trust this information because it is in their native language, specific to where they are, and is easy to understand. As a result, people are using this information to make decisions.

    At the other delivery end, the UK Met Office is working to build the capacity of national meteorological services in hazard-prone countries. Nyree Pinder highlighted the key role that meteorological agencies have in identifying and communicating risk as they work within the government to protect lives and livelihoods. The UK Met Office is working through a range of programmes to build the capacity of national and regional meteorological services to improve climate information services, and is moving towards impact-based forecasting to better meet the needs of vulnerable communities.

    David Lau from Soluciones Practicas highlighted how the team in Peru are engaging with the community to build resilience. As well as installing solar-powered field monitoring stations to measure rainfall using photographs and soil saturation, community groups (brigades) are formed and supported to use these stations, issue evacuation alerts, and conduct drills. In this way, knowledge is owned and trusted by the community, supporting improved resilience in the long term.

    Mathieu Destrooper from the German Red Cross then demonstrated how the early warning system in Peru could be improved to give vulnerable communities more time to prepare: combining upstream water levels, rain forecasts and soil moisture levels could increase the time available from one to five hours, to one to five days.

    However, as well as improving forecasts, there are key questions to consider regarding how to guarantee early action being taken at the community level. Context will affect whether early warning systems are best managed locally or nationally, how to define thresholds for alerting and taking action, and how to share warning information.

    The session brought together a range of voices, perspectives and experiences in reaching the last mile. Our panellists worked in different countries, with different stakeholders and at different levels, engaging with national and local government, media, and directly with community members.

    Across this broad range of experience, a key factor emerged consistently: there are a multitude of factors which affect people’s vulnerability to and experience of disasters. Our work on early warning systems must be context-specific and tailored to the needs of the people who have to respond to warnings in order to ensure action is taken and lives are saved.

    Related links

    Reaching the last mile: addressing gender inequality in early warning systems

    Collaborative mapping creating local flood resilience with global impact

    Advanced Early Warning Systems Protect Lives and Livelihoods in Nepal

    How the community in Bangladesh prepares for Cyclones – BBC Media Action

    Early warning systems are a key component of community resilience to disasters and have the potential to save lives and livelihoods in hazard-prone communities.

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  • Why universal access to the Internet should become a priority for Practical Action?


    June 27th, 2018

    This is the second part of “doing development in a digital world“ blog series. You can read the first part here.

    The Internet has had profound impact on our lives – from accessing information to communication with each other to civic participation. But for many people, access to the Internet is still a privilege, not a right. In this post, I would argue why universal access to the Internet should be a priority for Practical Action.

    The progress to achieve the global goal of “universal and affordable access to the Internet in least developed countries by 2020” has been slow. ITU estimates that 3.9 billion people don’t have access to Internet, majority of them live in Global South. As an example, let’s take the countries where Practical Action operates (see Chart 1). Only Kenya and Peru have “significant” number of internet users – slightly over 40% of population. The lowest is Bangladesh at 14.4%. 

    Chart 1: Internet use in Practical Action focus countries (Source: SDG tracker)

    If we apply the gender lens, the proportion of women using the internet is 12% lower than men. In Africa, this gap is widens to 25%. Despite the popularity of mobile internet, South Asian women are 26% less likely to own a phone than men and 70% less likely to use mobile internet.

    At current pace, it will take another 20 years to connect the world.

    Access to the Internet is closely associated with human rights: right to freedom of expression, privacy and freedom of association. The United Nations Human Rights Council passed a resolution in 2016: “[the] rights that people have offline must also be protected online”. Nevertheless, digital rights are systematically undermined.

    We witnessed how governments and tech companies abuses their power to exert greater control over the Internet and markets. Authorities in Zimbabwe shutted down WhatsApp during anti government protests in 2016. Early this month, Bangladeshi authorities blocked a popular news portal “the Daily Star” for more than 18 hours without explanation. The Facebook data harvesting scandal and the accusation in conducting mass surveillance were another blow to the internet freedom.

    What makes me optimistic is that citizens and organisations around the world actively involved in access to the Internet debates. Around 80 organisations have joined Alliance for Affordable Internet (A4AI) to “overcoming the affordability barrier to access for women, the poor, rural dwellers, and other marginalised populations”. India’s citizens fought and won the case for the net neutrality protection. Last year, India’s Supreme Court asserted the right to privacy protection.

    Chart 2: What ICT trend will positively impact the aid/development sector over the next 5 years? (Source: Catholic Relief Services)

    As highlighted by 619 senior development professionals participated in Catholic Relief Services’ ICT international survey, connectivity, i.e. access to the Internet, will have more positive impact than other technologies (see Chart 2). On the condition, of course, that people can  access and use Internet in a meaningful way. What the experience has taught us, we can’t completely rely to governments and big tech companies to work on these issues, however good are their intentions. Citizens, CSOs and NGOs should participate and build alliances for making universal access to the Internet reality as well as for the protection of digital rights.  

    I believe Practical Action is in the position to support these efforts. After all, people need reliable, affordable and secure Internet connection to access services that are provided by Practical Action. Practical Action could build upon its experience providing internet access to rural communities in Bolivia under the Willay Program 2007-2014. This wouldn’t be easy but feasible. As argued in my previous post, it would require commitment, time and investments. 

     

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  • Collaborative mapping creating local flood resilience with global impact


    June 1st, 2018

    Worldwide, floods are becoming more intense and unpredictable every year. Communities in developing countries face many barriers to protecting themselves, their homes and their livelihoods from these floods. But a new digital mapping approach, developed by the Zurich Flood Resilience Alliance, is helping people to understand this risk, prepare for floods and protect themselves.

    The data gap that undermines resilience

    It’s vital for communities to be able to plan for flood events: by identifying safe places to go and by protecting their buildings, livestock, crops and other infrastructure. But in developing countries this planning is made difficult by a lack of accurate information. Without detailed local maps communities don’t know where the risks or safe places are, or where to find resources to support them, like safe shelters, clinics, or safe sources of drinking water. When community maps do exist they are often hand-drawn, inaccurate and useful only to a small number of people.

    A typical community risk map

    The Zurich Flood Resilience Alliance (ZFRA) has developed an approach to address this issue: we have been working to combine collaborative digital mapping techniques with community-based mapping methods.

    Bringing local knowledge to a global scale

    To bridge the data gap in local information we used OpenStreetMap, an emerging open-source platform which is based on contributions from people all around the world: from engineers and humanitarians to mapping enthusiasts. These contributors use aerial photos, GPS and low-tech field maps to give accurate and up-to-date information about their location.

    We were able to take the information provided by this new technology and combine it with the local knowledge of volunteer mappers, who compared the digital information with what they could see on the ground.

    Using this combination of local and global knowledge, we were able to produce highly detailed information which is more accurate, easier to update and easier share. With this information,  more people can be better informed about the risk they face, and so make decisions to keep themselves safe.

    Use case: collaborative digital mapping in Nepal

    In the Karnali river basin in Nepal – , where flooding last year alone killed 135 people, destroyed 80,000 homes and resulted in an estimated £61 million worth of crops lost –   we mapped over 50,000 buildings and 100 km of road thanks to the efforts of a dozen local social workers. They identified agricultural land, community forests, safe shelters and irrigation canals: information which had previously not been captured. This allowed communities to visualise their risks, resources and resilience in a way that was impossible before.

    Comparison of hazard map of Chakkhapur community before and after digital mapping approach

    What this means for flood resilience

    This approach is an exciting step forward which means that communities will have access to information which is specific to their location and helps them to make decisions based on the risks they face and the resources they have. When we know not just where floods are likely to occur, but where, for example health posts, schools and water pumps are, we can think about what risks the flood itself poses to a community: Will safe drinking water be contaminated? Will people have access to health care? Will children be able to get to school or will the roads be washed away?

    This means that communities can plan effectively and take the most effective action to protect themselves from the impacts of flooding, whether it’s raising water pumps so that they are above the anticipated flood water level, relocating supplies or reinforcing roads.

    So far, we have applied this approach in Nepal, Peru and Mexico. There is huge potential for this mapping approach to build resilience in hazard-prone communities around the world.

    Read more:

    Full paper – Integrated Participatory and Collaborative Risk Mapping for Enhancing Disaster Resilience

    Policy Brief – Participatory digital mapping: building community resilience in Nepal, Peru and Mexico

    Related Post – Flood Dynamics in the Karnali River Basin

    Related Post – Floods and Landslides in Nepal, August 2017

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  • Doing development in a digital world, and what does this mean for Practical Action?


    May 3rd, 2018

    This is the first part of “doing development in a digital world“ blog series. You can read the second part here.

    Practical Action has recently initiated a discussion – involving staff from the head office, and regional and country offices (RCOs) as well as Matt Haikin – on the subject of doing development in a digital world. What and how Practical Action can play role in this new paradigm?

    Many digital technologies have already been widely adopted in (global) development. Mobile data collection and dashboard, for example, are now omnipresent. Multi-channel communication, such as a website, mobile phone and social media are used simultaneously to reach target audiences. Emerging technologies, such as big data and AI, have been tested to predict disease outbreaks.

    The broader development benefits of digital technologies or digital dividends, however, is unevenly distributed (see picture). In many parts of the world people who don’t have access to the internet nor digital skills are unable to reap their benefits. Women, in particular, are being left behind in the digital revolution. From the project perspective, the concerns about the scale and sustainability in ICT4D, as well as in the broader development sector, remain acute.

     

    Why digital dividends are not spreading rapidly—and what can be done (source: World Development Report 2016: Digital Dividends)

     

    DFID Digital Strategy 2018 to 2020 acknowledges the potential of digital technologies “to revolutionise the lives of the poor, unlock development and prosperity, and accelerate progress towards the Global Goals”. It lays out the strategy for achieving those ambitious objectives. Though slightly late in the game – for example USAID launched its digital strategy in 2014 and SIDA – in 2005 – the DFID digital strategy is nevertheless equally important, because it will impact the development sector especially in the UK and its priority countries.

    As digital technologies come out of age, NGOs are adopting new ways of working, increasing investments into digital technologies, building their capacities, conducting research and participating in digital policy debates. NGOs which have the skills and capacity are indeed more prepared for the rapid changes in the sector. They also have the ability to assess and mitigate digital risks. Across the sector, we’ve also seen leadership playing important role for the success of digital technologies intervention.

    Practical Action has aspiring goal “to transform the way technology is being used to improve the lives of poor people”. Digital technologies is inevitably to be part of it. What Practical Action can do to achieve this objective? In the process of the discussion mentioned above, several suggestions emerged:

    • A clear organisation strategy is required for integrating ICT4D across the organisation. What is our core proposition in ICT4D? Who are our target audiences and how can we reach them effectively? How can we align the organisation strategy with the government policies and regulations? Should we join coalitions like Data4SDGs, Internet Governance Forum, Global Open Data for Agriculture and Nutrition and Alliance for Affordable Internet, and sign up to the Principles for Digital Development and Responsible Data practice, for example? Then the questions around availability of resources in term of time, financial and personnel.
    • Building capacity of staff members in the head office and RCOs. What is the organisation capacity to realise the benefits of digital technologies? Should we to provide staff members at all levels with digital literacy and data literacy skills? How can we reduce the skills gap in RCOs?
    • Providing technical support for staff members implementing ICT4D projects on the ground. Currently, we use the “community of practice” approach for sharing learning internally. Dedicated technical support may be required in the future. Do we need more hybrid ICT4D roles, i.e. those who possess understanding and skills in digital technologies and development, in RCOs? Or should we establish ICT4D central team to support operations in RCOs? Would hybrid structures and management models – halfway between centralised standards and local and flexible structures – be more suitable?
    • Improving the way we use digital technologies in projects. The application of digital technologies in DRR, WASH and Agriculture has delivered mixed results so far. How can we systematise and standardise our ICT4D approach? Can we adopt a technology principle to minimise the risks and improve project results? How can we ensure our digital solutions are widely shared and replicated?
    • Adopting digital technologies for measuring project performance. Monitoring and Evaluation is an area where digital technologies add value. In the past, we used different data collection platforms for research and M&E purposes. Have we identified pros and cons of these platforms? Is there a data collection and analysis platform that fits with our global operations? How can we collect good quality data, analyse and present it in the right format for target audiences?
    • New thematic work in digital technologies should be considered. Relevant examples are digital financial inclusion, last mile connectivity, gender and digital inclusion, the Internet of Things, digital rights, e-waste management and data for development. Latin America Office has experience implementing eGovernment projects in rural areas. Can we channel some of our ICT4D efforts to the critical issue in the region: improving citizen engagement, government transparency and accountability? Should we conduct research and advocacy-based evidence in the future, for instance, to fill the gaps in project interventions?

    Using digital technologies in the context of development is no longer optional. NGOs are changing the way they do development. The mapping exercise and discussions on this subject should be seen as a starting point. This is an ongoing process, rather than an one-off one, and would require active participation from key staff members, coordination and organisational support.

     

    More reading:

    Haikin, Matt (2018) A landscape review of digital technologies trends; their use in the international development sector (ICT4D) and potential relevance to Practical Action. Internal Report. Unpublished.

    This post was updated on 06/06/2018 with suggestion from Carlos Frias on eGovernment/Civic Tech in Latin America. 

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  • MERL Tech London: What’s Your Organisation’s Take on Data Literacy, Privacy and Ethics?


    March 26th, 2018

    ICTs and data are increasingly being used for monitoring, evaluation, research and learning (MERL). MERL Tech London was an open space for practitioners, techies, researchers and decision makers to discuss their good and not so good experiences. This blogpost is a reflection of the debates that took place during the conference.

    Is data literacy still a thing?

    Data literacy is “the ability to consume for knowledge, produce coherently and think critically about data”. The perception of data literacy varies depending on the stakeholder’s needs. Being data literate for an M&E team, for example, means possessing statistics skills including collecting and combining large data sets. Program team requires different level of data literacy: the competence to carefully interpret and communicate meaningful stories using processed data (or information) to reach the target audiences.

    Data literacy is – and will remain – a priority in development. The current debate is no longer about whether an organisation should use data or not. It’s rather how well the organisation can use data to achieve their objectives. Yet, organisation’s efforts are often concentrated in just one part of the information value chain, data collection. Data collection in itself is not the end goal. Data has to be processed into information and knowledge for making informed decisions and actions.

    This doesn’t necessary imply that the decision making is purely based on data, nor that data can replace the role of decision makers. Quite the opposite: data-informed decision making strikes balance between expertise and information. It also takes data limitations into account. Nevertheless, one can’t become a data-informed organisation without being data literate.

    What’s your organisation’s data strategy?

    The journey of becoming a data-informed organisation can take some time. Poor data quality, duplication efforts and underinvestment are classic obstacles requiring a systematic solution (see Tweet). The commitment from senior management team should be secured for that. Data team has to be established. Staff members need access to relevant data platforms and training. More importantly, the organisation has to embrace the cultural change towards valuing evidence and acting on positive and negative findings

    Organisations seek to balance between (data) demands and priorities. Some invest hundreds of thousands dollars for setting up a data team to articulate the organisation’s needs and priorities, as well as to mobilise technical support. A 3-5 years strategic plan is created to coordinate efforts between country offices.

    Others take a more modest approach. They recruit few data scientists to support MERL activities of analysing particularly large amounts of project data. The data scientist role evolves along the project growth. In both cases, leadership is the key driver for shifting the culture towards becoming a data-informed organisation.

    Should an organisation use certain data because it can?

    The organisation working with data usually faces challenges around privacy, legality, ethics and grey areas, such as bias and power dynamics between data collectors and their target groups. The use of biometric data in humanitarian settings is an example where all these tensions collide. Biometric data, e.g. fingerprint, iris scan, facial recognition – is powerful, yet invasive. While proven beneficial, biometric data is vulnerable to data breach and misuse, e.g. profiling and tracking. The practice raises critical questions: does the target group, e.g. refugees, have the option to refuse handling over their sensitive personal data? If so, will they still be entitled to receive aid assistance? To what extent the target group is aware how their sensitive personal data will be used and shared, including in the unforeseen circumstances?

    The people’s privacy, safety and security are main priorities in any data work. The organisation should uphold the highest standards and set an example. In those countries where regulatory frameworks are lagging behind data and technology, organisations shouldn’t abuse their power. When the risk of using a certain data outweighs the benefits, or in doubt, the organisation should take a pause and ask itself some necessary questions from the perspective of its target groups. Oxfam which dismissed – following two years of internal discussions and intensive research – the idea of using biometric data in any of their project should be seen as a positive example.

    To conclude, the benefits of data can only be realised when an organisation enjoys visionary leadership, sufficient capacity and upholds its principles. No doubts, this is easier being said than done; it requires time and patience. All these efforts, however, are necessary for a high-achieving organisations.

    More reading:

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  • Is blockchain the right technical solution for our projects?


    February 21st, 2018

    I recently met with colleagues who were keen to use blockchain for global development. As you may guess, our conversation started with the key question: Is blockchain the right technical solution for us? 

    Simply put, blockchain is a distributed database that maintains a shared list of records. These records, called blocks, are linked together as a chain. Each block contains encrypted transaction data known as hash, hash from a previous block and a timestamp. When new data added, all records are simultaneously updated to ensure immutability and almost in real-time.

    Blockchain has been named to become next disruptive technology capable of changing the way we trade and interact. The key attributes, including public variability, transparency, privacy and integrity – are what makes blockchain more appealing than centrally managed databases, even despite its downsides, such as high energy consumption, slower processing time, and perhaps, higher cost.

    There are two versions of blockchain. A permissionless blockchain, like bitcoin, allows anyone writing and reading the blockchain/database; there’s no central entity managing the membership. In contrast, a permissioned blockchain allows only a limited number of users to have access (write and read) to the database.

    Donors, non-profit organisations and tech companies are exploring – designing, testing and researching – blockchain technology for development. BanQu use blockchain to create a digital identity for refugees. The Start Network and Disberse are experimenting with blockchain for transferring grants. UNICEF Innovation will fund blockchain startups. More use cases of blockchain for development are likely to emerge as its popularity increases (or is it hype?).

    Do we need blockchain in the first place?

    Blockchain is “a machine for building trust” which can provide a high degree of accountability. Using blockchain, in principle, “only makes sense when multiple mutually mistrusting entities want to interact and change the state of a system” (Wüst and Gervais, 2017). And, when (an online) middleman – in blockchain usually called a Trusted Third Party (TTP) – is not available to facilitate the interaction.

    The flow chart below describes steps for determining whether blockchain is appropriate for our projects.

    Flow chart: Do we need blockchains? (source: Wüst and Gervais, 20172)

    Flow chart: Do we need blockchains? (source: Wüst and Gervais, 2017)

    As previously discussed, blockchain is a form of a database. Therefore, it is suitable and can add value to the projects which requires a database in the first place. Writers correspond to entities or consensus users with the write access to the database. If there is only one writer, blockchain is not needed. If a TTP is available, but usually offline, it can act as a certificate authority in a permissioned blockchain. If the writers are known (or registered) and mutually trust each other, a centrally managed database with the shared write access is most suitable.

    What are other factors to consider?

    When implementing a technology intervention, we need to look at enabling environment: factors that can accelerate or hinder a project implementation.

    If the answer of the previous exercise is yes, i.e. we need blockchain, we should combine the assessment with the following questions:

    • What are the skills and capacities of a project implementer to initiate and maintain blockchain technology (in the long run)?
    • How blockchain technology challenges – standard and interoperability – will be solved?
    • What and how the government policies and regulations may impact blockchain adoption?
    • What ethical considerations of testing blockchain on vulnerable citizens should be taken into account?
    • What are the potential outputs, outcomes and development impacts – both positive and negative – of blockchain technology? Who will benefit from the blockchain application most?
    • If blockchain technology eliminates or reduces the role of TTP, what are the implications for development actors (organisations, government and private companies)?
    • How to ensure the blockchain technology does not exacerbate the digital divide?

    Where to look for more information?

    In the UK, the newly established Charities Working Group on Distributed Ledger Technology meets once a month to identify practical steps for blockchain application in the sector. The upcoming Bond Annual Conference 2018 and MERL Tech London 2018 will have sessions on the potential blockchain impact on development.

    In addition, reports from GSMA, Open Data Institute and Institute Development Studies provide some guidance for a non-technical audience who seek to understand blockchain in the policy context.

    Blockchain is a new and complex technology. Its application provides both opportunities and challenges. Some organisations may seize the momentum by developing a proof of the concept. Others may prefer to wait until the technology has matured. Regardless the decision, we need to avoid the hype and look carefully at blockchain suitability for our work.

     

    Reference 

    Wüst, K. and Gervais, A., 2017. Do you need a Blockchain?. IACR Cryptology ePrint Archive, 2017, p.375

    Featured image credit: Descryptive.com, CC BY 2.0

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  • What is Information and Communication Technologies for Development and why it matters?


    December 18th, 2017

    Colleagues in Practical Action often ask how Information and Communication Technologies for Development (ICT4D) can be defined. Is a radio program offering health information to young girls in India ICT4D? What about a web portal providing agricultural content in Peru? Or perhaps a mobile app used by M&E team in Kenya?

    Practical Answers intervention in India, Sunalo Sakhi, uses ICT to raise awareness about sexual and reproductive health among young women and girls living in slums (credit: Ananta Prasad)

    Different terms are used to describe the relationship between Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) and Development (D). Each term represents views of their advocates with its own merits and challenges. For example: ICTD, ICT4Dev, M4D, KM4D, Development Informatics, Digital Development and ICT4D. ICT4D is the most commonly used term among them.

    A broad definition of ICT is devices or techniques for processing or communicating data. When discussing ICT, we narrow down the scope to digital ICT such as laptops, internet, software, smartphones, the Internet of Things etc. Other types of ICT, e.g. analog sensor technologies, may be relevant too, but they are increasingly being digitised. There are three main benefits of ICT: process benefits (cheaper, more, quicker, better, new), affordances  (communication, computation, transaction) and broader changes (automatisation, innovation and equalisation). The connector word ‘4’ (reads: for) brings the attention to what kind of ‘development’ we seek to address. Development usually refers to international development, that is both geographic and agenda-specific development.

    ICT4D is therefore “the application of any entity that processes or communicates digital data in order to deliver some part of the international development agenda in a developing country”. As field of research, ICT4D is a combination of academic disciplines: computer sciences, information systems, development studies and others fields such as geography, economics, governance etc.

    Development agenda determines why and how ICT used for development. For example, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) identify ICT-specific target under Goal 9: “Significantly increase access to information and communications technology and strive to provide universal and affordable access to the Internet in least developed countries by 2020”. Other ICT-specific targets are under Goal 4 (higher education), Goal 5 (women’s empowerment) and Goal 17 (innovation capacity).

    Many ICT4D projects fall short of their promise. Critics argue that frequently flaws in implementation techniques lead to failing to deliver the intended benefits. Inadequate planning, hardware failures, insufficient technical support, lack of political support and financial constraints are among the most common reasons for that. Others point out at the unintended consequences and contradictory effects that ICT can have in development: ICT, including ICT4D, is often associated with inequality, environmental damage, health problems etc.

    In order to make ICT work for development, we need to understand processes and challenges emerging from technical, social, cultural, institutional and political realms. ICT4D doesn’t simply mean ICT adoption in the development practice. ICT4D is ‘multifaceted, dynamic and contentious socio-technical processes’ (see Figure: ICT4D Value Chain).

    ICT4D Value Chain (Source: Heeks, 2017)

    A good example is Practical Action’s knowledge management system, Practical Answers. Practical Answers has served local communities and practitioners in a number of countries for years. It processes and distributes technical information through web portals, a mobile app, call centre, radio programmes and podcasts. Each country implements Practical Answers in its own way. In India, Practical Answers produces educational radio programmes for young girls living in slums. In Nepal, Practical Answers is embedded into community libraries. In Zimbabwe, Practical Answers trains government officials and community leaders to produce agricultural podcasts.

    ICT4D may not solve all problems our societies experience, but it helps to materialise the  development agenda in new forms that haven’t existed before.

     

    Reference:

    Heeks, Richard. 2017. Information and Communication Technology for Development (ICT4D) (Routledge Perspectives on Development). Taylor and Francis.

    Zheng, Y., Hatakka, M., Sahay, S. and Andersson, A., 2017. Conceptualizing development in information and communication technology for development (ICT4D).

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  • From Connectivity to Co-creation: How can ICT accelerate the achievement of SDGs?


    November 2nd, 2017

    ICT is a key enabler for Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). How can ICT contribute to SDGs? – We summarise takeaways from Global Science, Technology and Innovation Conference 2017

    The Global Science Technology and Innovation Conference (GSTIC), which took place on 23-25 October 2017 in Brussels, aimed to accelerate the development, dissemination and deployment of technological innovations for the achievement of SDGs. With representatives from key stakeholders from national governments, UN and other international organisations, academics and the private sector attending the conference, GSTIC became a platform for finding new technological solutions and co-creating for solving complex challenges in diverse societies. We, the Practical Action representatives, had an opportunity to participate in Information and Communication Technology (ICT) as Enabling Technology sessions. The sessions explored how ICT solutions – software, hardware and data – can potentially impact SGDs.

    Connect the unconnected

    It is widely accepted that connectivity is one of key priorities for achieving the SDGs. Approximately 3.9 billion people – that is, around 53% of world’s population – are still offline. According to ITU, we need to “connect as many people as possible”. SES, a satellite operator, demonstrates how connectivity barriers can be overcome. It deploys a satellite-based e-health platform, Satmed, in Vietnam. Satmed connects doctors and nurses in three maternity hospitals across the country. Its broadband capacity transfers live visual data. Doctors can analyse symptoms and give advice online to other doctors and nurses based in other hospitals.

    Adequate regulatory environment

    Regulatory framework has been lagging behind ICT developments. The Policy Lab suggested multi-stakeholder dialog to “define new roles and responsibilities and retooling system” to cope with the current reality. Humanitarian interventions, for example, rely heavily on ICT. Collecting data about migrant flows helps to deliver humanitarian assistance, but at the same time exposes vulnerable populations to new threats, e.g. human trafficking. This should lead us to question the ethics of data collection and use: Who owns and controls data? How long they store data? How data is being used? What data security measures are in place?

    Collaborative partnerships

    New models of partnerships engaging governments, NGOs, CSOs, academics, private sector and citizens – women, young people, farmers and more – should be encouraged. The work of the European Network of Living Labs (ENoLL) is of interest in that respect. The Network actively engages end users and encourages multi-stakeholder participation in co-creating innovative ICT products and services. Prototypes are tested and experimented with in real life, and feedback is used for iterative design process. With 400 international networks, ENoLL is able to launch projects quickly and share their lessons.

    Business incentives

    One of the ways to address the sustainability of ICT solutions is by bringing in private investment. In some cases, the government may only subsidise the early stage of ICT developments. The government of Qatar is implementing the TASMU Smart Qatar Program for improving public services. For that purpose, it aims to spend QR 6bn (£1,19bn) over the next five years. To date, around 100 use cases across key themes, such as transportation and healthcare, have been developed. Half of them are expected to attract private investments.

    To conclude, GSTIC highlighted the roles of ICT as enabler for achieving SGDs. But let’s not forget that technology is only a magnifier of human intent and capacity. ICT solutions should equally benefit all members of society especially marginalised communities who are, in many cases, excluded from the debates.

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