Laptop Burns is dead. Long live Appropriating Technology!

This blog is now defunct, deceased, dead as a dodo.

It has been superseded by my new ICT4D website
and all post have been coped across.

Kind regards


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Hacking Open Data on Development Aid

FrontlineSMS founder Ken Banks wrote an interesting blog recently asking why so many of us technology for development (ICT4D) types are content to work remotely

Ken’s point was that just because technology makes it possible for us to work remotely it doesn’t make this the most efficacious way to work. A commercial company wouldn’t normally make an investment in product development without first doing significant market and customer research, yet in the ICT4D field it is not at all uncommon for techies to develop cunning technology solutions and then go out in a vain search for a problem to solve with it. Involving users in project design and development is not just good business sense, it’s an essential part of doing international development well.

In August, I went to the Development Data Hackathon at The Guardian – great people, great ideas, and unlike most of the hack events I’d previously attended it was not numerically dominated by spotty white men; there was real diversity among the participants, who brought a wide range of relevant experience and skills to the table.

For the uninitiated, a hackathon is an event where a bunch of people volunteer to turn up at a particular time/location to see if they can hack together a solution to a problem. The hackathon at The Guardianwas devised to see if we could use public information recently released as open data to create new knowledge/solutions for international development challenges.

One enterprising team hacked together a map locating all of the known clean water sources in a particular province of South Sudan using data released by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). A second team mapped geo-tagged data on aid by sector in Malawi (hover over the circles to see who’s making their data open). Yet another team worked on trying to understand the relationship between media coverage of humanitarian emergencies and aid donations using information scraped from news sites such as BBC, CNN and Channel 4.

Ingenious as these hacks are, they also reveal how we view aid from the perspective of development actors in London rather than from the perspective of people in rural Africa – we set ourselves managerialist problems. It is an understandable consequence of running a hackathon in London that technical fixes are developed without any real input into the setting of priorities or into the research and development process from the intended “beneficiaries” of development. This is true to some extent even if the hackathon takes place in one of the 50+ technology and innovation hubs now active across the African continent. Barely a week seems to pass without a new mobile apps competition or hackathon taking place but perhaps there is a need to hack the format of these events?

“We wanted to trace the money allocated for rural development to discover what percentage is actually spent in rural communities in Africa, but no data has been released in a format and sufficient details that would make such transparency possible”.


If development is conceived of as a geek event that takes place in the capital city how can it practically be informed by the perspectives and priorities of those marginalised communities that it is intended to benefit? Paulo Freire, who worked for many years on agricultural reform in Chile, said that it was important that the intended beneficiaries of development should be lead participants in the conception and production of innovations. He argues that the intended beneficiaries of development should at the same time be its authors and feel ownership of the process. This serves equally well as a definition of agile software development and of human development.

I have been working in the field of ICT for development (ICT4D) since 1988 and technology has a positive role to play, but I still have to struggle against the urge to put the technology before the people processes. I know that hackathons can and do result in ideas that can make a positive contribution – such as the M-Farm online marketplace, for example – but there is room to improve the format so the voices, innovative ideas and development priorities of the intended beneficiaries of development, are better reflected and better served by such events. I don’t have the answer, but I am confident that if we put the right heads together we could hack a solution.

Incidentally, the team that I was in at the Open Data Hackathon was trying to map the flow of millions of dollars of public funds from the World Bank and other agencies. We wanted to trace the money allocated for rural development along its route, via various international funds, development agencies, government departments and implementing organisations to discover exactly what percentage of the initial amount is actually spent in rural communities in Africa. And – you will never guess what – no data has been released in a format that would make such transparency possible.



Where the data represents the accounting of public funds derived from tax revenues, as is the case with the World Bank, United Nations and the UK government’s Department for International Development funds, or where the funds are derived from public appeals, there is really no defence for not publishing how our money is spent in a format that makes this analysis possible.

Only when agencies release data in a format that makes it possible to produce this level of accountability will it be fair to say there is a genuine commitment to openness and transparency in aid spending.

N.B. This post originally appeared in my column in Computer Weekly.

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Six months ago I was fortunate to work alongside Lukonga Lindunda co-Founder of BongoHive (Lusaka’s Technology and Innovation Hub) on a piece of crowdsourced research to find out how many other Tech Hubs existed in Africa. At the time AfriLabs, the only association of African Tech Hubs, had just five members, and experts estimated that the number of Tech Hubs in Africa might be “14 or 15”.

Lukonga built a platform to map Tech Hubs using Ushahidi’s CrowdMap and we used our social networks and media contacts to initiate a crowdsourcing process that, so far, has resulted in the mapping of 59 technology and innovation hubs in countries across the continent of Africa, and more Tech Hubs continue to be added to the map every month.

For the uninitiated, Tech Hubs are places where technology enthusiasts, experts and entrepreneurs meet-up to share experience, support each other and collaborate on their latest projects. Tech Hubs organise talks by experts, training workshops, hackathons and other geek events that make Tech Hubs exciting and stimulating places to visit and to work in. Many Tech Hubs provide incubation workspace for young entrepreneurs to develop their concepts into new business ventures. Typically Tech Hubs combine social business and for-profit start-ups under one roof.

Having identified and mapped so many new Tech Hubs as a result of the crowdsourced research BongoHive suggested that it would be very useful for them to be able to link up with other young Tech Hubs to share experience on the trials and tribulations of being a start-up Tech Hub. So with two partners I co-Founded Web Gathering an on-line conferencing platform which allows us to run entirely on-line conferences, where people can deliver powerpoint presentations to explain how and why they formed their Tech Hubs and show their achievements and the challenges they face. Live question and answer sessions then allow people from other Tech Hubs to learn from that experience. Tech hub staff and members can swap lessons learned and provide practical help and advice, as well as support and encouragement, to one another,, in real time across the virtual network.

We now run a monthly on-line conference series for Tech Hubs covering themes chosen by hubs themselves including, ‘diversifying income streams for Tech Hubs’ and ‘Women in Tech Hubs’. You can view recordings of previous Tech Hub Web Gatherings here.

The recent Web Gathering that we ran on ‘Women in Tech Hubs’ was the most stimulating yet. The presentations were excellent and the question and answer sessions were very animated. The conversation focused on why women are discouraged from entering the field of ICT and the discrimination that they face when they do.

BongoHive and some of the other Tech Hubs have been pro-active in their efforts to try to reverse this discrimination and an increasing number have set up Women in Tech groups where women members of Tech Hubs can provide effective support and encouragement to each other and mentoring and training for young women entering the field of ICT. The Web Gathering featured presentations from two of these groups: the Asikana Network at BongoHive in Zambia and AkiraChix at iHub Nairobi in Kenya. You can view their presentations here and here.

Reflecting on the issues facing Women in ICT with Ella Mbewe, co-Founder of @AsikanaNetwork, the women in technology network in Lusaka, we decided to initiate another research project to identify all of Africa’s Women in Tech organisations, initiative and projects. Just like the successful Tech Hubs research that BongoHive previously ran and coordinated we are going to use Ushahidi’s CrowdMap platform.

The research will be initiated by the Asikana Network with support from their colleagues at BongoHive where they are based. We will use our social media networks to reach out to friends and followers across the continent in order to identify and map as many Women in Technology initiatives as possible.

The objective is to use the #WomensTechAfrica CrowdMap to create a public ‘database’ of all Africa’s Women in Technology organisations, initiatives and projects so that women can know about, network with, and learn from each others’ experience, and share their learning, achievement and challenges. Just as physical Tech Hubs create synergies by bringing individual tech enthusiasts, experts and entrepreneurs together into one physical space, we hope that bringing diverse Women in Tech intiatives together in one virtual space will catalyse new collaborations, stimulate new thinking, and provide a practical means for women to lend solidarity and practical support to each others’ efforts.

You can help by tweeting and by sharing it on Facebook. If you know of any Women in Tech initiatives not already listed please put them on the map by selecting ‘Reports’ and filling a short ‘Submit a Report’ form.

Please play an active role in reinforcing the work of African Women in Tech by circulating news of this initiative to your contacts, friends and followers.

AkiraChix at iHub Nairobi

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Should ICT4D Be More Agile?

Some software developers swear by Agile methodologies. Agile is a group of techniques for developing software that pro-actively involves a team of intended users and staff from the commissioning organisation in a collaborative design process, which  is able to accommodate people’s changing requirements. Agile recognises that operating environments are dynamic (and that shit happens!) so uses a participatory development process with short iterative development cycles to ensure that the project can adapt to reflect changing realities.

Agile software development shares some features in common with participatory development practices that are commonly used in international development projects including participatory rural appraisal (PRA) and participatory action research (PAR). Like Agile, PRA involves groups of ‘intended beneficiaries’ and other stakeholders in collaborative team discussions to inform the unfolding design and management of development projects. PAR involves participants as co-researchers in a collaborative process in which they have co-ownership of the research process and its findings.

Several people have independently seen the logic in bringing these approaches together in the field of ICT4D. Last year Alan Jackson from Aptivate had the inspired idea of inviting Agile guru Alistair Cockburn & participatory development champion Robert Chambers for a fireside chat at Cambridge University. Participatory development is rooted in the theory of Paulo Freire and in the innovative practice of popular social movements in Latin America, India and elsewhere, but it was Robert Chambers that popularised them in the English-speaking world.

The Cambridge event was an enthralling discussion between two leaders in their fields who knew nothing of each others’ work, a fact which only went to make the similarities in their approaches all the more remarkable.

However this event was by no means the first attempt to explore whether Agile techniques would lend themselves to ICT4D. Field research was conducted at least as early as 2006, and tentative research was published by Andy Dearden and Haider Rizvi in 2008.

Much more recently Anahi Ayala Iacucci has been blogging on the subject. In the first post she assesses the utility of The Agile Manifesto for guiding the work of ICT4D practitioners. I certainly agree with her that involving ‘end-users’ from the outset in determining the objectives and specifications of ICT4D initiatives would be a significant advance on current practice. Imagine a world in which the development ‘customer’ was King, and where development agencies were in humble supplier roles as co-producers of development outcomes determined by their users!

Agile methodologies also have the potential – by virtue of the process of keeping the project plans/design/budget on the table and under constant collaborative review – to make the process of control and decision-making in development significantly more open and transparent.

Prince2 & LogFrames are not Agile!

In her second post Anahi moves on to consider the utilty of Agile methodologies for ICT4D project management. As all development actors know the blueprint approach of LogFrames and Prince2 is entirely inadequate for representing the dynamic social realities and constantly changing operating environment of medium-to-long term projects. For this reason funders and NGOs engage in an elaborate charade where everyone pretends that the project is going exactly as it was planned several years ago, whilst in reality everyone actually knows that this could not possibly be the case.

Anahi convincingly argues that moving to Agile development methodologies would make it possible for teams to frequently-update plans to reflect the unfolding reality. Online collaborative tools could be used to make the whole process open and transparent to the ‘intended beneficiaries’, ICT4D agencies and funders alike.

My only point of departure with Anahi (and I may be misreading her intent?) is where she argues for ‘real and independent M&E not quarterly reports’. I agreed entirely with ending the charade of existing quarterly reports, but neither would I support handed over effective control of monitoring and evaluation to ex-pat M&E consultants (if that is what Anahi means?).

To stay true to the philosophy of Agile software development – as well as to that of principled participatory development – the logical approach is participatory M&E where the ‘intended beneficiaries’, who originally co-developed the project objectives and specifications, provide their evaluation as to whether their hopes and aspirations for their own development have been fulfilled, and the job well done.

If you commission Agile software development for your business you don’t need external consultants to come in at the end to tell you whether your expectations have been met. Neither do community members participating in ICT4D projects.

As Linda Raftree has recently written there are an increasing number of ways that ICT can facilitate M&E so that funders and their ‘expert’ advisers can monitor and evaluate remotely should they feel unable to rely on the community feedback. Neatly, for our purposes, Linda concludes her post by saying that ‘donors need to support adaptive [project] design’ processes.

It looks like we are all singing from the same hymn-sheet here. It seems that Agile deserves further consideration from others in the ICT4D community. It may be that by talking Agile, ICT4D geeks and developmentistas can forge a common language with which to transform ICT4D theory-practice. Guaranteeing ‘intended beneficiaries’ voice as co-creators of ICT4D initiatives, from initial concept design to implementation and evaluation – would be certain to improve the success rate of ICT4D projects.

As Anahi says, Agile could be a game changer; it could be used to give ‘intended beneficiaries’ a genuine stake in ICT4D project development and could make ICT4D implementing agencies and funders genuinely accountable to the communities that they exist to serve. Such a sharing of power would be more just.

If used consciously to put the ‘intended beneficiaries’ in positions of power and influence in the design and implementation of ICT4D then Agile could be transformational. If, following Paulo Freire’s original intent for participatory process, the objective of Agile ICT4D was that, the ‘intended beneficiaries’ of development become, at the same time, the authors and lead implementers of that development; if ICT4D process was assessed by the extent to which it enhanced the agency and capabilities of all participants then Agile could contribute to a radical transformation of the theory-practice of ICT4D.

What do you think?

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Digital Mapping as a tool for Social Transformation

In 1854, John Snow plotted cholera deaths on a map of London’s Soho district to diagnose the cause of a deadly outbreak that was ravaging the community. By mapping the geography of cholera incidence Snow was able to locate the local source of the outbreak and determine its root cause. The handle was removed from an infected water pump and it was revealed that the offending water company was drawing its supply just downstream of a major sewage outlet. His actions led to important changes in public health and epidemiology, but not before hundreds of people had died horrible deaths.


If the same Soho community were to be hit by a disease outbreak today they could set up an online map themselves and within an hour be crowdsourcing incident reports submitted by community members themselves. Texts and tweets could be used to plot incidents directly onto the map. Free and open source tools such asCrowdMap and Open Street Map now mean that anyone can quickly create an online map to visualise the issue they most care about and use it to build a compelling case for action. The availability and ease of use of the software means that we all have the ability to map the issues that we most care about and promote the change that we wish to see in the world.

Maps are extremely popular with news media as they provide a quick and effective way to depict complex issues visually. CrowdMaps are used during tsunamis and earthquakes to guide emergency services to the location of vulnerable populations and functioning healthcare facilities. Community groups are making increasing use of crowd-mapping to monitor issues like election fraud or racist attacks; in order to spotlight issues and to collect evidence of the need for change. Crowdsourcing is used to build up a graphical representation of the issue on a map, data is crowdsourced from the public in the form of text messages or tweets indicating where incidents are happening and the map effectively illustrates events unfolding on the ground.

Community generated maps can be powerful tools to monitor issues of real public concern and can provide graphic evidence to support a case for social change. CrowdMaps are most effective when used by existing organisations as part of a broader strategy, as in the cases of or the stop-the-shootings siteCeasefire Chicago. When used well crowdsourcing can help build communities of shared interest. Mapping projects can provide a focus around which to stimulate debate and provide a platform for otherwise voiceless communities.

Recently I attended the Free Elections Hackathon in London where activists from professional election monitoring organisations teamed up with coders and experts from Ushahidi and One World UK. Their objective was to improve existing software previously used in Senegal and Zambia to better enable citizen monitors to report and map fraud and intimidation at polling stations, to communicate incidents to official observer missions and the media.

In the case of electoral fraud, citizen election monitors are not necessarily able to rely on the independence of their government or police – think Zimbabwe or Russia – and foreign observers may not be best attuned to local dynamics. Whether communities are monitoring elections or racist attacks, mapping provides a way to actively resist, gather credible evidence and build a compelling case for justice and social change. Building self-reliance and local resilience in this way is a key benefit of CrowdMapping.

What I like about crowdsourced mapping is that, when done well, it builds on the active participation of community members who themselves monitor and report information. People who may have been feeling powerless in the face of incidents, are empowered to take action around an issue and work toward producing the change they want to see. The evidence collected in maps can add substantial weight to a campaign; an interactive and visually attractive graphic can be worth a thousand words.

An important way of judging whether technology has played an important role in social change is whether the process left people with greater or less capacity for self-determination, i.e. how well equipped are they to deal with the next thing that life throws at them. While flying in external experts might be designed to deliver quick results, it can also be disempowering for local people, who may learn to view themselves as incapable of looking after themselves.

In 1854 community members in Soho died horrible deaths while waiting for the external intervention of an expert like John Snow. Today communities have the ability to create their own maps and produce evidence to support their calls for social change. The availability of CrowdMap and other free and open source tools provide valuable new opportunities for communities to reduce external dependence and to act together to produce the change they want to see in the world.


This article was first published in my column in Computer Weekly in June 2012

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The problem of legacy humans in technology projects

Most IT projects would be an unmitigated success if only it wasn’t for humans.

Humans have an annoying habit of resisting change and refusing to conform to the often rigid requirements of a database ontology or software application.

Corporate IT projects have a high failure rate, the multibillion-pound UK health service patient record system being just one high-profile example.

In Africa the failure rate of ICT projects in the field of international development (ICT4D) is at least as high. The reasons are often all too human.

It has become commonplace to say that only 20% of the challenge is technical and that 80% is people, but what does this actually mean in practice for technology project management?

In Zambia, as elsewhere in Africa, development is often done “at” rather than “with” local people by external “experts”. This technocratic approach to development often meets user resistance, and sometimes plain indifference, that ultimately compromises the success or “sustainability” of the project. In the face of such resistance external “experts” are often quite incredulous at the ingratitude of intended “beneficiaries” who they believe have failed to appreciate the enormous opportunity that they are missing.

The reality is that if, throughout the project cycle, people are not regularly asked what priorities they have for their own “development” there is no compelling reason why they should demonstrate enthusiasm for the latest technical “solutions” thrust upon them. It is not the job of technocrats to determine what is in anyone’s best interests; people need to be given the regular opportunity to determine their own interests and priorities, and then projects need to deliver against them. Anything less is not authentic development.

Corporate IT projects are often designed top-down by technical experts to solve problems which they conceive of narrowly as engineering issues. This technocratic emphasis fails to understand the social nature of the enterprise and the fact that all change processes involve some loss of continuity, loss of security, and, for some, loss of status and benefits. Wherever there is loss we must expect resistance. In IT projects the losers are often those who in the past had derived power from being the traditional gatekeepers of information and communication.

In international development it is accepted wisdom that if local communities do not get to participate in all key stages of project conception, definition and implementing then projects fail.

There is also an ethical issue here. People are the objects of human development – not institutions or technical infrastructures. So it is critical that they are the authors and architects of the process, their capacity for self-determination enhanced. When there is authentic participation people are not the passive objects of the cunning development projects of external “experts”, but are instead active subjects transforming their world for the better. As such they tend to be enthusiastic project champions, not sites of resistance.

In corporate IT projects the motivation to replace legacy systems is often to secure institutional efficiencies as cost savings, but “legacy humans” need to be considered too. Investment in genuinely participative staff consultation about how new technology might benefit them too can be a means to build local project ownership and avoid expensive user resistance to imposed change.

There is also the potential to harness the wisdom of the crowd. Consultation can be a mechanism to crowdsource intelligence from front-line system operators about potential system and workflow improvements that may not be apparent from a merely technocratic viewpoint.

Empowering users through participative project management processes offers the potential to deliver benefits at the human level and on the bottom-line. Turning recalcitrant “legacy humans” into project champions through genuine participation gives intended users a real stake in project success and results in technical progress, as if people mattered.


This post originally appeared in my Computer Weekly column in May 2012

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Can Raspberry Pi transform the sorry state of IT education?

Is the $25 Raspberry Pi – a basic computer on a single printed circuit board – capable of transforming the sorry state of IT education in our schools?

Produced in Cambridge, the explicit aim of the Raspberry Pi is to re-popularise programming in the UK in the way that the Sinclair Spectrum and BBC Micro did in the 1980s. The initial production run of 10,000 units sold out in minutes as early adopters fought to get themselves a piece of the Pi. Such was the demand that the Raspberry’s website crashed as the Pi proved momentarily more popular than Lady Gaga

Geek demand is clearly extremely high, but are mainstream schools really equipped to make effective use of this opportunity? Is the arrival of a box of printed circuit boards really going to make a difference?

Lessons from the dawn of time

Launched to coincide with the Department of Industry’s “Year of Computing” the BBC Micro computer found its way onto desks in 75% of UK schools in the 1980s. The BBC Micro is still remembered fondly by many silver-haired geeks, now in their fifties, as having sparked their computing careers. The computer’s launch was part of the BBC’s “Computer Literacy Project”‘ and was accompanied by an educational TV series imaginatively called, “The Computer Programme”. The first 10-episode series was broadcast terrestrially in 1982 and was reproduced in various formats and names until 1987.

This sustained promotion of computer education produced a generation of coders that, among other things, built the world’s most successful computer games industry here in the UK. Over the last decade Britain’s has fallen to sixth place in that particular league table and universities report a continuing decline in the skill levels of UK applicants to computer science degrees. Teaching of IT in our schools is now woefully inadequate according to the Royal Society

Lack of digital vision

The current school IT curriculum aims no higher than producing drones proficient in using Microsoft Office. However there are an increasing number of exciting not-for-profit initiatives underway that aim much higher. Apps for Good and the <GoTo> Foundation are great examples of initiatives that enable young people to build mobile phone apps to solve problems they see in the community and actively shape the digital world they live in. The Raspberry Pi and Arduino projects use open software and open hardware as platforms to enable learners to be producers of new information and communication products and services, future digital entrepreneurs and employers. 

Initiatives such as these provide a real opportunity to reorientate computer education to empower learners to go beyond being passive consumers of shrink-wrapped products and become active producers of new information and communications technologies. But this possibility is jeopardised by the absence of any integrated or coherent programme of support. Without this, determining who gets to benefit from these new initiatives will be, at best a postcode lottery, and at worst end up merely affording new privileges to the already advantaged. So far the majority of school orders for the Raspberry Pi have come from the UK’s most privileged schools. 

It is very early days, but so far these initiatives have been geek-led and geek-fed. The kind of national programme of educational support that was the backbone of the BBC Micro success is conspicuous by its absence. Coordination with government and the teaching profession is needed.

A printed circuit board is not enough

It is entirely possible that, with the right support and imaginative teaching, use of the Raspberry Pi could inspire a new generation of coders and software engineers. However, providing a printed circuit board is not enough. To make optimum use of this technology it will be necessary to train teachers, modify the curriculum, fund the essential peripheral equipment not included in the advertised price, and generate the necessary will among politicians and the teaching profession to invest in a sustained programme of learning support to nurture the creativity, digital literacy and technology entrepreneurship that school learners need, and society lacks.

Fertile soil for Raspberrys

One place that is already fertile soil for Rasperrys is in the growing number of hackerspaces that are springing up around the country.

Hackerspaces are places where technology enthusiasts gather to hack, mash-up and collaborate on their latest technology projects. It is where geeks go to share their experience and expertise and to incubate innovative new projects and start-up initiatives. Here skills and experience are shared among a community of people who enjoy nothing more than hacking hardware and software to innovate exciting new products and services. 

As well as providing fertile ground for Raspberrys, hackerspaces are proof there is a real thirst for technical knowledge and opportunity to experiment that is not being met in the formal education system. By studying how people self-organise in hackerspace to learn new skills and collaborate on projects we might even be able to steal a few ideas about how to reinvigorate classroom learning.


This post originally appeared in my Computer Weekly column in April 2012

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How Tech Geeks in Africa are Transforming IT Education

Failed by academia and constrained by convention, geeks are self-organising to equip themselves with the expertise and experience needed to solve social problems and enhance their personal development.

It is not just in the UK that ICT education has been found to be deficient – schools and colleges in many countries are failing to provide learners with the appropriate combination of technical and entrepreneurial skills that they need to convert skills into income and social change.

In resource-deprived settings like those in Zambia these problems are particularly acute especially when compounded by the added disadvantage of discrimination.

Zambia, like the UK, is awash with unemployed graduates. Lusaka, like other capital cities in the region, has far more IT graduates than tech jobs. Universities have done a poor job of equipping them with the appropriate mix of technical and entrepreneurial expertise that they need to feel confident developing their own businesses or securing the funding necessary to apply technology effectively to the development problems that they have identified in their communities.

Geeks are not all taking this lying down however; many are building social networks off-line and online to fill the gap left by deficient education. The recent boom in establishing technology innovation hubs across Africa is one manifestation of this refusal to be defeated.

I am writing this article from BongoHive – Lusaka’s Technology & Innovation Hub. BongoHive effectively fills a void left between university education and (self) employment. It is a place where technology enthusiasts and entrepreneurs meet to share experience, learn and collaborate on their latest tech projects. Workshops, bar-camps and mobile app building competitions are organised to provide focused themes for member activities.

Today I am sat in the back row of a Joomla Clinic for website developers; 30 young geeks are hanging on to every word of the Joomla guru who is explaining how to integrate online shops to the web sites they are currently working on. The Q&A session goes on two hours longer than advertised; such is the hunger for practical knowledge.

Most geeks attending are mainly the usual suspects: twenty-something males, but Ella Mbewe is one of a small group on women attending. Women find it particularly difficult to make their way in the IT field whether due to glass ceilings in the UK or the glass ladders in Lusaka. Yet Ella refuses to be bowed; discrimination does not daunt her, it makes her more determined.

“Who am I to think that I can organise women in IT in Zambia?” Ella Mbewe asked herself, “But if not me who else will do it?”.

Borne of her personal frustration at being laughed at by male IT students while studying for a diploma in computing at a Lusaka college, Ella was inspired to form the Asikana Network (Asikana means women’s). Ella was motivated by a presentation which Linda Kamau made at a recent BongoHive event. Linda was the lead developer at Ushahidi a well-known success story of Africa software development.

Encouraged and supported by the BongHive leadership Ella and her team have been building a growing network of women (and a website, naturally) to raise the profile of this issue.

Discrimination simply made Ella more determined to do something to remove the obstacles that prevent women from fulfilling their potential in the occupation of their choice.

Ella herself not only graduated but earned an internship setting up computer local networks and then paid employment on the IT help desk of a well-known international organisation.

“The Asikana Network will not only provide a forum for women’s voices in IT but it will provide practical assistance and effective support in the form of mentorship, placements and training. By coming together and supporting each other we hope to counter the discrimination that constrains women and reserves IT as a male domain in Zambia. Perhaps we will even receive virtual support and encouragement from women and men outside of Zambia who wish to see us succeed?”

You can “like” the Asikana Network on Facebook and maybe send them a message of support. Their website and full organisational launch will be in May.

This article originally appeared in my Computer Weekly columnin March 2012
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The Problem With Open Data

Recent initiatives have dramatically increased the range of previously “closed” data being made “open” by the government, including data sets on travel, weather and healthcare. This data can then be used by anyone to create great new products, business opportunities and community services.

Although clearly “a good thing” in theory, in practice Open Data is more likely to increase the digital divide and socially inequality than it is to reduce it, unless we approach the subject critically.

There is a clear and compelling case that information produced at public expense should be made open and freely available to benefit the public. However simply declaring data sets to be open does not, in itself, make it of any practical use to the public.

When released in its raw form, data is not open to the public in any meaningful sense. It is only open to a small elite of technical specialists who know how to interpret and use it, as well as to those that can afford to employ them. Providing open data uncritically in this way is therefore likely only to further advantage already privileged groups. There is a real danger of adding a new “data divide” on top of existing digital and economic divides.

As masters in the art of misdirection, magicians use dramatic flourishes to divert our gaze from what is really going on backstage. When politicians now trumpet a new-found fondness for transparency, the sceptic in me suspects a sleight of hand.

Does Open Data, as practiced by government, genuinely serve the public interest, or are we being beguiled by political PR and media spin?

I believe that two things need to happen to steer Open Data away from a reality where the primary benefits are PR for politicians and to those employing graduate data technicians, towards an Open Data that prioritises public benefit.

First, data needs to be made easy-to-use (or actionable) and second, public awareness and training needs to take place to enable communities to apply data to solve local problems.

Governments should be required to release data in actionable formats conforming to open data standards – and to be fair there is already progress in this regard. But comparatively little is being done at community level to promote the re-use of public data for public benefit. Almost nothing is being done to create capacity within communities to interpret and apply open data themselves, without creating technical dependencies. This is essential work that can perhaps be enabled by the proposed Public Data Corporation?

Improving the ability of community members to transform local service delivery is key objective 7.6 in the Cabinet Office public consultation document Opening Up Government. No adequate provision has yet been made to engage with community organisations to create public benefit from public data.

The government consultation document quite rightly says, “Providing wider online access to medical and educational records will enable service design and delivery to be changed radically, reducing cost and improving quality… [and] …create a platform for more informed public debate. This in turn means the public is better equipped to hold local, and central, government to account”.

These are objectives that we can all support and which require an integrated approach that goes beyond PR and grapples with the relatively messy business of community engagement and training to ensure that ordinary people know what data exists and how best to use it.

To truly give “users more power to self-serve” as Opening Up Government suggests, we need to motivate public engagement by creating awareness of great initiatives like

Making data open is not enough to realise these goals. It is necessary to make data actionable in open standard formats; but this too is insufficient. To maximise the public benefit derived from public data we must raise community awareness about the potentials of open data and develop the practical skills and capacities so that those potentials are realised in practice.

The only sustainable basis for delivering public benefit from public data is to motivate and enable communities themselves to innovate local service provision, social enterprise and job creation.

If we fail to achieve this then we are certain to exacerbate already growing social inequalities by adding a new data divide to existing economic and digital divides.

 post originally appeared in my Computer Weekly column in February 2012

Posted in Development, ICT4D, Open Data, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

What Computers Can’t Do

Sorry to rain on your parade, but computers can’t transform education any more than social media can depose dictators.

This blunt response is directed at US IT guru Nicholas Negroponte following the announcement of his latest hair-brained scheme to organise helicopter drops of laptops to remote villages.

As any IT manager will tell you, in any corporate change project hardware is only 10% of the overall cost. So imagine what tiny percentage hardware costs make up when the change project that you’re trying to pull off is entrenched poverty or political despotism.

All of us get sucked in by sensationalist stories about how a $100 laptop will revolutionise education in Africa, how telemedicine hardware will transform rural healthcare, or how social media can sweep away dictatorships. We really want to believe it’s true.

I confess that I too am easily led by talk of how great gadgets or amazing apps might solve some hitherto intractable area of inequality, exploitation, or injustice. In our defence I might point out that, despite the global economic meltdown, there have been some pretty ginormous marketing budgets at play working to sustain the illusion that there is no adversity over which technology cannot triumph.

Emotion aside, we all understand perfectly well that technology is inanimate: nuts and bolts, chips and wires. We all know that it’s not the technology on which we rely, but the ingenuity of the people that conceive of, create, and creatively apply technology to society’s for-profit and not-for-profit challenges.

Technology does not have a life of its own. Technology can’t end poverty; oust dictators; heal the sick; or educate the illiterate.

It can certainly assist us in our efforts in all of these regards but – and here’s the rub – only in proportion to the non-technical capabilities that we must first put in place. As Kentaro Toyama, an expert on technology and international development, has clarified, technology can only amplify pre-existing human capacity and intent.

If we succeed in hiring, training and developing a world-beating workforce, motivated to deliver against clear organisational objectives, then we can expect their skilful use of IT to add real value. No question.

People can use technology to amplify their capabilities in many respects. Mobile phones and Twitter were clearly useful to the young radicals in Tahrir Square – yet Egypt remains a military state. Since former President Mubarak retired to his Red Sea resort, many thousands more activists have been jailed, tortured and subjected to military trials. Realising a genuine transfer to democracy, it seems, cannot be accomplished by tweets alone.

Hopes of true democracy in Egypt still rely upon the courage and vision of the young people of that country; on their capacity and intent – as well as on their ingenuity in using technology to amplify their message.

In rural healthcare, information and communication technologies can greatly amplify the reach of public health information but healthcare professionals must still be adequately trained and paid, and clean water and sanitation systems must be put in place.

Delivery of rural education and healthcare is, first and foremost, the task of thousands of dedicated but under-paid and poorly trained nurses and teachers. The inadequacy of their training and of the schools and health centres that they staff is something that we should all lament.

What Negroponte needs to appreciate is that you can rain computers on remote populations all you like but if you are not prepared to invest the other 90% of the necessary funds in training, planning and coordination you are certain to stunt development.

Even assuming rural kids were able to teach themselves some subjects from the helicopter-dropped laptops, who would be responsible for ensuring they received the kind of well-rounded and balanced education they need to make a real difference to their lives and to that of the community?

Any IT professional could tell Nicholas Negroponte not only does he need to budget for technical support and end-of-life recycling, he also needs to invest in the best training and support staff.

If you want to drop laptops from helicopters into remote villages you had better be sure that all your previous year’s budget was spent on teacher training, curriculum development, staff retention, and so on – you know, the 90% of stuff that technology just can’t do.

 post originally appeared in my Computer Weekly column in January 2012

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