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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Reflecting on 15 years of ICT4D

Last week the not-for-profit agency Computer Aid International celebrated providing its 200,000th computer to education and health organisations working in 112 countries worldwide (including the UK).

Computer Aid’s Founder & ex-CEO Tony Roberts reflects on changes in the field of information and communication technologies for Development (ICT4D) over the last fifteen years. [A version of this post originally appeared on the Computer Aid website].

In 1997 when we founded Computer Aid International, silver-haired senior managers in the London headquarters of international development agencies were sceptical of our suggestion that ICT had a role to play in international development. It just wasn’t the way development was done back then.

However our experience on the ground told us that local staff in developing countries were more than eager to apply ICT to enhance service delivery and empower communities, so we persevered.

We made mistakes though; a technology-centred approach limited the value of some initiatives.

Hype and enthusiasm often proceeds the application of sound development practice in the arena of technology and development. This is equally true whether you look at Computer Aid in those early days; the rural telecentre movement; MIT’s one-laptop-per-child initiative; the bubble of mobile apps for development, or some of the current activity around Open Data and transparency.

In the cycle of innovation diffusion and adoption, hype precedes substance; technology-push precedes genuine demand-pull; and technology-centred precedes people-centred development.

In Computer Aid’s case we addressed these challenges by working in partnership with many of the best-known and most experienced development agencies, drawing on their operational experience. This ensured that each deployment of computers to end users occurred within an integrated development program that included capacity building and appropriate support.

In East Africa Computer Aid worked with AMREF to equip hospitals with computers so that nurses could use e-Learning to upgrade their skills, and we supplied rural hospitals with telemedicine kits so that isolated doctors could get life-saving advice and support from senior clinicians at the national referral hospitals. Hundreds of schools were equipped with IT labs via partners such as TodoChilenter and Computers for Schools Kenya who provide teacher training and long-term pedagogical and technical support. In partnership with universities and the UK Met Office we equipped local weather stations in Kenya, Zambia and Uganda and local staff trained to analyse local weather systems alongside agricultural extension workers, and produce climate data for national and international use.

Over the years the logic of using information and communication technologies in development became compelling and most development agencies now embrace the use of ICTs to increase the efficiency and efficacy of people engaged in front-line development work.

The landscape of ICT4D couldn’t be more different now than in 1997 when Computer Aid volunteers prepared the first PCs for shipment to ‘previously disadvantaged’ universities and hospitals in post-Apartheid South Africa. Today many development agencies have full-time ICT4D managers; in others ICT4D has already been ‘mainstreamed’. The nature of ICT4D techniques and sectoral applications continues to diversify and the proliferation of devices and applications continues. ICT4D now has its own dedicated communities of practice, international conferences, and undergraduate and postgraduate degree programmes.

Whereas in the 1990s the constraints were experienced as the access issues of internet availability and hardware affordability, today the focus of ICT4D is shifting toward accessibility and effective use. Whilst access issues remain problematic for millions, the situation is improving. The same cannot always be said for accessibility and effective use.

Little attention has been paid to accessibility. Disabled users are being excluded due to a failure to provide adaptive technologies. There is too little focus on whether ICT can be accessed at times and in locations that are convenient for women and girls, and too little investment is being made in producing local content to counter the domination of colonial languages on the internet and software production. There are notable exceptions.

Effective use must also become a key consideration in all ICT4D initiatives. Making ICTs ‘freely available to all’ is not the same thing as equipping people with the skills to effectively use ICTs to realise the developments that they value.

Whenever we fail to build the capacity of disadvantaged and excluded communities to make effective use of ICTs in an ICT4D initiative we run the risk of actually widening the divides between advantaged and disadvantaged people.

If we create mobile apps and simply make them ‘freely available’ on the internet or if we release government information as ‘Open Data’ without building the capacity of the ‘intended beneficiaries’ to use it, who do we expect to benefit?

It is the already privileged that are best placed to exploit the potential opportunities of Open Data or of new mobile apps. They are able to do so by virtue of their existing advantages in education, technical knowledge, wealth and social capital. So unless ICT4D initiatives integrate capacity building to enable effective use by disadvantaged communities they risk actually widening the digital divide and inequality.

The last fifteen years have taught us that success in applying ICT for Development is 10% about technology and 90% about people processes. Computer Aid addressed this reality by partnering with local civil society organisations and investing in some good old fashioned empowerment.

At the end of the day translating the potentials of ICTs into valued development outcomes is about building people’s agency and capabilities to appropriate the technology and to apply it effectively to their own valued ends. Achieving effective use of ICTs requires adopting an agency-focused capacity-building that recognises Paulo Freire’s dictum that the real challenge of any development initiative is to make sure that people who are the“objects”  of development are also its subjects.

[Tony Roberts stood down as CEO of Computer Aid in December 2010 to become a full-time PhD student of ICT for Development at Royal Holloway, University of London. You can find him on Twitter as @phat_controller]

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Open-Source Technology in ICT4D

This week I had to prepare a tutorial on ‘Open & Subversive Technologies’ for students of ICT4D at Royal Holloway, University of London. It got me thinking about the importance of enabling users to genuinely ‘appropriate’ ICT for Development, and the extent to which free & open-source technology might help make user appropriation of ICT for Development possible.

I am conscious that I’m still a long way from having a clear articulation of either (a) the importance of users being able to appropriate technology for development or (b) the benefits of free and open-source production for users’ appropriation of ICT4D, but I’m hoping that drafting this blogpost will take me one step further down that path.

Enabling User Appropriation of ICT4D

Paulo Freire taught us the critical importance of ensuring that the people who are the “objects” of development are also its subjects. Two generations of development practitioners have since focused on how to operationalise this aim of to ensuring that development is people-centred and community-led, including by using the kind of participatory practice popularised by Robert Chambers. Most recently Amartya Sen has argued that disadvantaged people have the right to be the principal authors and actors in their own development process. In his agent-oriented view of ‘Development as Freedom’ Sen argues that,”Greater freedom enhances the ability of people to help themselves and also to influence the world, and these matters are essential to the process of development”.

In ICT4D, my gut feeling is that open technologies offer the most freedom for the “objects” of development to be its subjects; that is for genuine appropriate of technologies by local actors to realise the kind of development that they most value.

Benefits of Openness

Open licensing removes the unfreedoms and dependencies of proprietary technology and creates the potential for users to be the architects of their own (ICT4) development.

When technology is transferred from one context to another it is often desirable to make modifications to optimise its (re)use value. This might mean changing the user interface language or producing content to reflect local culture or other preferences. It could mean a more substantial re-engineering to align the technology with local infrastructure, climate or available peripheral technologies.

In the case of a ‘closed’ or ‘proprietary’ technology such as Microsoft Office or an Apple iPad making any such modification is illegal and prohibited by restrictive patents and copyrights.

On the other hand, technologies such as Open Office, the Android mobile phone operating system and Arduino hardware are produced using permissive open-source licenses that are specifically designed to give users three freedoms: the freedom to learn how it is produced; the freedom to modify and improve it in any way they value; and the freedom to freely distribute either the original or modified versions to anyone, giving them the same freedoms. 

One example of why this matters in development is the fact that a country like Nigeria has 510 living languages, the majority of which do not constitute commercially profitable market opportunities for proprietary software producers. Open licensing gives communities the freedom to appropriate and modify technology to meet their self-defined needs. Nigerians can and do produce local language versions of Open Office and Android but are prevented from doing so with Microsoft or Apple products.

Open-source production models can be used to develop not just software but hardware, music and written work, as well as any other technologies. Open-source production often achieves its social objectives by mobilising the collective efforts of a virtual community in a process of collective production. By working collaboratively participants are able to share the responsibilities and rewards of production and to put into the public domain new goods and services for the benefit of all. And everyone is free to take, modify, further improve and redistribute.

The freedoms of this open, participative method of community (software) development seem to me to have obvious resonance with the aims and methods advocated by Freire, Chambers & Sen.

Limitations of Openness

Before you start thinking Tony’s been drinking the open-source Cool-Aid (OK, so I had a sip or two!) so let’s do a reality check here and ask the critical questions: ‘Open to whom?’, ‘What power relations are in play?’ and ‘Who benefits?’

As is the case with ‘Open Data’, in a society where inequalities exist, when you make something passively ‘open’ you actually risk making existing inequalities worse. It is likely to be the already advantaged that are most able to exploit the potential of openness due to their existing preferential access to resources including education, social capital and technology. If this holds true for open-source software then we might expect open-source communities to be dominated by white, male, graduates from the global North.

Openness is not enough; if want currently disadvantaged and under-represented people to be able to appropriate technology for development then we must purposefully set about building the capacity for what Mike Gurstein calls their ‘effective use’ of technology.

Building Capacity in Effective Use of Open ICT4D

It is not enough that the technology is open. Openness may be necessary but it is not sufficient. People also need practical skills and a sense of agency to make effective use of technology in development.

The logical conclusion here then is that some good old fashioned ’empowerment’ and ‘capacity building’ needs to be built into every ICT4D initiative to ensure, as Amartya Sen says, that people are not ‘passive recipients of the benefits of cunning development programs’, and instead ‘can effectively shape their own destiny’.

If we are serious about reducing external dependencies and enabling local ownership and control of development then we need to make technology choices that provide the potential for local talent to become active producers of local content in local languages. Some capacity building will be necessary to give local talent the practical skills and sense of agency it needs to translate the potential of open technology into new community capabilities and practical development outcomes.

By choosing open technologies and building capacity for effective use communities can be empowered to genuinely appropriate and make effective use of ICT for Development, so that the people who are the “objects” of development can truly be its subjects.

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Raspberry Pi – Total Cost of Ownership

The Raspberry Pi is a computer on a single printed circuit board. It centres around a mobile phone micro-processor and has various input/output sockets that allow you to attach the essential peripherals that you need but which are not included in its $25 purchase price.


As their own FAQ diagram makes clear the Raspberry Pi needs a computer monitor or TV screen and USB power charger (the kind that comes with many smart phones). You need a USB keyboard and mouse and an SD memory card. Headphones are required for sound and an HDMI cable is necessary to link video output to your screen. None of these peripherals comes included with the $25 Raspberry Pi. The peripherals are readily available where I live in central London for around $150.

However in rural Zambia (where I will be working for the next two months) they are only available from the main cities and are more expensive. A round trip to Lusaka will cost around $200 and the same peripherals will cost another $225.

And whatever the cost of building a working computer around a Raspberry Pi it serves no purpose whatsoever without trained staff and technical support in place.

Today most schools, in England or Zambia, do not have the skills or training to make effective use of the Raspberry. Teacher’s rates of pay and conditions of service do not make working additional hours in after-school clubs an attractive proposition.

So without this provision of resources essential to effective use, what will happen?

Only the most privileged schools will be able to make available the extra resources necessary to make effective use of the Raspberry Pi.

The problem here is that giving additional advantages to already privileged children only widens the existing digital divide.

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Top Ten ICT4D Conferences of 2012

It seems that we need some sort of clearing house for scheduling ICT4D conferences. A quick review of events already announced for 2012 reveals that we have some ICT4D Conference Clashes this year. If you are still planning your event then perhaps consider either avoiding the second half of March and May or maybe piggy-back on someone else’s event – by scheduling in the same town on the days immediately preceding of following an existing event – so that we can reduce the environmental and financial costs of attending international conferences.

Bring on the day when we can enjoy meaningful online participation of any ICT4D conferences. There are some aspects of face-to-face meetings that will never  be equaled online, but given that there are many more conferences happening every year than anyone can afford the time, money or carbon emissions to attend in person, it would be great to have the option of attending some events virtually.

…and this years Top Ten ICT4D Conferences are ….

Feb 28-29th, New Dehli, India: Mobiles for Development

Mar 12-15th, Atlanta, USA: ICTD 2012 – preceded on Mar 10-11th by co-located ACM DEV

Mar 19-23rd, Abuja, Nigeria: Idlelo5 – Free & Open Source Africa

Mar 21-24, Kampala, Uganda: ICT for Africa – eInclusion

May 14-18th, Geneva, Switzerland: WSIS Forum 2012

May 23-25th, Cotonou, Benin: e-Learning Africa

May 29-31st, Lausanne, Switzerland: Tech4Dev 2012

May 29th-Jun 1st, Cape Town, South Africa: Mobile Health Summit

Sep 5-6th, Kristiansand, Norway: IPID 2012 ICT4D Symposium

Nov 13-15th Kathmandu, Nepal: 6th ICT for Development & Education Conference

N.B. This draft, no doubt, contains errors or omissions so please let me know in the comments section below or at @phat_controller on twitter where amendments are required.

Thanks in advance.

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