ICTD Apologia

ICTD2010 in London was a lively four days. In just about every way, ICTD2010 was better than all of its predecessors. The papers were stronger, the poster session was better attended, more people (580!) participated, the demos/workshops were fun and interesting, and there was a social program!

At the event, the Jester heard a lot from participants, and below, he’ll channel his alter ego to offer the organizer’s perspective in response to frequent comments. Many of the comments were wholly positive, but because those are less interesting to talk about, the Jester focuses below on the somewhat critical. 

Comment: ICTD is an elitist academic conference.

Response: Guilty as charged, but not as implied. There are two issues here, but they aren’t as evil as hinted.

First, as Mike Best mentioned in a final session reflecting on the conference, ICTD is a research conference whose goal is to bring together researchers and others interested in research. That was why it was established, and why researchers continue to flock to the conference. People who aren’t professional researchers are much more than welcome, of course — the conference benefits tremendously from interaction with all ICT and development stakeholders, and the program seeks to involve them. Nevertheless, the conference’s primary goal is to host discussions about ICTD research (and not even necessarily ICT-4-D at that). That may mean that the conference is not for everyone, but that’s okay. Academic conferences are academic conferences. There are other ICT4D events which serve other purposes. 

Second, regarding elitism: Academia is elitist by nature. It seeks to sort research and scholars by quality. (Whether it does so successfully is another issue). Elitism isn’t bad in itself; many good systems are elitist in their ideal form. We want wise leaders to run our governments; we want smart engineers designing our technology; and we want good researchers occupying scarce academic positions. If you believe in meritocracy, you believe in elitism.

The problem is not with elitism, but with bad elitism. Bad elitism occurs when either (1) elite status is undeserved (e.g., by nepotism or birth), or (2) when the elite gain access to things that have nothing to do with their status (e.g., when rich people can be above the law). The conference itself tries to avoid both types of problems.

ICTD is open in that anyone — regardless of formal background — can submit papers, propose sessions, and attend the event. The paper review process is double blind, the academic standard by which reviewers don’t know who paper authors are and vice versa. In theory, papers are thus accepted on the basis of merit, not authorship. (And, in practice, ICTD has accepted papers by people who are not trained researchers.) Of course, papers are judged by standards of research, so professional researchers have an edge, but that often comes from the PhD, a 4+ year indentured servitude apprenticeship to learn research skills.

As to what authors get out of paper acceptance, their paper is published and they win the chance to present their work at the conference, both things that aren’t easy to abuse, and in any case don’t do much for anyone outside of academia. Elitist, yes, but not bad elitist.

Two final comments on this point: One, none of this justifies any sort of snobbishness on the part of researchers. Though researchers like to believe they’re special, it takes a lot more than research to make the world go round. (In any case, is arrogance ever justified?) Two, the conference celebrates research, so non-researchers might receive less attention, but please don’t begrudge the academics their day in the sun.

Comment: ICTD2010 should support more participation from Group X.

Response: The Jester hails the court of Royal Holloway: Tim Unwin, Dorothea Kleine, and the team that put ICTD2010 together accelerated the momentum begun in ICTD2009 to open up the conference to greater participation. There was a session entirely in Spanish. Multiple workshops offered chances for open discussion. Accommodation was made for a blind participant. Scholarships were provided to over 100 people with limited means to attend.

Of course, they couldn’t do everything. Conference organization, like development in general, is about synergies and compromises. Conference funds are limited (the conference tries to keep registration costs low, and sponsorship is not automatic); effort is limited (the organizers have full-time jobs); space is limited (a campus can only hold so many); and time is limited (the conference can’t go on forever). That means a dollar spent on a scholarship is a dollar not spent on a more accessible website. It means the effort spent to set up a Spanish session is effort not spent mentoring potential authors. It means a minute spent for Q&A is a minute not mingling at a coffee break.

The Jester can’t think of anyone at the conference who wouldn’t want to see more of everything — more authors from underrepresented groups, more chances for everyone to participate, more accommodation for other languages, etc. Asking for these things is easy. Agreeing that they should be done is also easy. Finding a way to make them work with the available resources is the hard part!

None of this is to say that participants shouldn’t continue to lobby for their causes. That passion is essential! But, the Jester paraphrases John F. Kennedy: “Ask not what ICTD can do for you, ask what you can do for ICTD.” The more resources are poured into ICTD (including volunteer effort), the more ICTD can be.

Along these lines, the Jester applauds Shikoh Gitau’s announcement of a new African ICTD researchers group. If they collaborate, support each other, learn from each other, and seek out mentors as needed, the Jester is certain that more papers by African researchers will appear in future ICTDs. They may even find groups willing to sponsor their efforts and future participation. All good!

For anyone interested in contributing to ICTD2012, incidentally, contact the next host: Michael Best at Georgia Tech [mikeb (at) cc.gatech.edu].

Comment: Paper quality was mixed.

Response: Sometimes, this comment is actually about what different disciplines value. More about that in the next comment below. But, sometimes, this comment is really about quality.

And, it’s true. ICTD as a research field is still young, and still maturing. Getting the best research to be submitted to the conference remains a challenge, and the process of evaluating submitted research is still a work in progress. ICTD has come far, but it still has a way to go.

This is one reason, by the way, why the Jester doesn’t yet support going to an annual conference (it is currently held once every 18 months), or to a multi-track conference that accepts more papers. We’re not yet bursting with quality papers, so it seems worthwhile to let quality catch up to quantity.

Comment: There are too many papers that are like X; there are too few that are like Y.

Response: When it isn’t about quality, these comments come from those who want ICTD to suit their personal temperaments more. But, that wouldn’t be ICTD! The comments are proof that there is unresolved tension in the community, and the Jester firmly believes that tension generates creative, interdisciplinary discussion. The conference will have failed if participants leave without being challenged.

The Jester himself is befuddled by the philosophical frameworks that underlie some scholarship. But, as he bounces back and forth between trying to understand them and railing at their incomprehensibility, he continues to want to see them represented and to be an active part of the conversation. Surely, once every 18 months, we can all sit and listen to each other, even if we disagree. Speaking of which…

Comment: It’s nice that the paper session is single track.
Comment: It would be nice if the paper session were multi-track, with multiple talks going on at once.

Response: The Jester firmly believes that the paper session should remain single track (at least for the time being). ICTD is designed to force different disciplines to rub shoulders with other disciplines, and it wants to encourage a single community. Both purposes are met best with a single track. The problem with multiple tracks is that it becomes easier for technologists to avoid social science papers, qualitative researchers to avoid quantitative presentations, etc. Of course, no one really has to attend anything, but with a single track, it’s more likely that the community will have a common basis of discussion.

Comment: By forcing publication of papers, you’re leaving out papers from fields that only value journal publications.

Response: This is a good point that has been raised before. One possibility would be to have a separate curatorial process for a subset of papers that have already been published in journals to be presented in plenaries. Anyway, it’s worth thinking about for ICTD2012.

Question: Why did ICTD2012 go to Atlanta?

Response: Georgia Tech was the only university to make a formal bid in response to a circulated call for hosts. Luckily, they fit all of the criteria for running ICTD, and the Jester is sure they’ll be fantastic hosts.

Personally, the Jester would love to see the conference go to a new continent, and he encourages groups to think about bidding for 2013. A good bid would be led by a research institution (preferably a university) with strong commitment to ICTD research. The key organizers should be known for their ICTD research. The institution should have excellent logistical and administrative capacity. The program committee chair would be very preferably someone with intimate experience of the paper-review process for previous ICTDs. Not all the organizers need to be at the same location (in fact, it’s probably best if they’re not). If interested, keep an eye on the yet-to-be-formed ICTD2012 website after Sept. 2011 or so, when calls for hosts will be announced.

But for now, look forward to ICTD2012!

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One Response to “ICTD Apologia”

  1. Tweets that mention ICTD Apologia « The ICT4D Jester -- Topsy.com Says:

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Shikoh Gitau. Shikoh Gitau said: RT @debelzie: RT @kdiga: Mention of the new ICTD Researchers in Africa group: https://ict4djester.org/blog/?p=262 #ICTD2010 @shikohtwit […]

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