Archive for the ‘conferences’ Category

Where Should Your Dollars (and Hours) Go?

February 26, 2012

Speaking of 99%, although the Jester does find himself repeating much of what he says on panels and other public forums, he does try to find at least 1% that is novel.  This he does not so much because innovation is an unqualified good, as everyone seems to believe these days, but because otherwise, he and any returning members of the audience might, like some Edward Gorey character, die of ennui.

At the Mobile Disconnect panel at the New America Foundation, the discussion took an interesting turn around the use of public and donor funds. At one point, the Jester’s doppelganger felt the need to say something along the following lines: “It’s not that I’m against the existence of the technology itself, it’s more a question of how public and donor funds should be applied.”

The first half of this statement need not be explained to careful readers of the Jester. (For the rest: technology amplifies human intent and capacity; so, technology’s net impact might be good, bad, or zero, depending on the context.) The second half, however, deserves more explanation.

How exactly should public and donor funds be applied in international development? Well, one answer that seems hardly radical is to suggest that they be used to support efforts that other sources of money, i.e., that from the private sector, neglect. That is, to address market failures.

The private sector, of course, is renowned for spending its money on technology, but rarely does it fund the development of human capital. In fact, it wouldn’t be too great an exaggeration to say that the private sector hates to invest in human capital. For example, when the Jester was in the employ of a large technology company, he used to hear this bit of corporate mumbo-jumbo: “Your career development should be 70% on the job, 20% from others, and 10% from formal learning programs.” Translation: Any learning you do is incidental, except for a nominal amount we’ll spend on formal training. Even 10%, though, is a considerable overestimate – assuming people work a conservative 250 days a year, does any company actually pay to have 25 days of professional training for every employee?

Otherwise, most corporations do not pay for any significant portion of the schooling of the employees they hire, or for the education of their communities. Even job training is avoided unless absolutely necessary. Examples like India’s Infosys sending their fresh hires to several months of training are exceptions that prove the rule. (They’re also, incidentally, a sign of how poorly the educational system up until that point is meeting the demand for skilled labor.)

In development, this fact is even starker because the people concerned are so often unemployed by the formal sector. Thus, even corporations that might choose to invest in their own employees would have to be spectacularly foolhardy to contribute to the education of those not in their employ. (The Jester will not bother explaining why corporate social responsibility [CSR] initiatives hardly qualify, but readers are welcome to ask – there hasn’t been a Fool for the Day for some time.)

Of course, at this point, some readers will raise the question of privatized education. The Jester could go on and on about how efforts to privatize public schools have failed repeatedly, or that the famous low-cost private schools of India are still out of reach for many despite their ridiculously low tuitions, or that private tertiary schools tend to scam many of their students, but instead, he will cut through all such objections with one stroke: Let’s grant that some portion of education is privately run.

That still leaves the question of who will cater to the hundreds of millions of school children for whom education is a distant dream or a terrible joke. That still leaves the question of who will provide vocational training to the hundreds of millions of adults who could benefit from it. That still leaves the question of who will cover the basic healthcare for billions of those without.

Actually, the idea that public and donor funds should cover certain basic things for the least privileged members of global society is hardly new. But in this age of confusion about the capabilities of the private sector, there’s a tendency to forget that the private sector not only has strengths – of focus, of mission, of efficiency – but that it also has certain glaring weaknesses. The private sector, for example, swims upstream where the money is and towards products people like to pay for (which, alas, are not in health and education, especially among the undereducated). There’s always some line of household income below which the private sector fails to find profit. And, the private sector’s primary response to someone with subpar capacity is to fire them and hire a replacement. That’s right, if the private sector were in charge of development (even more than it is), it would fire the world’s smallholder farmers and their non-literate children.

In short, there are billions of people who could benefit from a boost in their human capital, and that boost is not coming any time soon from the private sector. Thus, for anyone even remotely charity-minded or progressively inclined, it makes sense to put resources not on what the private sector will take care of anyway – e.g., in the case of mobile… mobile handsets, mobile networks, mobile money, mobile apps, mobile start-ups, mobile mobile – but for those people, and towards those things, that the private sector routinely avoids.

And, this applies not just to public and donor funds, but also to public and donor efforts. Is it really worthwhile for people who care for the poor people of the world to invest their efforts helping mobile operators figure out yet cleverer ways to extract disposable income from their consumers? The private firms will do that themselves.

Meanwhile, there remain close to a billion people who are illiterate, whose illiteracy isn’t going to go away just because they can exchange money over their phones or contact friends on Facebook.

People are the 99%!

February 14, 2012

On Thursday, the Jester donned his civilian clothing, took a red-eye to Washington D.C., and participated in a panel hosted by the New America Foundation (NAF). Mobile Disconnect was among the best panels the Jester has experienced, either as panelist or attendee, due a combination of good organization, moderation, and mix of panelists. The audience was also excellent, with good questions during Q&A that stayed on topic. Missing was that one guy who manages to appear at every panel discussion, who raises a “question” that doesn’t end in a question mark, and whose irrelevance and incomprehensibility is only matched by its length. An associated debate-style forum appears on CNN.com.

The other panelists were Maura O’Neill of USAID, Katrin Verclas of Mobile Active, and Michael Tarazi of CGAP. The Jester would summarize the panelists’ positions thus:

  • O’Neill: M4D might be overhyped, but it’s all upside from here.
  • Verclas: M4D might be overhyped, but the important thing is mobile security.
  • Tarazi: M4D might be overhyped, but everyone loves mobile money, and it should be made available to everyone.
  • Jester: M4D is overhyped.

(The Jester blames any oversimplification on lack of space, but anyone interested in the nuanced details is directed to the video of the event online http://newamerica.net/events/2012/mobile_disconnect.)

The Jester, being his compassionate self, will avoid a boring play-by-play, as much of the discussion will be all-too-familiar to ICT4D enthusiasts. Instead, the Jester will focus on two things that occurred to him during the panel – one in this post, and another in the next.

First, for almost a year now, the Jester has not heard or read public comments that express total naïveté about the potential of ICTs for development. Nobody seems to believe that ICT4D is a slam dunk any longer. Discussions of project successes are qualified with their challenges. The idea that “the technology is only 10% of the solution” has gone viral (though Nicholas Negroponte appears to have a unique mutation that confers on him a robust immunity). Is it possible that the broader ICT4D community is becoming ever so slightly more sophisticated? Is it possible that social scientists, FailFaires, and Yours Truly are actually having an impact?

The Jester certainly hopes so. But, a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. And while a little knowledge is a necessary way station on road to true wisdom, this part of the path might be a low point on the journey. Most worrying is the trend where clever rhetoric is way ahead of actual practice, due to cluelessness, marketing, hypocrisy, or outright mendacity.

An example of the more innocent brand of this disjunction was demonstrated a couple of weeks ago on the TIER  and Change mailing lists. A young man, let’s call him “Ashish,” started a thread about the Raspberry Pi, a $25 “computer.” (The price in practice is considerably higher since the device requires additional investments in a display and input device, but the Jester will avoid mentioning this fact which is irrelevant to the larger point.) Ashish then proposed that the Raspberry device was superior to the Aakash tablet and the OLPC XO3, as a device for education.

A group of experienced ICT4D-ers descended on the hapless Ashish, and in a positive sign of the increased sophistication of the ICT4D community, chided him for his techno-fetishism.

Ashish, though, responded with a comment along the following lines: “I get that technology only amplifies human intent and capacity au Jester, but seriously, won’t the Raspberry work a lot better than the Aakash in changing rural Indian education?”

This caused the Jester to wonder what exactly Ashish means by the word “get.” Does this word mean what Ashish thinks it means?

On the NAF panel, O’Neill and Tarazi displayed another version of the rhetoric-practice mismatch, which is all-too-common in D.C.  In both cases, they were happy to mouth the facts of “ICT failures” and “partial solutions,” while remaining in the thrall of the techno-deterministic delusion that technology is largely good in and of itself. When it came down to it, both seemed to believe that expanding access to certain technologies or services is, in fact, the primary issue.

The Jester believes that these are analogues of the oft (but perhaps not oft enough) criticized Washington Consensus: O’Neill is a pusher of what might be called the “ICT Consensus” that assumes that the great benefits that America gains from ICT would naturally follow elsewhere and without any of the negatives. Tarazi backs the “Banking Consensus” that imagines that a formal bank account for all is a pressing need in international development. At one point, Tarazi let slip that this was the first event he had attended where anyone even questioned whether being connected to the formal banking system was a good thing.

This caused the Jester to wonder which events Tarazi had been attending. Were there, in fact, underground ecopods where whole groups of people have been blissfully unaware of subprime mortgages, European debt crises, and credit default swaps?

To return to the rant, people appear to have internalized the notion that at the very least, ICT4D is not an easy win, and that some qualifiers are necessary to be credible. Unfortunately, this ushers in a new era of doublespeak, where everyone says the right thing, while continuing to throw resources into their one killer app that will undoubtedly save the world.

Just before the panel, the Jester heard an interesting story from Greta Byrum, a policy analyst at NAF. She mentioned meeting an ICT4D practitioner on a recent trip to Delhi. This man apparently told her that it’s not that the technological is 10% of the solution and the rest – social, political, institutional – is 90%. It’s that technology is 1% of the solution, while the rest is 99%. This would be an admirable level of comprehension, except that it apparently caused no cognitive dissonance for this IT consultant.

Why do so many of us want to keep supporting the 1%, which would really take care of itself, if the remaining 99% were in order? The Jester is tempted to start a new protest called “Occupy ICT.” Its motto: “People are the 99%!”

Random Hacks of Partial Kindness

May 14, 2011

Tate Watkins at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University prompted the Jester with the following question for a post to AidWatch: “Is it reasonable to expect that Random Hacks of Kindness (RHoK) and similar events will produce ‘solutions to development problems’?”

The Jester’s simple answer to that direct question, of course, is “no.” Anyone imagining that a day or two of hacking will produce solutions to development problems, even in some small part, is either a technologist drunk on her own self-image who believes that she’ll solve a mindboggling social challenge with technology, or a World Bank officer drunk on his own self-image who believes that he’ll solve a mindboggling social challenge by motivating some technologists. In any case, it seems clear they are the kind of folks who don’t learn from history.

Surprisingly, the Jester has a more complex answer to the underlying question, which might have been posed as, “Do events such as RHoK do any good?” The answer to that question is far more complicated, because these events have multiple goals, and some of the goals are not half bad, even if they could still use some course correction.

The first and most obvious surface goal of events like RHoK is to end up with a body of software that could somehow impact international development. The Jester has written extensively about this notion (for example, through his puppet, at the Boston Review), and the short answer is that exactly where we most want such technology to have impact, the required human intent and capacity to make the technology itself work is low. Combine this with the fact that very little successful software in the world gets written via a two-day hackfest, and the likely interesting impact will be zero.

The second goal of RHoK is likely to support the building of software programming capacity in developing countries. Of their currently posted 20 or so physical hosting sites, 6 or 7 are in developing countries (and of those, about half by groups well-known to the Jester), and to the extent that these events generate excitement around the ability to develop software in developing countries, they are fantastic, as the Jester implied in a previous post. Among the things that makes a country “developed” is its intrinsic capacity to create, adapt, and master technology, and to the extent that the efforts highlight the aspiration of those within country to do so, the Jester applauds. (However, as long as developer development is the goal, why not have the contest be around software that would really be useful?)

A third and less obvious goal of RHoK is to encourage software developers in the developed world to engage on problems in the developing world. The Jester has mixed feelings about this, because on the one hand, it’s great to encourage people anywhere to care about others who are in less privileged circumstances; on the other hand, further contributing to the vain belief that that intention can manifest through random hacks of software development is dubious. Good software developers would have more value by mentoring less experienced software developers in the developing world, than attempting to solve a developing-world problem through technology. The latter is still just another kind of charity, and another kind of “giving people a fish.”

A fourth goal might be build to a community around software developers in the world who care about international development. The Jester strongly believes in the value of community, and often times, the development of community — even if it for a misguided instrumental end — can be redirected later to more useful purpose. Strong communities have value, especially to the extent that their mission is really to solve development challenges. However, as with the other goals, the end impact of the community will depend on what it decides to do with its social capital.  

So, to different RHoK stakeholders, the Jester has different things to say:

  1. For budding software developers: Use the event to learn more about software development. And, for those coming from a developing country, involve more friends. The ability to write good code is exactly the kind of capacity that will help individuals earn good incomes and help countries grow economically.
  2. For experienced software developers hoping to “do good”: The intention is laudable. The most meaningful impact, though, will come not from technological artifacts, as much as from the mentoring of people in the first category.
  3. For sponsors: If the goal is practical software, the phrase “barking up the wrong tree” appears next to the Jester’s head as a thought bubble. If the goal is to help developing countries gain software-developing capacity, shift focus to the end-to-end supply chain of human capital for engineering, i.e., education defined very broadly. In the current global economy, there is no shortage of demand for capable software engineers. But, supply is hurting. And, if the goal is to kill multiple birds with one stone, try hitting one bird first; no point aiming for their empty center of gravity! (The Jester does not wish to promote violence against animals, but the available proverbs along these lines are limited.)

And, to wrap up with a single sentence: The most meaningful way for the RHoK to have impact is for everyone to focus on increasing the software-developing capacity of the least experienced developers (wherever they’re from) who come to hack.

Bad Influence

April 28, 2011

The Jester recently attended yet another conference on doing good with ICT. He initially wondered whether he should attend, but went for three reasons: (1) the event happened only blocks from the royal palace; (2) several of his old pals were there (from the days before the Jester was rescued from his depravity by the royal court); and (3) in spite of himself, the Jester hoped there might be some enlightenment among save-the-world technologists.

Alas, there was little sign of nirvana. Although there were a handful of presentations by those who had attained moksha, their wisdom was lost among the many fancy plans to scale positive change with ICT (which the Jester doubts ever happens even in alternate universes).

One thing the Jester did notice, however, was the incredible bluster of some of the presentations. In fact, the less evidence there was that good work was happening, the more confidently the speakers seemed to project the future potential of their technology projects.

The only other context in which the Jester has witnessed this phenomenon is when business school types make venture capital pitches. The Jester is surprised not to have noticed it before, but there is a distinct tendency among ICT-for-doing-gooders to promote their projects in the same manner.

The Jester speculates that this happens for one of several reasons:

  • Some people are recycling some or all of their VC presentations, particularly in light of so much delusion about Prahaladian bottom of the pyramid.
  • Some people are recycling the presentations they made for the recent spate of dubious contests for mobile apps for development.
  • In the tweet-magnified ICT-for-good sphere, people come to think of every presentation as a VC pitch or a contest submission.

Even supposing that the underlying technology-for-good projects were worthwhile (a temporary supposition, the Jester assures you!), this is an abhorrent development. Other words to describe this phenomenon include lurid, execrable, putrid, detestable, loathsome, and whydontwealljustselloursoulstothedevilable.

Although the Jester appreciates attempts to make the world of do-gooding as efficient as the world of for-profiting, there are some very real differences. The for-profit world, for example, has a natural (eventual) check against pure bluster without substance, and that is the bottom line. In addition, the only people who lose in the for-profit world, if a start-up goes under, are the rich folks who bet on the start-up.

In the world of doing good, there is only a theoretical bottom line of positive impact. In practice, because impact is so hard to measure, rarely does impact figure in what receives support. Furthermore, there is an irretrievable opportunity cost when a bad project is funded over an impactful project.

Together, these two things mean that while in the business world, it’s perfectly ethical to pull all sorts of random numbers out of a hat and confidently claim them as the market potential, the world of doing good requires a bit more… doing good. More honesty and more humility.

Unfortunately, because social VCs and telecom competitions are judged by people drawn largely from the for-profit world, they bring their bad habits with them. Namely, they reward cleverness, confidence, and fake numbers over humility, genuine intent, and determination… exactly the opposite of what we want in good ICT-for-good.

So, what can be done? In a vain attempt to influence the juries of social enterprise competitions, and an even vainer attempt to influence the competitors, the Jester offers the following guidelines:

  • Above all, presenters should be up front about what is known and what is not known. Among the unknown, the process by which they might become known should be highlighted over attempts at speculation. Where speculation is necessary, the fact of its guesswork should be highlighted in neon colors. Judges should dock points for hollow confidence that comes ahead of real knowledge. Judges should award points for humility and interest in finding out the reality on the ground.
  • Presenters should highlight the role of organizational partners or efforts to build the non-technological requirements for success. If 80% of the effort is not technological, why should technology dominate the presentation? Anyone who thinks magic will happen without non-technological components should be required to do community service.
  • It should be made clear what stage a project is in. Those projects that are only planning to have impact should be presented and judged differently from those projects claiming a history of impact.
  • For projects claiming to have had impact, a good presentation should include evidence of concrete impact, lessons learned, and what open questions remain for the next stage. Judging should look at the quality of impact first, and scale second.
  • Early-stage projects will have limited evidence of impact. In its stead, there should be more discussion of open questions about what kind of impact is expected. Attempts to guess at the range of possilibities, the possible theory of change, what is known about impacts from related projects, should all be cast as question marks, and not exclamation points. Most importantly, the intended methodology by which open questions might be answered should be presented. Judges should assess the completeness of the list of questions and the plans to answer them, not skill in speculation. 
  • Presentations will presumably also include boasts about the technology, etc., but the less the Jester says about that portion of the presentation, the better.

Overall, judges should judge as VCs supposedly do — not for the idea or clever technology, but for the right qualities in the “management team.” For do-gooding, the key qualities are genuinely benevolent intent, determination with humility, and healthy respect for non-technological aspects of the solution. (For more along these lines, see the Jester’s comments on teaching ICT4D design.)

ICTD Apologia

December 20, 2010

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!

Random Musings on ICTD2010

December 17, 2010

Here are some miscellaneous Jester thoughts on ICTD2010…

Tim Unwin, Dorothea Kleine, and their team at Royal Holloway were terrific hosts. The Jester wishes them several weeks of good sleep.

Egham isn’t London, but it was nice to have everything on a quiet campus.

Research papers have come a long way since ICTD2006, but there’s still room for improvement.

More papers were open about failures of various kinds, and it’s good that the program committee is becoming comfortable accepting these papers. In addition to the lessons to be gained, it creates a healthier atmosphere for researchers.

Tim Berners-Lee’s keynote was predictable, but his response to a question about WikiLeaks was right on: Societies benefit from making information publicly avaiable, but there are also cases for keeping information private. There is no rule to decide these cases, so we need a reliable way to arbitrate between them when the issues collide.

Geoff Walsham’s keynote provided a nice (and jest-filled!) review of what might be considered ICTD consensus… that technology by itself doesn’t solve development problems; that the focus of ICT4D should be on “D”; that multidisciplinarity is important; and that there are some promising directions in ICT4D.

The paper that the Jester found most intriguing was one by Julian May. It’s main finding was that the poorest mobile phone owners in some parts of Africa see wealth gains and appear to do so at a higher rate than the slightly less poor. Methodological strengths outweighed weaknesses, and the analysis was convincing. The Jester expects the results to hold up under more scrutiny. May was also admirably careful in bounding his nuanced claims. The main finding pokes a hole in the Jester’s amplification theory (because the poorest mobile owners benefit more than those slightly less poor). It’s not a big hole, but broader findings along these lines could enlarge the hole enough to force the Jester to reformulate or even retract some of his theories. But, it would be a good thing for the world, if mobiles really delivered in that way. Alas, it seems unlikely. As even May quipped, “This doesn’t mean the poor can tweet themselves out of poverty.”

The Jester was impressed with the number of young participants from all over the world who were willing to speak up at the conference. No research community thrives without that energy, confidence, and willingness to question the status quo. Go, go, go!

It was a somersault-worthy experience to run into people familiar with the Jester’s blog! The Jester is very grateful. And, he is forced to accept the usefulness of technology for some people. (Dang!)

There was lots of positive energy, and on the whole, participants seemed to enjoy the conference. Of course, there was some grumbling, too. Those points will be addressed in the next post.