In the same world where there are 1.4 billion Internet users, a very different 1.4 billion people live below the World Bank's poverty line. As if in sudden recognition of this gap, the past decade has seen incredible interest in applying information and communication technologies for global development, an endeavor often abbreviated "ICT4D." How do you design user interfaces for an illiterate migrant worker? Can you keep five rural schoolchildren from fighting over one PC? What value is technology to a farmer earning $1 a day?
Interventionist ICT4D projects seek to answer these kinds of questions, but the excitement has also generated a lot of hype about the power of technology to solve the deep problems of poverty. In this talk, I will present 10 myths of ICT4D which continue to persist, despite increasing evidence to the contrary. My hope is to temper the brash claims of technology with realism about its true potential.
Summary of the Seminar
Kentaro identified a number of myths that surround the field of ICT4D and argued that these can confuse our thinking about the proper role for technology in addressing development problems.
Myth 1: Technology x will save the world: The history of writing on technology shows that each new advance tends to be greeted with unbridled enthusiasm about its potential impact. Where once people were convinced television could solve all social and political problems, today we are putting that burden onto mobile phones.
Myth 2: Poor people have no alternatives: We can often assume that technology is the only way that poor people will be access certain goods. In reality, there are usually non-technological routes to information and services that are free and therefore preferable.
Myth 3: ‘Needs' are more pressing than desires: A high proportion of the income of the very poor goes on what Western observers might view as ‘luxury' items: (music, photos, festivals & weddings) rather than ‘basics' such as healthcare.
Myth 4: ‘Needs' translate into business models: Building a business model around the needs of poor communities is possible, but there are significant barriers. Poor populations are harder to reach, and they may not want to pay for the services you provide, even if their value seems obvious to you.
Myth 5: If you build it, they will come: Spending is not always rational. An eye hospital in India offers extremely high quality cataract operations for free and covers all related costs. 10% of those offered the service will still refuse to have the operation.
Myth 6: ICT undoes the problem of the rich getting richer: In contexts where literacy and social capital are unevenly distributed, technology tends to amplify inequalities rather than reduce them. An email account cannot make you more connected unless you have some existing social network to build on.
Myth 7: Hardware and software are one-time costs: Kentaro estimates that the average One Laptop per Child will in fact cost $250 per child per year to cover breakage, connectivity, power, maintenance and training.
Myth 8: Automated is always cheaper and better: Where labor is cheap and populations are illiterate, automated systems are not necessarily preferable. Greater accuracy may be another reason to favor voice and human mediated systems.
Myth 9: Information is the real bottle-neck: Those in the ICT4D world are prone to overestimate the significance of information gaps. Even if you connect a farmer to an agricultural expert via a PC, there are a host of other barriers to be overcome before he can actually increase his yields, including: literacy, poor transport links, and a lack of volume buyers for seeds, pesticides etc.
Kentaro contends that when technology makes a difference in development, it is always as much to do with the input of committed and competent individuals and organizations. Despite this, the focus when reporting ICT4D projects quickly slips into extolling the virtues of the technology itself, not the human component. This says much about the seductive quality of technology. Myths about its potential persist because we have a strong desire to see the triumph of clever ideas and ingenuity, and to believe that one time catalytic investments can have such an impact. The reality is always more complex.
Kentaro Toyama is a visiting scholar at the School of Information at the University of California, Berkeley.
Until 2009, he was assistant managing director of Microsoft Research India, which he co-founded in 2005. At MSR India, he started the Technology for Emerging Markets research group, which conducts interdisciplinary research to understand how the world's poorer communities interact with electronic technology and to invent new ways for technology to support their socio-economic development. He co-founded the IEEE/ACM International Conference on Information and Communication Technologies and Development (ICTD) to provide a global platform for rigorous academic research in this field.
Prior to his time in India, Kentaro did computer vision and multimedia research at Microsoft Research in Redmond, WA, USA and Cambridge, UK, and taught mathematics at Ashesi University in Accra, Ghana. Kentaro graduated from Yale with a PhD in Computer Science and from Harvard with a bachelors degree in Physics.