Friday, November 06, 2009

Re-cap: IDIA 2009 conference


I think conferences are in much need for visual stimulation like the beautiful animals (hyena above) of Kruger in order to develop creative and innovative ideas of research. This was the setting of the International Development informatics Association 3rd conference in South Africa.

The purpose of participating in this conference was to present my conference paper based on the research that I had conducted under my 2008/09 IDRC Professional Development Award to an international academic audience. My paper is co-authored with Kenyan, Jason Musyoka, and titled, “Re-thinking Acute Emergencies Response through Communication Technology in African Rural Communities.” The paper can be found here.

The IDIA conference was a conventional meeting of practitioners and researchers working in the field of community and development informatics. A majority of delegates seemed to be affiliated with Monash University who were the local organizing committee as well as South Africa’s Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) – Meraka Institute who is a current IDRC partner. According to the roster, there were 35 presenting delegates based at South African based institutions, and the others were from institutions in Australia (8 mainly Monash University), USA (4), Nigeria (2), Sao Tome (1), Brazil (1), India (1), Pakistan (1), Kenya (1), UK (2), Mozambique (1), Botswana (1), and UAE (1).

The conference venue was inside the Kruger National Park at the Berg-en-Dal camp. Since delegates were based in the camp (you cannot leave the camp after 6pm), there was no escaping the sounds of the creatures that creep in the night; it made for a wonderful experience of roars and tweets just outside one’s cottage. The conference room itself was in a dark, face-brick façade room which was not conducive to the best lighting but presenters seemed to manage regardless.

Highlights of IDIA09:

My presentation: This was my first time presenting the research that I conducted in Winneba, Ghana, on the perceptions of acute emergency response in a peri-rural community where mobile phones and emergency hotlines have been introduced in the area. From the overwhelming questions and comments that I received, it seemed like the 20 odd persons at my presentation found the topic stimulating and a need for further research in the area. My presentation can be found by clicking here:

IDRC Partners: While the conference was mainly composed of African-based projects, I had the pleasure of meeting two researchers who presented their IDRC-funded projects within ICT4D - PanAsia. They were the only two projects coming from the Asia region and definitely added diversity to the conference (only paper on rigourous sampling methods and only paper specifically on gender and ICTs). First, there was P. Vigneswara Ilavarasan (Vignesh), from India, (IDRC Project: "ICTs and Urban Micro-enterprises: Identifying and Maximizing Opportunities for Economic Development ") who presented a paper that exhibited their comprehensive multi-stage probability sampling method that was recently piloted in Mumbai, India. Their intensive work using maps provided by government (some of which were hand-drawn) and random selection of the locales emphasizes the need for future research in the area of ICT and development to take a more rigorous approach to research design.

The second IDRC-funded project was presented by Nazima Shaheen (photo on left) from Pakistan and topic was on "The Gender Digital Divide in Rural Pakistan - To Measure and to Bridge It ". This is the first time for Nazima to present her preliminary results of new statistics on Pakistan’s ICT usage with aggregated gender data. Nazima has also submitted a paper (The Prospects and Challenges for Women Empowerment through Open ICT4D in Pakistan) to IDRC’s ICT4D upcoming conference in March 2010.

Rhetoric and Rigour Debate:
Another well-received paper was presented by Ron Weber (Dean of Monash University- Australia) titled, “Research on ICT for Development: Some reflections on rhetoric, rigor, reality, and relevance.” He states that the ultimate goal of research should be to build theory and ICT4D research should be building upon this theory with rigourous research. From his sample of reviewed ICT4D journal articles, his findings interpret that this interdisciplinary field leans more on rhetoric and lacks of such research rigour. His paper is certainly a bone of contention for ICT4D researchers to ensure that they spend the time to develop well-thought out research methods, paradigms, their values and theoretical frameworks before jumping into the field.

From Kagiso Chikane’s (Meraka Institute manager, CSIR) presentation, she finds the continuous challenge for their ICT4D projects is trying to quantify the impact of their work on development. Also how does one find the technical and financial support from the communities to continue running these intervention projects that have shown positive change in a community? There were several papers presenting the work by the Council for Scientific Industrial Research (CSIR), Meraka Institute particularly discussing their technology intervention work on the Living Labs, and the Digital Doorways.

Zimbabwe and ICT Policy:
On the African research, there was an excellent presentation by Tendai Chari on the political economy of telecom policy in Zimbabwe titled, “Information and Communication Policy Formulation and the Information Divide in Zimbabwe.” His findings show how ICT policy in Zimbabwe is actually only modified when there is a result from a judicial court cases against unfair government telecom policy. While the court cases usually forced government to change their law, this practice results in a process that has no democratic consultation or participation mechanisms for the citizen. It would be interesting to link his research to the political economy and broadband infrastructure work being done by the CICEWA project.

I thought that Mutshewa’s fascinating paper, “A survey of the commercial activities created by the mobile telephony for the informal business sector in Botswana” could possibly be linked with Dr. Sylvestre Ouédraogo research on the Informal Sector and ICTs in West Africa.

Young African ICTD Researchers: I had the chance to meet Kenyan PhD candidate (University of Cape Town), Shikoh Gitau, who presented her preliminary field research on the results of training women to first time mobile internet users in Cape Town’s Khayelitsha informal settlement area. She is one of the several bright young African scholars who were presenting ICT4D research at the conference. As there is a growing number of young African researchers who are individually investigating the changes in African society as a result of communication technologies such as mobiles and internet, it may be a good idea to start linking them together and see whether research collaboration and learning can effectively take place.

Radio and Convergence: Two delegates were interested on how their findings illustrated how radio messages have influenced a citizen’s interest in new social media such as Facebook. In Shikoh’s presentation, she mentions that her training intervention was initially set to teach women the use of email and job searching with mobile phone internet. However, during her training, the participants wanted to learn about Facebook because of the local radio station’s promotion of information on the Facebook platform. I have sent both delegates information about Acacia’s project named ‘Radio, Convergence, and Development in Africa’.

ICTD Research and Policy Influence: Policy and research debate flared up during the conference. Walter Brown (Monash University) presented on South African Communications Forum (SACF) new platform for South Africa’s ICT policy reform: Vision 2020. This SACF group recently presented a draft report on their planned process to influence government policy formulation which hopes to create a more conducive environment for developing and implementing ICT in South Africa. He asks how academics can be involved in such a process for change. One CSIR delegate believes that there is a need for institutions and researchers to be familiar with policy and their issues because their research needs to remain relevant in order to provide evidence that substantiates changes in rules and regulations. Another delegate emphasized the need to work with NGOs that fit with your cause as a NGO’s lobbying efforts will be effective in influencing policy makers.

Overall, good conference for learning about development informatics projects and research particularly in the sub-Saharan Africa region. After experiencing a space like this, I definitely think more informal meeting opportunities for African researchers are necessary to discuss and collaborate on similar projects. I can't wait for those opportunities!

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