A client uses a smartphone to save and pay for health care services in Nairobi, Kenya. Photo by: ITU Pictures / CC BY

At the Information & Communications Technology for Development Conference in Lusaka, Zambia, this week, information and communications technology experts from all over the world are coming together to discuss, learn, and share ideas on how ICT is serving the development sector. Technology used to strengthen development programs has come a long way since the first ICT4D conference in 2010.

As development technology has raced forward, here’s a look at three major trends in ICT4D.

1. A lean approach to human-centered design

Digital development experts tend to struggle with the complexities of designing tools for people they are unfamiliar with. Designing for users — instead of with users — can lead to incorrect assumptions about technology access, usage, and cultural norms among the target population. Using human-centered design methodologies results in better customization, increased uptake, and stronger engagement of local stakeholders.

One of the main challenges in implementing HCD is its sheer time and cost. Few projects or organizations have the budget and bandwidth to implement such an elaborate approach. DAI’s recent study is an example of a design team finding a solution to this perennial challenge. We call it a “lean HCD” approach.

Lean HCD incorporates the methodologies and tenets of HCD into a design process while maintaining flexibility toward the logistical, budgetary, and time constraints of the project environment. Full, robust, “traditional” HCD is always preferred when possible. But for teams facing budgetary and logistical constraints, such as limited travel to the field, lean HCD offers huge value.

2. Scaling ICT solutions

Scale is a big topic of ICT4D conversations. It often focuses on questions such as: Can you successful apply an ICT solution to big populations? Is the technology ready? What are the economics of scale?

While many factors impact bringing a system to scale, let’s consider the logistics involved with large quantities of electronics — the unglamorous details of procurement, transport, warehousing, setup, servicing, decommissioning, and disposal. Most relief or development programs haven’t needed to consider technology logistics in great detail since the majority have not worked with tech in large volumes. We are not Best Buy.

At Catholic Relief Services, we are in the throes of a program using over 6,000 technology kits, each consisting of a smartphone, integrated solar charger and battery pack, SIM cards, protective case, screen cover, and cables/charger. To date, logistic challenges have far overshadowed technology challenges. 

Many of these were due to vendors lack of experienced with such scale or unfamiliarity with the nuances of the technology or market. This ranged from shipping delays, to customs clearance, to receiving some phones locked to another country, to battery packs not meeting specifications. In short, while it may be fairly easy to procure a couple hundred devices consistently in-country, procuring thousands is a much bigger challenge. The biggest lesson here is to have more consistent and severe penalty language in contracts and to look at performance incentive language to ensure that vendors deliver.

Transporting and storing large quantities of electronics introduces new challenges. Defining the insurance provisions, the chain of custody, controls, and associated processes is difficult with organizations that are unfamiliar with working with these types of commodities. The CRS project that is using 6,000 technology kits adds a level of complexity because it will deploy and retrieve these from field workers many times each year, as the program moves to different locations. This required a great deal of oversight to minimize operational disruption. It also created a new dialogue around roles and responsibilities within CRS between ICT and logistic teams.

Device management and servicing at this scale also requires new approaches. At the core of this is the use of enterprise-grade mobile device management software to push updates automatically, lock down features, track location, and when necessary, remotely wipe a device. Servicing is a well-choreographed hierarchy of support from end users through several levels of partner and staff support and, when escalation requires, to our technology vendors.

Still on the horizon for this program will be to define a decommissioning process at the end of the device lifecycle. A guiding principle in the approach will be to ensure an ethical and environmentally conscious approach to disposal.

At CRS, we are approaching ICT4D scale from three angles: within a program (such as the example above); reaching more programs by focusing on simple, turnkey solutions; and organization-wide by focusing on a degree of standardization that ensures controls are in place to safeguard data privacy, while not stifling innovation.

3. Safeguarding and asking ourselves the hard questions

Recent events in data security have prompted a new level of introspection among development professionals. We must now ask ourselves two different — but fundamental — questions about the way we as an industry conduct our “business as usual.”

First, why are we asking for sensitive information? Good monitoring, evaluation, and learning practice tells us we should not collect data that we do not need. Unfortunately, this clashes with the “more data is better” mindset, where we often collect information that is not necessary because we think we could use it later. This type of thinking can lead us to inadvertently collect and store unnecessary personal or sensitive information, which can cause more harm than good.

Second, do we really want to be responsible for possessing and safeguarding sensitive information? Are we able to guarantee the sensitive information we collect is protected from intentional or unintentional misuse? If we are not comfortable taking responsibility for the security of the data, then perhaps we shouldn’t collect it at all. The development community should take this moment as an opportunity to examine what we are collecting and why.

Results of a CRS survey carried out by Devex.

This op-ed was produced as part of a media partnership between Devex and ICT4D for the ICT4D 2018 Conference, happening in Lusaka, Zambia, May 8-10.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the authors

  • Chris Gegenheimer

    Chris Gegenheimer is Chemonics’ director for monitoring, evaluation and learning rechnology and leads efforts in rolling out new data collection, management, analysis, and visualization technologies across home and project offices. Since joining Chemonics Mr. Gegenheimer has been in the MEL department supporting proposal and project teams in Latin America and the Caribbean, Asia, Africa, and the Middle East.
  • Steve Hellen

    Steve Hellen has nearly 20 years of IT experience. He joined Catholic Relief Services in 2012 and leads the agency’s ICT4D and GIS practice. In 2016 he led an update of CRS’ ICT4D strategy to focus on data analytics, scale and enabling programs and partners.
  • Kristen Roggemann

    Kristen Roggemann is the digital insights and ICT products manager for DAI. She has extensive field experience in the Middle East and Africa working on mobile-for-development initiatives in both public and private sector contexts, and got her start in international development through a Fulbright Scholarship to study women’s literacy in Morocco in 2005.