2009 - The Year of Understanding

After the passage of one more remarkable year 2009, when I analyzed retrospectively, I found that it was a year of reading, learning, and understanding of philosophy, theory, and methodology of information systems in general and ICT4D in particular. Therefore, I declared the year 2009 as the year of understanding. During the course of understanding, philosophy was and still is the most fascinating subject to me. Although knowledge gained through philosophy is abstract, the knowledge and its implications can be concrete. In my opinion, we as a doctor of philosophy (Ph.D.) must have philosophical understanding of our research work. It helps us to reflect on our own work and testify its validity as a science. Better understanding of philosophy paves the way to understand the role of theory and its contribution to choose the right methodology as well. This is how we get the intellectual and effective outcome combining theory with empirical research, which, consequently, leads to better coherence in theory and practice. It is not respectable to say that philosophy of some philosophers I read were good or bad. Each and every bit of piece I learned from them is and will be the most precious wealth of my life. Finally, with the passing of an outstanding year 2009 and arrival of another wonderful New Year 2010, I have also worked out my agenda. In this coming year 2010, I will more concentrate on writing articles, blogs, conference, and journal papers. Therefore, the coming year will be the year of reflections.


IRIS32 Conference, Molde, Norway - My Speech (unedited)

First of all, my heartiest greetings to all the researchers and the organizers of this wonderful event. Regarding me, my name is Devinder Thapa and, I am originally from Nepal and currently I am employed as a research fellow in the University of Agder. Obviously, this is my first but not last appearance in IRIS conference and it’s my pleasure to be a part of Scandinavian research team. Although research is not a new term for me, doing IS research is a completely new experience Therefore, I am in a primary stage of developing my research proposal. During my research tenure, I received a plenty of suggestions from my senior researcher and supervisor, that I should attend IRIS conference. Before coming to IRIS conference, frankly speaking, I had a very different impression or you can say hypothesis about this conference. For instance, it was pretty sure that Molde is a beautiful place, and there was a best chance to utilize University fund for some recreation, but I was not so optimist about synchronizing any research ideas. I was thinking like, ok, IRIS is a place where many homogeneous actors from the Scandinavian region will come together and force me to enroll in their research tradition and finally translate me and my colleague to follow their research tradition. But, on the contrary, I found it completely different. As soon as we started our working group session, from the very beginning, I realized, this is the place where you can, not only, get our ideas more furnished but also facilitate other researchers to get more insight, and enhance own knowledge at the same time. In my personal case, I came here with fuzzy ideas, which were important I knew, but they were not in order to make a sensible network. Today I can boast, yes, my heterogeneous ideas are synthesized and they started forming a good sensible network. Definitely, the whole credit goes to IRIS32 team, which is truly a harmonious Network composed of heterogeneous actors, fortunately, just opposite to my hypothesis. Last but not least, IRIS games will be one of the memorable events despite not making the Robin Hood proud of me. Well, I will conclude my small notes here and once again, my sincere thanks to IRIS32 organizing committee and all the participants.

Hope to see you again in Denmark, next year.

Thank you, Tusen Takk


Re-conceptualizing Digital Divide

With the outburst of Internet technology in the mid-nineties, the notion of digital divide came into existence. It can be classified into two categories: external divide and internal divide. External divide (inter-country) can be defined as a digital gap between developed and developing countries and internal divide (intra-country) can be defined as a digital gap between urban and rural areas. However, the initial concept of digital divide was narrowly focused on the gap between have and have-nots, for instance, those who have access to computers and internet services and those who do not have. In the beginning, mass diffusion of Internet in the developing countries has been promoted to reduce the internal and external digital gap. Unfortunately, accessibility to internet was rather misunderstood as economic and social change. Mark Warschauer (2004) in his book Technology and Social Inclusion illustrated that many information and communication technology (ICT) development projects failed due to narrow conceptualization of digital divide in developing countries vis-à-vis developed countries. Mark presented one example of an Indian project launched in New Delhi known as Hole-in-the-Wall. The objective of this project was to provide computer access to the city’s street children. They fixed five-station computer kiosk inside a booth with monitors shown through holes. The computers were without keyboard with special joysticks and buttons that substituted for the computer mouse. The computers were connected to the internet through dial-up access and operated by a volunteer inside the booth. They wanted to experiment minimally invasive education, therefore, there were no instructors. The idea was to allow 24 hour computer access to the street children so that they can learn at their own pace and speed. Initially, the project was hailed by researcher and government agencies. Huge numbers of children flocked to the site to learn basic computer operations such as MS office, and internet browsing. However, after conducting an empirical research, the reality turned out to be different. There were many shortcomings in the project such as frequent occurrence of technical problems, lack of context-sensitive contents in their native language; moreover, children spent most of their time in drawing with paint programs and playing computer games. Likewise, the hidden architecture of the computer stations made it difficult to supervise, instruct, and collaborate with other community organizations. Even the parents from the community complained that kiosk was harmful to their children because they spent more time on playing computer games instead of doing schoolwork. The example shows that providing only computers to rural people is not a solution for social improvisation. Therefore, the digital divide should not be counted by number of internet connections; however, it should be analyzed taking into account how technology interventions have been used to amplify the best social practices.

Therefore, the researchers have re-conceptualized the concept of digital divide in a broader term. Re-conceptualization of digital divide, besides technological gap, contains the intersection of socio-economic status, gender, age, language and geographic location. In addition, it refers to the cultural dimension, inadequate infrastructure, and shortage of manpower. Broader interpretation of digital divide also include cognitive issues such an attitude of community people towards technology and their daily usage patterns.There is a need to offer community oriented meaningful computer courses instead of delivering particular software programs. We need to involve the community organizations in designing the context based curriculum. Mere rendering the software training is not sustainable in the long run. Instead of making donor oriented or politics oriented IT policies, it should be more people oriented. There is a dearth of people oriented IT policies which really make a difference in people’s lives. Fast spreading policies such as providing computer training to mass population can be attractive for pulling funds; however, sustainable development comes from the slow and effective penetration of the technology. Indeed, we need to consider both the factors and find the middle way to use the technology for mass dissemination and penetration. For instance, rural teachers might learn how to create their own technology-based materials based on local conditions rather than only using commercial software developed for other contexts. A crafts cooperative might learn how to develop and manage its own web site rather than posting its announcements on somebody else’s. Nongovernmental organizations might learn to establish and run their own networks of telecenters rather than just attending cyber cafes. Therefore, to bridge the broader digital gap and to provide meaningful ICT access, consideration of social context, social purpose, and social organization are significant irrespective of developed or developing countries. Otherwise, how could be know the impact of ICT on society without any consideration of the social context in which computers are used. Although the cheap cost of computer devices can make it affordable to the poor people, social structures are crucial in determining who is able to access any technology and use it beneficially. In the context of Nepal, the role of leadership, vision, and local “champions” are crucial to the success of ICT for development projects. We should not repeat the mistake to overemphasizing the role of computer experts rather than of the best community leaders, educators, cooperative societies, micro financing firms and NGOs. Those who are capable of managing complex social projects to foster innovative, creative and social transformation will likely be able to learn to integrate technology into this task. For instance, to provide community based public access by NGOs such as e-Village in India, also, provide an opportunity with micro financing activities to rural ICT entrepreneur like Grameen Bank project in Bangladesh. In developing countries, it is neither feasible nor possible to provide computers to each and every rural community members, therefore, the intermediate organizations based on public private partnership (PPP) such as NGOs can operate community information services known as telecenters, equipped with computers, internet connection, fax and telephone. These community information service centers can retrieve meaningful information on health, agricultural product prices, educational material, or the government policies and disseminate the same to the rural communities.

In conclusion, pessimist society has blamed ICT for bringing the digital gap; on the other hand, the same ICT can be an efficient and effective tool to bridging the broader external and internal digital gap. Indeed, providing laptop to each child is not the only solution, the participation requires more than just physical access to computers and connectivity. They should be able to access the requisite skills and knowledge, and contents should be based on local context and language, furthermore, requires community and social support to be able to use ICT for meaningful ends. As Mark Warschauer stated that the tasks are large, but so is the challenge: reducing marginalization, poverty, and inequality and enhancing economic and social inclusion for all.

This article has been published in the Nepalnews.com (29-01-10)



ICT for Rural Development and the Role of Media

I was watching a video recording of PM Dahal's speech at Nepalnews.com on 7 April, 2009. He was expressing his dissonance about the role of Media in spreading negative information to people. However, my article is not about endorsing the PM's statement neither to criticize the role of media. My objective is to pull media's attraction towards the subject of rural development through the use of Information and Communication Technologies (ICT). Ironically, media itself is a core component of ICT, however, little coverage can be found about the contribution of ICT in rural developments. Simple statements of political figures can be seen as a news headlines, on the contrary, it is difficult to find any column of ICT for development activities, not in a single passage. If we go through the World Development Reports and UNDP profiles, it seems millions of dollar has been already invested in the ICT for development projects. However, the actual impact on rural communities are unknown. Either there is null impact of these projects or media is not interested in disseminating the actual outcomes of these development activities.

We don't need to go further to experience the success stories of ICT implementation in rural communities. India is one of the star role model for us, where we can find plenty of examples. Illustrating one example of e-village, MS Swaminathan Foundation in Tamil Nadu has developed a novel approach known as e-village. They set-up different computer terminals in the rural areas. These computer terminals are pre-loaded with a database of useful information relating to government services, such as agricultural extension, health and the police that contain the relevant contact details for each village. They connected the ten villages together and selected a group of volunteers to run that village centre. Women have been given priorities to run that centres, and provide training courses to other women. In addition, technical support is provided by a central 'hub' situated in the nearby town Vilanur. The technical support centre is headed by some trained IT professionals. Training courses for up to 25 people can be held at the Vilanur hub and lager courses such as for making incense sticks and small scale paper production from banana leaves have been developed to facilitate livelihood diversification through small business activities. The daily information bulletins are sent by e-mail to the networked villages which receive a summary of the main news stories from the local markets each morning. With the growing usage of ICT, village people started applying this technology to new areas such as solar power and spread spectrum masts. Compared to costly telecenter models, the e-village provide more localised and low-key service at a fraction of cost. Similarly, if we look into our own local Nepal Wireless Network Projects run by Mahabir Pun. Who is doing a tremendous job by facilitating the ICT services - eHealthcare, eLearning, and eCommerce - to remote communities.

Similar ICT development projects can be implemented in other rural areas by deploying the existing frameworks with some readjustments. The role of media in this endeavour is to educate the people through telling success stories and the usage of ICT for development. Media can break the myth that IT artefacts are some kind of robotic machine that can be operated by limited expert engineers. They need to tell the people that a simple training program is enough to learn and use ICT services. For example, by learning simple email messaging they can communicate instantly and economically. They can read daily market information and news headlines in Nepali, accordingly. In my personal case, I asked my 60 years father to learn internet chatting so that we can have easy and virtually free communication at any time. This is just a simple example, however, ICT has a multiple macro level impacts as well. According to DFID sustainable livelihood guidelines ICT has a positive impacts on human capital, social capital, financial capital, natural capital and physical capital. For instance, distance education, improved communication between different communities, computerised and transparent micro-credit services, land record keeping. Likewise, improved accessibility to domestic and international markets for selling agricultural products.

Although there are many rhetoric of ICT for development, ICT itself is not a panacea. It can be an instrumental for development, if implemented in an effective way. Giving specific guidance through media channels on effective implementation of ICT artefacts, it enhances the impact level. Likewise, high level impact on human, financial, natural, physical, and social capital . And, enhances the accessibility of remote communities to global market. Consequently, reduces the digital gap between urban and remote areas vis-à-vis between developing and developed countries. As a result, most of the jobs concentrated in the urban centres can be disseminated through the use of ICT, which can reduce the migration of skilled population from remote to urban areas and improve the communal harmony. Then only we can realize the true meaning of the flat world.

This article is an attempt to appeal media fraternity, donor agencies, IT vendors, and policy makers, that we should encourage ICT development activities by all means. It is not an afford of single person or single community but we need a synergistic afford from all corners. As stated Developing countries have by-passed the industrial age and leapfrog into information age. Unless Nepal leapfrogs into the Information Age, the economic gap between Nepal and rest of the developing world would widen. And, the role of media in this transition phase is indispensable and vital.

This article has been published in the Kathmandu Post (12 May, 2009) and South Asia Media Net (14 May, 2009), Nepal.