Reflections on Microsoft Research Summer School

Microsoft Research Summer School on Computing for Socio-Economic Development

Time and place:
13 June, 2010 – 27 June, 2010 (Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, India)

The selection of candidates was based on short listing of the applications. Applications procedure was composed of essay writing, supervisor’s recommendation, and CV. After selection, we were supposed to read the following 10 papers and one book,
We discussed 10 research papers in two weeks. In my opinion, the selection of papers was excellent. The papers were composed of ICT4D concepts, economic behaviour of poor, research methodologies used in ICT4D research, and fundamentals of development. It provides the overall idea of multifaceted perspective of ICT4D.

Sessions I found particularly useful:
All the sessions were useful in terms of revisiting some of the ICT4D concepts and understanding the multifaceted meaning of development. Activities such as field trip to slums, field activity in small groups, and research methodologies were excellent. The objective of slum tour was to experience the portrait of everyday life in an urban slum. During the field trip to slums, we visited one telecenter project run by the slum community. We did observation and interviews with different stakeholders and community people to understand the role of ICT in their socio-economic development.

Field activity in small groups of three students was an exercise to conduct quantitative survey and qualitative interviews in the Bangalore street. The streets were assigned by the session leader. The purpose of the field activity was to understand the mobile phone usage pattern and income spending behaviour of poor people earning less than RS 10,000 (approx. 250 dollar per month). Subsequently, all the group data had been collected and analysed. Numerical data were analysed using quantitative techniques, such as t-test, correlation, and p-value. And, qualitative data has been analysed using grounded coding techniques. This session also discussed the pros and cons of both the techniques using collected empirical data. Finally, based on our field survey and qualitative interview, we made poster presentation. Furthermore, we wrote a research proposal, and presented to the panel.

Lectures by Tapan Parikh, Joyojeet Pal, and Indrani Medhi on design challenges in working with low-literate and disable people were new learning for me. The objectives of these lectures were to understand the need of low-literate and physically challenged people before designing information systems. Presentations showed that low-literate and disable people normally use intermediary to deploy any ICT artefacts, therefore, the system should be designed after understanding the perspective of both the users, and the intermediaries.

The paper discussion session was also good. We discussed 10 research papers in two weeks. In this session, all the participants were assigned with two papers (same) to read. And, these papers were discussed based on the list of questions prepared by the session leader. This model was effective in terms of paper discussion and learning. I would like to suggest this model in our course curriculum as well.

The lecture by Michael Best (editor-in-chief of ITID journal) was also helpful to understand the elements of writing good journal papers. Likewise, Jonathan Donner presentation on mobile phone usage pattern, such as the different meaning of beeping was very interesting.

Feedback and questions I received:
During the two weeks period I made a number of questions with different participants. My questions were mainly focused on understanding the link between ICT and development, how to measure the impact, and sustainability of ICT4D projects. I discussed my own research project and initial findings in Nepal. Most of the participants from India were from computer science background, so it was a bit hard time for me to explain them about the concept of social capital. However, they found it novel and useful as Nepal has been discussed a little in ICT4D literatures.

Networking experiences:
Microsoft Research India (MSRI) is running number of ICT4D projects in India. They have a group of team called TEM (Technology for Emerging Market). As per my discussion with the co-chairs,
Ed Cutrell
Kentaro Toyama
University of California, Berkeley
We have an opportunity to visit their projects and conduct our research; in case of availability, they can provide us with office location in Bangalore, India. Similarly, I had an opportunity to discuss with the editor-in-chief of ITID journal,
Michael Best
Georgia Tech
And, renowned researcher in m4D (mobile for development):
Jonathan Donner

Overall experience:
I enjoyed the field study and slum tour. There, I got an opportunity to understand the portrait of slum poor of India. It gives me a comparative advantage to understand the role of ICT in the context of slum poor of India and mountain poor of Nepal. The only thing I disliked was no internet connection in the hotel. The main learning outcome from participating in this summer school is to understand the multi-perspective views and roles of ICT4D. The summer school was composed of people from different background, such as computer science, economics, social science, and information systems. Sometime we found complete disagreement in our understandings. For example, some computer science students were thinking that they will learn programming and software development. However, at the end, this summer school somehow succeed to convince majority of the participant that understanding socio-economic development context is very important to design ICT4D project.

I will highly recommend the researchers, practitioners, and students concerned with ICT4D to participate in this summer school. The lectures in this summer school were balanced mixture of theory, practice, and empirical case studies. Likewise, in this summer school, we can experience real time field activities, and learn data analysis techniques. Overall, it is helpful to understand the multifaceted concept of information and communication technology for development (ICT4D).


Social Capital

The advancement of social capital concept can be traced back to the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries(Portes, 1998). The idea that involvement and participation in groups can have positive consequences for the individual and the community was raised by scholars, such as Tocqueville, Durkheim, Weber, Locke and Marx (Portes, 1998). Durkheim and Marx emphasized group life as a solution to social instability and self-destruction. The term “social capital” has been first coined by Hanifan in 1916(Huysman & Wulf, 2004). He defined the social capital as an instrumental to goodwill, fellowship, sympathy, and social interaction among the individuals and groups within a social unit. The concept of social capital, therefore, was more focused on the positive consequences of sociability and ignoring the less attractive features(Portes, 1998). However, their research on social capital concept was not systematic and did not attract wide attention of the scholars.

The contemporary proponents of social capital, such as Bourdieu, Coleman and Putnam, pull the attentions of the researchers to conduct a systematic research (Portes, 1998; Yang, et al., 2009). Scholars, who derived the concepts from academia into the wider media (Yang, et al., 2009), defined the social capital as “features of social organization such as networks, norms, and social trust that facilitate coordination and cooperation for mutual benefits” (Putnam, 2000). The studies of social capital can be categorized into two general sections based on level of analysis (Portes, 1998). Studies of Bourdieu, Coleman, and Burt that focused on individual (human capital) or small groups as the unit of analysis can be denoted as individual social capital, where they examine the benefits accruing to individuals from their relationships with others. On the other hand, those who extended the concept of social capital from individual assets to a community or national feature can be referred to as collective social capital, considering social capital as both individuals’ social networks and their moral attitudes, or social norms, which contribute to the common good of a community or even a nation(Yang, et al., 2009). The World Bank has categorized Social Capital into six dimensions, such as Groups and Networks, Trust and Solidarity, Collective Action and Cooperation, Information and Communication, Social Cohesion and Inclusion, and Empowerment and Political Action(World_Bank, 2006).

There is a need to investigate not only the positive consequences but also negative consequences introduced by the social capital perspective, as argued by Portes: “The research literature on social capital strongly emphasizes its positive consequences. Indeed it is our sociological bias to see good things emerging out of sociability; bad things are more commonly associated with the behavior of homo economics (economic human). However, the same mechanisms appropriable by individuals and groups as social capital can have other, less desirable consequences(Portes, 1998)”. Negative consequences are related to several issues, such as restrictions imposed on actors who do not belong to the network, lacking perception of environmental changes outside the network, negative social dynamics within the network and downward leveling norms, dependency on central actors and their loyalty towards the network, restrictions on autonomy and individuality resulting from demands for conformity, irrational economic behavior due to the feeling of solidarity towards partners in the network, and irrational economic behavior due to personal aversion(Huysman & Wulf, 2004).

Bridging, bonding, and linking social capital:
Social capital can be conceptualized into different forms, such as bridging, bonding and linking social capital (Cote & Healy, 2001; Putnam, 2000; Woolcook, 2001). The notion of bridging social capital is a relation among distant friends, associates and colleagues, civil rights movements, and ecumenical religious organizations, for example. Conversely, bonding social capital is a relation amongst homogenous groups such as family members, close friends, ethnic fraternal organizations, and religion based groups, for example. The linking social capital refers to relations between individuals and groups in different social strata in a hierarchy where power, social status and wealth are accessed by different groups (Cote & Healy, 2001). The concept of linking social capital is extended to include the capacity to leverage resources, ideas and information from formal institutions beyond the community(Woolcook, 2001).

Bonding and bridging social capital have resonance with the ideas of “strong ties” and “weak ties” respectively (Granovetter, 1973). For instance, weak-ties are loose connections between individuals who may provide useful information or new perspectives for each other, without emotional support. Tightly-knit ties are bonding social capital between individuals in emotionally close relationships, such as family and close friends. Bonding social capital is good for maintaining the existing relations. However, strong bonding social capital may sometime have adverse impact and serve to exclude and create a context for the growth of reactionary ideology. The bridging social capital is crucial for extending social networks, and it could be an important resource in facilitating mobility opportunities.

ICT and Social Capital:
Despite abundance of research in social capital from social, political, economic and organization scientist, the attention from the side of IS research lacks far behind (Huysman & Wulf, 2004). However, the interdisciplinary nature of IS research and growth in networks within and between organizations makes research into the relationship between ICT and social capital even more important. Social capital in relation to ICT could be categorized at the individual level which is known as connecting and enabling social capital (Yang, et al., 2009), examining the impacts of ICT on individual’s social networks and the possible benefits generated by such networks. The collective level is aiming to identify the role of ICT in social capital building in communities. This paper is focused on the collective level study; it explores how ICT facilitate remote communities to build their social capital.

Research shows that ICTs facilitate the building of social capital through increasing flows of information(Adam & Urquhart, 2009). A number of anecdotes advocate that ICT facilitate to create and maintain bridging, bonding and linking social capital. Some research has been done, studying the role of ICT and its impact on social capital. For instance, the impact of ICT on individual social capital has been studied, examining the impact of online social networking sites (SNS) on formation and maintenance of social capital (Ellison, et al., 2007). Focusing on both the maintenance of existing social ties and the formation of new connections, they identified a positive relationship between certain kinds of SNS use and the maintenance and creation of social capital. Such studies illustrated the impact of ICT on social capital and vice versa (Frank, et al., 2004; Shah, et al., 2005; Simpson, 2005). Studies show that ICT facilitate interactions among community participants that helped to generate and maintain the trust, acceptance, and alignment necessary for successful cooperation (Syrjånen & Kuuti, 2004). A case study on Iranian NGO shows how computer based centers facilitate to build e-community and extend the community networking through improved transparency and participation (Rohde, 2004).

ICT Intervention and Development in remote Nepal

The remote communities in the mountains regions in developing countries are among the poorest, most-remote and most-excluded in the world. They are socially, politically, and economically excluded. This has widened educational, healthcare, information and communication gap. Studies show that availability of information and communication technology (ICT) in a remote community is significant to facilitate the flow of information and knowledge that can provide an opportunity to connect them with the main streamline of development. To explore the role of ICT in socio-economic development of the Mountain regions, we conducted a case study in two villages of Myagdi District. In this study, we have explored how Nepal Wireless Networking Project (NWNP) may help to overcome these shortages. There is a great deal of optimism, exemplified by one villager from Tikot who stated that:

The Internet cannot help us with plowing, sowing, and harvesting. But by using the Internet, we can engage in a lot of other educational and financial development, I believe.

We argue that the NWNP provides a promising opportunity to create social, human, physical, financial, and political capital. People may access data resources and they are offered training to improve their competence. Social networking may also be facilitated. Now they no longer have to travel long hours to make a phone call to their relatives. Due to the NWNP, people living in the villages have better access to medical competence. Transaction costs are reduced and there are some promising opportunities to empower marginalized groups, especially women, through training programs.

The NWNP has provided several opportunities to the Nangi and Tikot communities. However, in order to realize the macro level socio-economic impact, the community people should not only be able to access and assess the information; they should also be able to convert it into relevant knowledge, and to make decisions. At the same time, they should be able to generate local content that can be used for revenue generation activities. In the content development and revenue generation program, this project is still in its infancy. They need to work on local content generation. Although they started local bulletin and eCommerce services, this information is still not exported to the outside community. Access to local data and information by external market is important in order to generate revenue and long-term sustainability.

Overall, the NWNP has created a positive wave in the Nangi and Tikot villages. The extension from what were initially two villages to currently more than seventy indicates its importance. Despite some challenges, the NWNP is an important example of an ICT for development (ICT4D) project in remote areas in a country which is rarely discussed in the ICT4D literature. Conducive government policies, infrastructure development, and public-private partnerships may support the replication of the NWNP across other mountain villages in Nepal. Further development of business models to attract eco-tourism, and to sell cultural and agricultural products through the Internet may generate revenues and further add to the socio-economic development in the long run.