Summary: 11th IFIP WG 9.4 Conference, May (22-25), Kathmandu, Nepal
Information and communication technology for development (ICT4D) is a well established research area in both academia and practice. The question of whether ICT is useful for developing world is answered with big ‘YES’. However, the process by which ICT may foster development, in the context of developing countries still remains a much debated issue. Academics and practitioners are attempting to understand and stimulate the development process that specifically emerges from technology diffusion.
The idea of IFIP WG 9.4 conference, chaired by Professor Maung Sein, University of Agder, and co-chaired by Dr. G. Harindranath, Royal Holloway, and Dr. Bjørn Furuholt, University of Agder, in Kathmandu with the theme partners for development: ICT actors and actions was to draw special attention to the role played by multiple actors – public and private, activists and entrepreneurs as well as other kinds of intermediaries – within ICT4D processes and their associated impacts on socioeconomic development. The conference provided a space for articulating a variety of approaches and views from these different types of actors in relation to ICT and national development. Nepal, the host country for this year’s conference, presented a unique opportunity to engage with such actors given the growing significance of ICT in this landlocked, mountainous, and developing country.
The conference was attended by the collectives of IS scholars, researchers, ICT entrepreneurs, social activists, IT experts, healthcare champions, and government officials. The objective of this conference was to exchange our knowledge and experience from both academia and practice. Therefore, the discussions in the conference was oriented towards how the ICT intervention can enable (or disable) people to access healthcare, education, commerce, and government services, in addition, to identify future research possibilities in ICT4D areas and the role of IFIP WG 9.4 in promoting these possibilities.
The conference heated up with a pre-conference debate and discussions. The discussion was centered on the landscape of ICT4D and the potential for the IFIP 9.4 group. Three experienced practitioners and academics in the field, Rahul De, Sundeep Sahay, and Renata Lèbre La Rovere, presented their thought provocative position papers. The papers raised ICT4D research issues, such as corruption, caste, trust, coordination, and visibility. IS researchers and scholars, such as Leiser Silva, Roger Harris, and Shirin Madon also wrote short position papers even though they were unable to attend the conference. All discussants in the pre-conference discussion agreed that institutional, social, political, and cultural aspects are fundamental for implementation and adoption of ICT. Likewise, local participation and local knowledge are essential for ICT4D projects to achieve their objectives. Mutual informing between academia and practice, and the role of IFIP WG 9.4 platform were other important issues discussed during the pre-conference.
The conference started with a keynote speech by Dr. Mahabir Pun, Magsaysay award winner and the team leader of the Nepal Wireless Networking Project. He shared his experiences of the wireless project. He described how he started the wireless project from a simple idea of connecting mountain villages to internet. He used social networking and media, and the collective action inside and outside the mountain communities. The project succeeds to connect more than 135 remote villages through internet connection since then. The project started with the objective to provide better education and healthcare services to the remote communities using ICT. For this purpose, he stated, the wireless project is working together with different other champions such as OLE Nepal, thamel.com, NREN, Gandaki Boarding School, Kathmandu University, and Kathmandu Model Hospital. He explained the implementation of ICT services in Nangi village is just an example that can be replicated to other rural areas. In his presentation, he stated that most of the ICT4D projects fail because they lack understanding of local context; and, do not develop local contents. He added, lack of income generation activities is also a main challenge in the ICT4D projects. For this purpose, the wireless project is working with www.thamel.com and other partners to promote ecommerce and ecotourism activities. Dr. Pun stated that appointing medical expertise in rural areas is very difficult. Therefore, telemedicine can work as a magic stick to virtually bring that expertise in the remote places.
Prominent speaker and participant, Geoff Walsham, Emeritus Professor of Management Studies (Information Systems) and one of the initiators of ICT4D research, talked about early beginnings and future opportunities in ICT4D research. He explained how some research elements in ICT4D research are still common from the inception of IFIP WG9.4 conferences to date. The important elements are contextual understanding, and participatory designing, for instance, inclusion of local people and indigenous development. He also mentioned that ICT is one of the necessary elements in development process, but not the sufficient. Then, he directed our attention towards future challenges and opportunities in ICT4D research domains. He expressed that ICT4D research is becoming a more multidisciplinary by nature, and IS scholars need to derive knowledge and expertise from various other disciplines. However, at the same time, he mentioned that the opportunities for doing action research and exploring new methodologies and technologies also opened new doors to IS scholars. He also advocated that academic theories can be useful to conduct empirical case studies vis-à-vis practice. Finally, he appealed the conference participants to consider the ethical agenda, thus permitting the least advantaged to share in the benefits that so many people in the world now take for granted.
In addition to Keynote speeches in the conference were panel debates, papers and posters presentations, and demonstrations. Total 48 papers and 5 demo/posters, in addition, a set of 4 ‘Nepal Showcase’ posters and 6 IPID posters were presented in the conference. Authors of submitted papers were from various developed and developing nations, such as South Africa, Norway, UK, India, Bangladesh, New Zealand, USA, Australia, Singapore, Brazil, Albania, Canada, Ireland, Malawi, Sweden, Thailand, Colombia, Ethiopia, Greece, Malaysia, Mozambique, Nigeria, Switzerland, Tajikistan, UAE, Vietnam and Nepal. Large number of contribution from all around the world provides some evidence that the IFIP9.4 group continue to remain relevant to the ICT4D audience. Paper sessions were oriented towards important ICT4D themes, such as contemporary research, theories, impact assessment, context, mobile for development (M4D), eGovernment, public internet access, open source software, mHealth, eHealth, and relevant ICT actors and their actions for national development.
There were three panels in the conference. These panels were chaired by Sundeep Sahay, professor, University of Oslo, Jacques Steyn, Head of School of IT Monash University, and Robert Davison, Editor-in-Chief, EJISDC. They raised proactive debates on practicing, teaching and publishing ICT4D research. The panel provided a good opportunity to bring various actors from academia and practice in a single platform. One of the panelists, Rabi Karmacharya, Executive director of OLENepal, emphasized on developing local contents for ICT4D project sustainability. Dr. Dhital, an initiator of telemedicine project in Nepal, suggested telemedicine can provide virtual doctors to the remote places. Likewise, panelists from academia focused on applying action research to promote mutual informing between academia and practice.
One of the attractions of IFIP WG9.4 conference was IPID session. Where, postgraduate students presented their research works and raised challenging questions during their presentation. The aim of the session was to support postgraduate students in their research in a creative and friendly atmosphere where they can discuss and help each other. The session was helpful for postgraduates to share their experiences in the ICT4D field in order to gain more knowledge on how ICT use for development can be improved. The session was co-chaired and facilitated by Chrisanthi Avgerou, Professor, LSE, and Gudrun Wicander, IPID chair.
Overall, the conference concluded with the end-note that technology is a means of generating information which can be used to enhance the capabilities or freedom of underprivileged people to improve and lead their lives which they value. Having said that, we need to understand local context, need to develop local contents, need to involve indigenous actors, and need to conduct more action research. And, IFIP WG9.4 conference can serve as a central platform to exchange information, knowledge, and experience from ICT4D research and practice.