ICT4D, ICTD, or what?

I’ve been re-thinking “ICT4D” and “ICTD” recently, and increasingly coming to the conclusion that I should avoid these terms in reference to the work CIS does in favor of something like “underserved communities and low resource environments” or other descriptor that avoids these acronyms.

One of the problems with “ICT4D” is that it connotes different things to different people – with most definitions swirling around the application of (primarily digital) ICT to interventions that have an explicit developmental goal such as health, education, government transparency, or others of the sort found in the MDGs. As such, there is a tendency to ignore issues that do not correspond to the conventional development goals (quality of life, games, social movements, etc.), or what might be simply described as any use of ICT in a developing world context. This was brought home recently when Joyojeet Pal mentioned that the paper he submitted to ICTD2009 on depictions of computers in popular Indian cinema was critiqued for not being within scope. To me, it is incredibly relevant to understand how the computer has become a symbol of aspiration within a society, how that symbol has changed over time, is the computer used for good or ill, what effect this has on people’s views of technology’s promise or pitfalls, and so on. In order to accommodate a broader scope many people have turned to the term “ICTD,” or ICT and development, to place the emphasis on the phenomenon of ICT use in developing countries, irrespective of whether there is a “developmental” goal or not. Despite the good intentions behind this I’m afraid the nuance is lost on most people so I don’t think it serves our community long term. And, I hate acronyms.

There are other problems too – such as what constitutes “development” and is it meaningful to continue to lump countries into developing or developed buckets (I think not) – but these are topics for another day.

All of this is also fueled by continuing discussions about whether ICTD is a field, or if there is a field, what would it be called. This has been debated on the community informatics list among others. A number of us will be taking this up at an ICTD Curriculum Workshop at Doha. Looking forward to it, though rather than hold my breath waiting for a critical mass to emerge I think I’ll simply describe CIS’s work in plain language.