How are advances in communications technologies driving transformational change in development? United Methodist Communications recently published a discussion paper to help answer this question and to give ICT practitioners a list of the best practices in the use of ICTs for development. You can download the paper for free here.
First, rising access to modern technologies is for the first time connecting millions of people around the world. In many parts of the world, access to a mobile phone is the first connection to a modern communications technology, leapfrogging over landlines, computers, and other technologies that preceded mobile phone access in the developed world.
As noted by a United Nations Development Programme report, no other technology has found its way into the hands of so many people in so many places around the world as quickly as the mobile phone.
Second, the connectivity this provides is transforming the way many communities gain access to information and services. Studies have linked higher rates of mobile phone access to increased economic growth, and mobile technologies are beginning to positively impact human development. In the agricultural field, a growing number of studies are demonstrating some level of economic gain among farmers who use mobile phones to gain greater access to market data.
For millions of people in countries like Kenya and the Philippines, banking through mobile devices is connecting households to formal banking services for the first time. And around the world, citizens and medical professionals are using their mobile phones for a range of services, from text messages that can promote maternal health to mobile data collection and other support for health workers in remote areas.
This discussion paper captures best practice in the use of mobile phones and other low-cost communications technologies through a series of interviews with experts and practitioners. Key lessons learned include:
- It’s about people, not technology. “Keeping the big picture in mind, and the challenges you’re looking to help people overcome, reminds you to stay focused,” says Ken Banks, founder of FrontlineSMS, an open source software used to distribute and collect information via text message.
- Understand the local environment. “Engage with the project participants who will use the technology, and with the community that will be served. Learn their issues and their needs so that you can design a technology solution that fits,” says Kristin Peterson, former CEO of Inveneo, a non-profit providing ICT support to organizations working in underserved communities.
- Use appropriate tools. It’s critical to understand the environment you’re designing for—a lesson I would have been well served to learn before my mission to Angola. Ask yourself: Does the technology need to be ruggedized to protect against heat, dust or humidity? Is there a ready power supply, and is it stable? Is the technology affordable, and can it be locally maintained?
- Use iterative project planning cycles. “Our early prototypes often fail, but in a way that allows us to iterate and refine our ideas based upon feedback from real users,” says Sean Hewens of the philanthropic arm of the human-centered design firm IDEO.org.
- Build in monitoring & evaluation from the start. “Monitoring can help you establish a framework through which you ask: What is my program trying to achieve, and what are the small steps I’ll measure along the way to ensure I’m on the road to achieving my project goal?” says Linda Raftree, Special Advisor on ICT and Monitoring & Evaluation at the Rockefeller Foundation.
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