Last week the 11th annual ICT4D conference was held in Uganda where it was wonderfully warm and sunny. I was one of over 900 people from all over the world who attended the conference which was a good mix of people from local and international NGOs, government, other civil society organisations, corporates, and start ups. I take my virtual hat off to CRS for pulling it all together.
At these events, everyone’s perspective is unique due to our past experiences, the current challenges we are wrestling with, and our own interests. Below are 5 things that struck me as I reflected on my time there.
1. We need to define our Identity terms
There were quite a few sessions this year on the topic of identity, which was great to see and participate in. However, identity is a tricky subject and so as boring as it may sound, I think we need to clarify our terms more so we can move forward together and our discussions can be richer.
Foundational Identity vs Functional Identity. Foundational IDs tend to be issued by the government (or by UNHCR in the case of refugees). These are legal IDs that can be upheld in a court of law. Functional IDs can be issued by anyone, tend to perform a function, and are not legal. Whenever NGOs digital register beneficiaries and issue them a ‘card’ using a system like LMMS, we are issuing the beneficiary a functional ID, not a foundational one (Just like frequent flyer card, a library card, a Costco card). This is a critical distinction for us to be aware of especially when we are talking with governments; frankly in many cases it is wiser to talk about an assistance card rather than an identity.
Identity vs identifiers. Now this may seem nick picking, but it is vital. We, nor anyone else, can give someone an identity; humans just are and our individual identity is complex and multi-faceted. In technical jargon, an LMMS assistance card issued by World Vision to an individual is an identifier not and identity. This is also true of a passport, a health card, a library card and even the fact I am the son of a farmer. These identifiers provide insights into who I am, but are not my sole identity. Joe Andrieu has written extensively and brilliantly on this distinction. This distinction is vital as it impacts how talk about and think about our relationship with those with whom we work.
2. Thinking about the individual is still hard
In one of the sessions, we were informed of a survey CRS and Devex conducted broadly about ICT4D. According to 76% of the respondents the principal users of ICT4D tools were staff of organisations or their partner organisations. Only 24% said programme participants were users of the tools. And following on from this, there continues to be a significant discussions about how ‘we’ can push more information out to the beneficiaries. We need to move more into a direction of how can enable people to pull information they want; rather than us pushing.
3. Who decides what is sensitive and valuable?
It was great to see a number of sessions on responsible data, data rights, data protection & privacy. These discussions are critical and need to be a constant at every ICT4D conference. These discussions need to evolve as they are still very driven from an organisational perspective, with us deciding the parameters. When we talk about sensitive data, we need to create practices that allow the beneficiaries themselves to tell us what they define as sensitive; let’s stop doing it for them. And while we’re at it, when we talk about putting the beneficiary at the centre of our work, we need to include making the data we collect on them, available to them – give them access to it, control over over. We need to be enabling them to use the data about them the way they want without needing to involve them. As a number of conference attendees and I discussed, this is a hard sell as this shift is primary of value to individual (beneficiary) and of less value to the organisation, however some of our organisations have created space for us to explore this, which is fantastic.
4. Technology is the easy part, change is difficult
There was a lot of technology at the conference, which was expected and in many ways good. In the sessions I was able to attend, the discussions began to tease out or touch on the non-technology aspects of getting ideas adopted and scaled, which was good to see. I regularly talk about the non-technical aspects of change needed to get technology embedded in our business. It is part of our scaling challenge, which we need to talk about more.
5. Change is slow
We all change at our own pace. There were conversations at the conference that likely were the same conversations that occurred at the first conference 11 years ago, but there were also discussions in tiny pockets about things that were extremely cutting edge. This is the nature and the beauty of this type of conference. I heard stories of people digitally mapping local communities, then printing them out and working with local communities to add to it using their local knowledge and also identify disaster hazards etc. This is a great practice and one that has been used for hundreds of years. And yet, the continual reminder of the principle that local knowledge is critical and adjustments according to this local knowledge will always be needed and good to hear.
So there you have it, 5 reflections on my experience of the ICT4D conference.