It’s become all but banal to observe that information and communications technology (ICT) has made our world increasingly interconnected and data-rich. But, for some reason, the role of ICT practitioners in international development hasn’t evolved to reflect this shift. ICT teams, like other “functional” (as opposed to regional) experts, are incentivized to develop niche expertise and subject matter knowledge—sometimes at the expense of improved development programming.
But ICT is about making connections—whether between people, data sets, systems, or platforms. For example, the ability of data to reveal new insights and meaning is largely a result of its sector-agnostic nature. The resulting knowledge exposes the connection between what might seem like unrelated data such as mobile phone coverage and prevalence of diabetes in the United States (shout out to recent work by the Federal Communications Commission to map broadband and health recently presented by Karen Onyeije and Yahya Shaikh at the NACCHO Public Health Informatics conference) or links between perceptions of security and taking mobile phones outside the home in rural Honduras.
I believe successful programs approach these connections more holistically. People don’t use their tech tools in a siloed or disaggregated way—so why should we? We need to make a concerted effort to shift our ICT programming to reflect the true possibilities that technology can bring to programs—and push ourselves and the industry to do the same. For example, we should be thinking about the roll-out of mobile services as a starting point—not to be led by the technology but to see mobiles and ICT as an open canvas onto which we can layer cross-sectoral solutions and create a virtuous ecosystem. Rather than think of piloting one thing and then resting, why not design an ecosystem approach from the beginning—with multiple services layered together to really reflect how increasingly committed and comfortable people are with their mobile devices?
So what can we as ICT4D champions do?
Increase our own knowledge about the use of ICT and digital tools in different sectors. Why shouldn’t the successful input-supplier-to-farmer outreach platform work with health facilities and community health workers (after critical country- and process-specific customization, of course)?
Push for funding that reflects the cross-sectoral and iterative opportunities that digital tools bring, rather than seeing them as aligned with only one objective or sector in a program.
Honor the distinction of sector specialists and catalyze conversation in our own organizations about the possibilities that digital tools bring across sectors.
Think about ICT efforts as change efforts and integrate them into the programs from the outset, rather than as one area off to the side—often staffed with the same person who fixes the office server and computers.
Train ourselves and our staff to build up everyone’s understanding of data opportunities and data concepts including machine learning, data mining, and work with subject matter experts to build out cases that showcase this inherent cross-sectoral power of data and other digital tools.