This past week I attended TechCon 2016, co-hosted this year by MIT and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). TechCon is the annual gathering of the Higher Education Solutions Network, a partnership between USAID and top universities to harness the academic power, passion, and curiosity of students, researchers, and faculty to solve global development challenges. Spoiler alert: it was GREAT. It’s easy to forget in the day-in, day-out of ICT4D work that “technology” has a far broader remit than the work we as ICT4D practitioners do in it. Engaging with researchers and academics conducting research far outside my normal scope awakened a sense of real and joyful curiosity I hadn’t felt in awhile. So beyond this humble reminder, and that Boston in autumn is truly glorious, here’s a few other things I learned at TechCon.
Academics and Practitioners Live on Different Planets
I talk to people all the time. It’s part of my job. I talk to colleagues at DAI. I talk to vendors and partners in ICT4D. I talk to staff and partners on our projects. I talk to private sector firms, foundations, telecoms, regulatory authorities, and sometimes, every once in a while when I’m lucky, the actual humans we’re trying to serve.
I never talk to academics.
This struck me as I was sitting on a panel with two of them, Jonathan Donner and Philip Roessler, esteemed academics doing important work in mobile for development research. It is highly unlikely that we would ever have entered into any sort of dialogue if it weren’t for TechCon, and yet, upon talking, we all quickly realized how essential and important practitioner-academic dialogue is.
It’s Good to Remember We’re All in the Same Universe
In talking with Phil and Jonathan, and the many other academics and researchers I met at TechCon, what struck me was that despite the differences in our mandates and passions, we’re all working toward the same goal. It’s as crucial to learn from the more slow-moving work of academics as it is for them to learn from the high-pressure scramble of development implementation. I’m not sure (still) how to seek out and keep track of ICT research (do those things get tweeted?), but I will be making a conscious effort to keep tabs on the researchers I met at TechCon, their work and their findings, and bringing it into my own practitioner work at DAI.
ICT4D Isn’t Just Software
Because I specialize in mobile for development, my ICT4D world is one of apps, value-added services, mobile handsets, and connectivity. Very few other people at TechCon cared about that stuff—and it worked out great. I set aside my App-a-thon obsession for a few days and was able to learn about new things: hydrogel desalination techniques and innovative packaging to prevent food loss and network mapping using predictive data flows. This type of mental de-boxing is vital to being a good employee, creative team member, and flexible development practitioner. I was a full-on student again, and loved it.
We Forget the Resources We Have
I was asked a question during my panel from a student at MIT. He wanted to know what he could do, as a student with limited resources, to become more experienced in international development, specifically in the Digital Insights methodology I was speaking about. For so many, the barriers of travel and money preclude a career in international development. I thought back on my own career, and how I’ve been both lucky to get significant field-based work experience early on, but also how I just used the only unlimited resource I have—my own life. I would obsessively ask friends, family, taxi drivers, strangers on the subway about their phone habits and choices, and learned to identify patterns, refine my questions, and seek nuanced insights through this entirely geeky but free pursuit. It gave me pause to think about how personal a lot of this work is—on both the academic and practitioner side—and how we all could stand to remember what sparked our passion.