Geeks Like Us: How Academic Research Can Help us Create Better ICT Programs
Oct 18, 2016
In a not-so-distant past life, I was at the PeaceTech Lab, a spin-off from the U.S. Institute of Peace. For the most part, the Lab executes in-country technology and media projects, but one vestige of its parent organization’s think tank legacy is the Blogs & Bullets project—a research initiative done in partnership with some of the wonkiest political science and data analysis geeks from American University, George Washington University, and Stanford University. As I’ve made my transition into a full-time ‘do tank’ like DAI, it has become easy to dismiss (or forget) the somewhat esoteric pursuits of our friends in academia. But with the release last week of the latest installment in the Blogs & Bullets series, I was reminded just how important the work of the Ivory Tower is to advancing our understanding of the role of ICT in creating real world change in the places where we work.
Ever since the first Blogs & Bullets report released in 2010, the authors have used “five lenses of analysis” to investigate how ICT triggers or fosters the kind of bottom-up political activism we saw in Tahrir Square in 2011. According to the authors, these lenses are “designed to … avoid overly generalized arguments that social media generically causes democratization or radicalization or anything else.” Translation: If we’re going to talk about ICT causing change, then we need to be much clearer about exactly how we think that change is likely to occur.
The Five Lenses
You can read about the framework in more detail here (it begins on Page 9), but I thought it would be an interesting exercise to apply this framework to the kind of work we do in the field:
Individual attitudes and competencies: At their most basic level, ICT can change the way individuals interact with various institutions, for example, by providing them with new information (e.g. crop pricing or market information) or getting them involved in the political process (e.g. helping them locate their closest polling station). When we’re successful, ICT can even change an individual’s behavior (e.g. reduced smoking as a result of public health campaigns).
Collective action: ICT can also help large groups of people come together in common cause (as we saw in Egypt in 2011), or even at a hyper-local level to fight corruption, lobby their government for a policy change, etc.
Intergroup dynamics: ICT has become a powerful tool to create connections between people across different spaces—from the geo-political to the professional. They have even connected Western geeks with Egyptian activists.
Power and reach of the state: ICT can help the state do its job better. In most cases, that’s for the better, as in the case of Estonia. In other places, ICT can simply extend the state’s ability to crush dissent and spy on its citizens.
External attitudes: The intensely networked nature of ICT means issues go beyond the local, attracting the attention of audiences around the world—think of the #BringBackOurGirls campaign from Nigeria that received some high-power online support.
This framework, while it has its roots in academic research, can help us ask some critical questions as we build our ICT projects: which of these five levels do we want to affect? Is the dollar we spend on expanding individual competencies better spent on creating collective action? Are we confusing a globally trending hashtag with real change on the ground? More broadly, I hope we see more of this kind of research coming out of academia and that ICT practitioners can draw upon it to design better projects and interventions.
Geeks of the world, unite. We have nothing to lose but our poorly-constructed logic frameworks.