This year’s ICT4D Conference took place alongside Lake Victoria in gorgeous Kampala, Uganda. It was my first time attending, and it was great to catch up with friends and colleagues (old and new) and marvel at how much bigger the ICT4D sector is since I first joined it in late 2010 and Ken Banks and I been invited to speak on the one mobile for social good panel (true story!) at a telecoms event.

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If you were following this latest ICT4D conference Twitter chatter, you’ll know there was some criticism about how every ICT4D conference is the same. I hear that criticism, but to me this one felt different. The promise—and terror—of advanced technologies such as artificial intelligence and 5G raised new conversations, and the availability of data has largely shifted the discussion from ‘how do we get data?’ to ‘how do we make this abundance of data useful?’

My five key takeaways, in no particular order, include

  1. It’s important to invest in digital literacy: I was super pleased to see that, in addition to the one panel I organized on this topic, speakers across the conference raised the issue of digital literacy and how crucial it is to our efforts. I’m thrilled that this was one of the key conversations at the conference and hope we can hear more about it—including progress made!
  2. New types of (somewhat dystopian) challenges need new (citizen-empowering) solutions: There are some really big challenges out there. For example, large-scale electricity outages, internet blackouts, surveillance state use of artificial intelligence. These are things that we may need to deal with more as the number of autocratic leaders grows globally and China and Russia export their internet governance models. The ICT4D community needs to work more closely with colleagues in both infrastructure and governance to tackle these complex dynamics.
  3. Data is meaningless without data culture: Despite the obsession with data that has defined a lot of the ICT4D universe over the past few years, there are still real challenges around getting decision-makers at the highest levels to actually use the data that last-mile stakeholders, such as village health workers, are working incredibly hard to collect. Building bottom-up support and movement at mid-level bureaucracies can create positive change for digital policy at the national level.
  4. App overload still plagues ICT4D: Walking into one of the sessions, I heard a man complain that he’d heard about so many apps, but nothing about what has actually worked and been scaled. He is right. There’s still app mania in the sector and, beyond that, there’s still persistent challenges with duplicative efforts and poor quality control. Beyond some of the regulatory moves like what Uganda did to quell the mHealth pilotitis crisis, I’m not sure how we tame the beast that is the app obsession.
  5. Scale still needs to be defined—and proven: People like to get on stage and announce big user numbers—it’s one of the norms of conference life. But this norm needs to be changed. Getting real about what scale actually means—engaged and active users vs. passive users, for example—will help the whole sector be more transparent and collaborative around digital platforms. While big numbers should be celebrated, so should strong partnerships and smart decisions that bring efficiency to the market and a better, more feature-rich experience for the user.

That’s it from this end for ICT4D 2019! I hope that 2020 captures some of the insights above.