In our last post, we reviewed our top posts of 2018. The most-read articles covered a lot of ground—from Fortnite for development to digital lives in rural Malawi to making your own chatbot. We equally expect 2019 to be full of interesting projects, engaging conversations with colleagues, and, as always, meaningful opportunities to keep learning and doing better, more impactful work.

Here are a few topics we’re thinking about as we dive into the year. Let us know if you want to collaborate as we explore where they’ll take us—and stay tuned to our blog for updates throughout the year!


Applying Lean Human-Centered Design

In 2018 we tailored traditional human-centered design (HCD) to the types of projects we typically work on in emerging and developing markets amid unique funding and time constraints through a process we call Lean HCD. We honed our HCD chops in Guatemala on the Nexos Locales project with the launch of the MiMuni app in two new municipalities. In 2019, we are scaling this app to Afghanistan (or forking it, as the kids these days say). By systematically incorporating aspects of applied HCD—including our Frontier Insights methods and design thinking approaches—into digital activities and projects, we create digital tools that meet people’s needs and scale across geographies.

Getting Beyond Digital Hype Quicker

The year 2017 was when everyone started talking about blockchain, from chiefs of party in the field to every ICT4D conference organizer around the globe. Then 2018 saw a marked lack of scalable results from blockchain for development, culminating in the USAID Learning Team’s research on 43 blockchain for development cases without significant documented results.

As we see shiny new tech such as blockchain become more normalized, our hope is that we can more quickly get beyond the hype cycle to understanding realistic, promising (or disappointing) applications of these tools in reality. That’s why we built a blockchain last year, and why we will continue to explore more frontier technologies such as artificial intelligence for automation of job matching or biometrics for identification and delivery of social cash transfer payments.

Responsible Data Protection and Trust

How can we balance data protection best practices with using data to improve the impact of our work? And how can we do this while building trust with new users? Through our recently published paper on Digital Inclusion and a Trusted Internet by Jonathan Dolan, we address some of these critical questions. As data becomes more demanded as a part of our decision-making process, how do we make sure the flashy visualizations also protect the data of our constituents? And how do we systematically, proactively, and cost-effectively improve the data literacy of ourselves and those we work with around the globe? At both the national and global level, how do we address increases in surveillance, cyber threats, and fake news? These questions will continue to be on our minds in 2019—and I suspect for years to come.

The Future is Local and Market-Driven

The year 2018 saw viable, market-oriented digital entrepreneurship achieving success in unexpected places and in unexpected ways. See the GSMA Ecosystem Accelerator results, the work of Kosmos Energy in Ghana, and female entrepreneurs in Cambodia. As digital access continues to expand across the globe, local actors and market leaders are already growing digital ecosystems in unpredictable ways. Our job is to understand what is happening in people’s digital lives, such as in our Frontier Insights research, and in the regulatory and business environments, and address gaps that are holding back growth in the digital economy and the digital sector overall. Whether we do this on a small or large scale, supporting the expansion of existing digital activities rather than starting from scratch, is the only viable path forward for development.