ICTs and Citizenship

HIVOS is currently undertaking a survey to get a better understanding on how existing or new technologies (ICT) can support citizens at scale to be an active, involved participant of society. I was invited by Marc Lepage to take part in it, which I appreciate as it is always good to be reminded to think once in a while. Here come the questions and the short answers I gave to the survey, in part because it was a requisite, in part because of lack of time to do it better.

In 5 years time, what do you think will be the technology most used by citizens in developing countries to get information and to interact with others (including government)? Please, elaborate on your answer.

Personally, I find it reasonable to think that mobile phones will still be the most used technology. On one hand, due to its actual and growing pervasiveness above other devices and platforms. On the other hand, because more effort is being put in improving the flexibility and applicability of such devices by developing more and more applications for them while, at the same time, reducing their cost and simplifying their use thus shortening the learning curve.

Notwithstanding, the late generation of ultraportable devices or 4P Computers (e.g. the Acer Aspire One) – cheaper than other laptops, containing the most usual features (Internet browsers, desktop office applications, etc.), low power consumption, etc. – make us think of the possibility of seeing these devices as substitutes of not nowadays laptops but also desktops, maybe not at the household level, but yes at the SME and the local administration levels. As said, their lower cost compared with other devices, the features, added to the possibility to gain from VoIP where affordable connectivity is available make of such devices a most likely next step from mobile telephony towards a higher Internet use.

Worldwide we can see many successful small scale ICT/NGO projects. In your opinion, what blocks implementation at scale? Please, where possible refer to examples from the field.

First of all, I’d would be more sceptic at the fact of being “many” successful projects at all. I agree there are some of them, but I would not count them as many, at least in the long run, where the project ended being a pilot and became part of the daily life of the community, and sustainability left to be an issue and became just part of a more comprehensive business plan / daily costs of life.

That said, I see the following points as possible barriers to a major implementation scale:

  • the project, even being successful, was tailored without the active participation/knowledge of the government bodies, thus making it more difficult to be considered as a self-owned project
  • the project has not returns of scale, or is not scalable at a reasonable cost/benefit ratio. So, it is affordable at small levels (maybe because of a defective design regarding sustainability that only shows at greater scales) but is prohibitive for bigger shares of the population
  • the project requires skilled human capital that is available at small scales, but not at bigger ones
  • political situation swings or instabilities
  • loss of interest of the promoting institution (NGO, government, international aid agency, etc.) of going the long path of widespread implementation once the fancy and newish part of the pilot project has ended, proven successful and reported the major share of personal/institutional satisfaction and/or media timespan and/or published in peer reviewed journal.

What examples from the field do you know are strong in enabling citizens through new technologies to make their voices heard and/or influence the societies they are part of (e.g. monitoring election, accessing media, monitoring the quality of local service delivery)? And what do you expect to see in 5 years?

Some real examples: Global Voices, Mobile Monitors, Fix My Street, My Society…

I find many more examples can be found in personal and institutional blogs and websites, and social networking sites in general. Mobile (SMS) powered mobs should also be taken into account.

I would expect not many different things, but (hopefully) a higher degree of adoption I would not dub as pervasive. Web 2.0 and SMS based initiatives are still part of either the geek realm or absolute frontline early adopters.

Indeed, a chasm has been growing between those early adopters and the late comers, as it happened with the ones that have access to affordable and quality ICTs and those who have not. This chasm is being created by both the cost of being continually up-to-date and the message of geekery/elitism that these digerati (wanted or not) send to the non-initiated.

If you need to cite this article in a formal way (i.e. for bibliographical purposes) I dare suggest:

Peña-López, I. (2008) “ICTs and Citizenship” In ICTlogy, #60, September 2008. Barcelona: ICTlogy.
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