e-STAS 2009 (VII). Round Table: John LeSieur, Vivek Vaidyanathan, Raul Zambrano

Notes from Simposium de las Tecnologías para la Acción Social (e-STAS: Symposium on Technologies for Social Action) held in Málaga, Spain, on March 26-27th, 2009. More notes on this event: estas2009. More notes on this series of events: e-stas.

Round Table, conducted by Ismael Peña-López, Open University of Catalonia

John LeSieur, People CD

It’s out of question that technology connects people in very powerful ways. The question is how we make sure that the end user provides a good delivery for them.

The Asperger syndrome is part of autism and implies poor or none interaction with the other. An autistic child — LeSieur’s grandson — was introduced to technology, but refused to use it after minor browsing. Order was a must for autistic people. Communication must be picture-like. Browsers just do not work this way. This was the birth of the ZAC browser, a browser specifically designed for autistic people, that allows browsing through icons and minimum clicks.

The ZAC browser was not part of a business plan, or project management plan, but a personal commitment, done on an trial-and-error basis. It was after a first success, that it was decided to share it for others.

There is 1 out of 150 autistic children worldwide. So it made sense to share it worldwide.

Some parents have reported notable improvements in the lives of their children — and their families’ — after having used the ZAC browser. The ZAC browser is used by 750,000 people worldwide.

Now People CD is focusing in technologies widely used, but that are not really designed for a broad range of end users, i.e. paralyzed people. And this software comes out free to be used.

Vivek Vaidyanathan, ICT4D Consultant

He formerly worked at IT for Change to help organizations work in their own domain without bothering about technology. IT for Change promoted the use of ICT applications in development projects. He is now working in “poverty mapping”, using Geographic Information Systems to show impact of projects in developing countries.

In India the debate is not about FaceBook or Twitter, but about issues of connectivity or content in local language. And even if there is a growing ICT Sector, it is not aimed towards the local user, or local development, at least not directly.

The government is now planning to provide universal connectivity though an ambitious telecenter plan. But, nevertheless, it is again a plan to develop more an ICT Sector or Industry rather than providing more and better services to the citizens in a most efficient way. Nevertheless, some interesting e-Government issues started to happen and, hopefully, they will pull other clever uses of ICTs, specially because it’s public information and in your local language.

There is a problem with the sustainability of these telecenters and their services: they all began as a citizen service, which was free, and now trying to turn the citizen into a customer has made of financial sustainability a big challenge. You cannot ask them to pay for what was free.

Besides financial sustainability, social sustainability has also to be taken into account. Many people are left out of the ICT revolution because serving them is just not profitable, entering a vicious circle of exclusion.

Last, technology people should not lead the change, but people that do know the real needs of the end user… but of course work with technologists to know what tools to apply.

Raul Zambrano, UNDP

Freedom as development: development deals with people having the options to do with their lives whatever they want (Armartya Sen).

In 1992 the UNDP decided to begin distributing information (part of the Agenda 21 agreed in Rio de Janeiro in 1991) by e-mail, instead of fax or postal mail. This cut down costs dramatically… provided the receiver had e-mail too.

People do not need technology, but have basic needs: water, food, a roof… How can we connect these basic needs with ICTs? There’s a big divide in the application of ICT4D: there’s people that would “rather buy rice and not computers” and other people that would install computers before knowing the real needs of the population. How to merge these two approaches in a middle ground?

“I don’t want this or that technology. I want education. With quality, low cost”. If we can bring this education through ICTs, then that’s good ICT4D. Why don’t we benchmark or do market studies to supply public services? “Would you be using this or that public service? Supplied to you this ir that way?”

Empowerment is also about sharing or distributing power. Public administrations have to share their power with the citizenry. ICT’s enable networking and clustering people around common problems. ICTs enable exchange, communication. ICTs should not replace human networks, but to empower them.

Democracy is that the civil society and governments work together. Thinking of them as opposite powers is either sick or sad (depending on how true it is).

By the way, there’s more technology that ICTs.

Q & A

Q: It’s true that ICT are means (not goals), but how do we design the methodologies, indicators, etc. without mastering them before? Zambrano: impact is usually measured by number of accesses (to technology), not effective usage; it measures quantity of use, not social impact. There’s a need for public policies to foster change, with investment, with regulation. Technology does not change human development, is the supply of services. Vaidyanathan: people want to copy models they see everywhere, but what they actually want is not telecenters, but what people are doing with them (e.g. accessing public services, connecting with their relatives). Is the government focusing on telecenters or in providing these services?

Ignacio Martín: if the democracy is shared power, is it power finite? is it not about creating “more” power and not sharing or distributing it? Zambrano: power, in a democracy, is representative. And there’s a divide between the elected (to whom I transferred my power) and the citizen. This “sharing” of the power is about bridging this gap, of having some feedback of the power I lent to my representative. If democracy impoverishes me, democracy is clearly not working. Some technologies enable if not a direct democracy, at least a mediated representative democracy.

Q: We use technology in a social environment. Does technology unify diversity? Is there a cultural imperialism embedded in the use of technology? Zambrano: It depends of your intentions. You can use technology to impose your culture, but you can use it too to preserve and even recover cultures in risk of extinction.

Ismael Peña-López: Agreed ICTs are tools. But how do we learn to apply them cleverly if we do not dedicate some time at learning or developing new tools just for the sake of it? LeSieur: the Wikipedia approach is a good one where a couple represented by service+technology was issued at the same time and a brand new ecosystem (i.e. wiki enhanced encyclopedia) came out of the blue. Vaidyanathan: the challenge is to start somewhere, just to start. And solve it on the run. Zambrano: It depends on the place. In developed worlds, the divide is mainly digital, so it’s relevant to do R+D on ICTs. But in developing countries, the divide is social and the digital divide becomes trivial. Then, it does not make any sense to think about technologies for the sake of them. And sometimes, it is even the contrary: people do have technology (e.g. mobile phones) but have no rights: it is pretty straightforward to use the existing technology to solve a social issue, a fundamental need.

e-Stas 2009, Symposium on Technologies for Social Action (2009)

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

Peña-López, I. (2009) “e-STAS 2009 (VII). Round Table: John LeSieur, Vivek Vaidyanathan, Raul Zambrano” In ICTlogy, #66, March 2009. Barcelona: ICTlogy.
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