Computers or vaccines? Technology, social networking sites and new citizenship

I was invited to present a keynote during the VII General Assembly of the Spanish Red Cross, on 26 March 2011. I was asked to talk about what should nonprofits do in view of the proliferation of social networking sites, online participation, cyber-activism and so.

In such cases, I generally try to avoid the usual showcase of “best practices” and go instead to what causes made possible those “best practices”. It’s a tougher option, as it often implies a trade-off from the “wow factor” towards the “what-is-this-guy-talking-about factor”. On the positive side, I pursue the trade-off from the “let’s-copy-these-actions” towards “I-know-why-they-worked-and-I-understand-how-to-design-them-myself”.

On the other hand, the representatives of the Spanish Red Cross were choosing their President and the members of the boards of directors of different regional levels. That was a very strong reason to shift towards more strategic issues instead of strictly practical and punctual applications of social media and nonprofit technology.

Thus, the structure of my presentation was explaining:

  1. What caused the transition from an Industrial Society to an Information Society;
  2. how people were leveraging their access to information and communication technologies for activism and self-organization;
  3. what was being the impact like for institutions, especially those that represented people’s interests: governments, political parties and non-governmental organizations.

In a nutshell, the main message was that the Internet, cellphones, social networking sites, etc. are not a matter of how you inform your stakeholders, how you communicate with your volunteers or how you convince your donors, but a dire change of the game-board that requires serious strategic reflections and decisions in the very short term. Evidence shows that many institutions will either go through a deep process of transformation or will simply disappear, and NGOs are included in the set.

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ICTs, Development, disciplines and acronyms

The increasing interest in the relationship of Development and Information and Communication Technologies, and the need to make things simple — and write quick — have spread a couple of acronyms: ICTD and ICT4D. There are people that find them perfect synonyms. There are others that state that ICTD stands for Information and Communication Technologies and Development, while ICT4D stands for Information and Communication Technologies for Development, and that they have slight connotations that make them different.

Chris Coward puts it this way:

In order to accommodate a broader scope many people have turned to the term “ICTD,” or ICT and development, to place the emphasis on the phenomenon of ICT use in developing countries, irrespective of whether there is a “developmental” goal or not [which would be the goal of ICT4D].

I find this difference interesting, but I would like to go one step beyond, in part because I agree with Coward on wondering whether it [is] meaningful to continue to lump countries into developing or developed buckets.

The two main drivers behind ICTD and ICT4D have usually been:

  1. Information and Communication Technologies with a “developmental” goal
  2. Information and Communication Technologies applied in developing or lesser-developed countries

The problem with the second one is that e.g. a network of telecenters in a rich country to foster Internet access in rural communities is, arguably, a perfect match in the field of development. But, although having a clear “developmental” goal, it is not happening in the poorest parts of the World, so it fails on the second part of the definition.

On the other hand, e.g. an e-Commerce or e-Administration project in a developing country does not necessarily has to have a “developmental” goal — provided we don’t understand “development” in the broadest sense possible and think of it as any kind of improvement on how things work.

Indeed, the concept of development has many definitions (based on Economics, on Freedom, on Well-being, etc.) as countries (developing and developed) have many realities and things that do not work (and need being “developed”) and things that do.

In fact, when talking about ICTD and ICT4D we are mixing two similar but completely different things:

  • Development as progress, as improving one’s or a community’s capability to perform an objective choice, a subjective choice and effective choice; or, in other words, the fostering of socioeconomic development by increasing individual resources, the fostering of value change by enabling emancipating values, and the fostering of democratization by promoting freedom rights. This is a vertical approach to development: we are more or less developed in relationship with our past stages of development.
  • Development as equality and inclusion, a completely horizontal approach to development: we are more or less developed in relationship with our peers or our neighbours.

With that in mind, my proposal would be the following:

  • ICT and Development (ICTD): The crossroads between ICTs and development as progress, with 4 main drivers: Health (which includes nutrition — a necessary stage to speak of development), Economics (objective choice), Education (subjective choice) and Freedom (effective choice). In this sense, ICTD would deal about the future by understanding the past, about the impact of ICTs in these four aspects but always in the sense of achieving higher stages of well-being.
  • ICT for Development (ICT4D): or how ICTs can fight inequality and (social) exclusion. This is neither dealing with the past nor with the future, but just dealing with the present. It’s about levelling the playing ground — wherever this ground is placed: in lesser developed countries or in suburban slums.

Graphically, it could be pictured this way:

The graphic is based on the intersection of two main fields: the traditional disciplines that we call Social Sciences (with a predominant role of Economics) and the new interdisciplinar approach to the impact of ICTs on the society: the Information Society, the Knowledge Based Society, the Network Society and other similar labels.

ICTD would be the broader intersection area of these two main fields, while ICT4D would be the intersection of ICTD and a subset of Social Sciences: Development Studies.

I couldn’t stop myself from also adding NGOs in the picture and see how Cooperation for Development — understood as the discipline that studies aid agencies, NGOs, volunteering and other non-for-profit initiatives — has also its ICT-driven counterpart, nptech (non-profit technology), also a most flourishing field.

Two final caveats about this whole digression:

  1. This is my point of view and it is not based, in any way, in any kind of consensus or majority point of view. Indeed, precisely because there does not seem to be any majority point of view that I tried to put in order my own mind.
  2. It’s not names that matter, it’s concepts. Whether we call it ICTD or ICT4D — or whatever new name that might come along — the important thing (to me) is that e.g. the analysis of the impact ICTs on productivity and competitiveness (and jobs and people) is similar but different to the analysis on how to avoid, by means of ICTs, poor people to starve or to be marginalized.

And this last point is, actually, the point I’m trying to put clear here: the debate on ICTs and poverty should also take place in rich countries, as should the debate on ICTs and productivity and competitiveness in poor countries. There are no developed countries with inequality problems and no poor problems with development problems: it’s a continuum where we all share the same goals and problems, though we’re on different stages. And I believe that to think otherwise will damage the speed at which we reach the “solution(s)”.

See also:

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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)

e-STAS 2009 (VI). Workshop: The hurdle track from ICT to Human Development

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.

Funredes: The hurdle track from ICT to Human Development

Results from a project for UN-GAID.

ICTs are but a tool. But there are some barriers to them:

  • Physical access
  • Financial access, affordability
  • Sustainability
  • Functional basic literacy (read and write)
  • Content in local language
  • Effective usage
  • Technology appropriation, technological literacy
  • Use with sense, informational literacy
  • Social appropriation, content creation with sense for my community
  • Empowerment
  • Human Development


  • Education and culture: about networking, about information, about processes
  • Ethics: about networking, about information, about processes
  • Engagement, multistakeholder, committed, along the whole process
See also


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

e-STAS 2009 (V). Round Table: Jorge de la Hidalga, Millán Berzosa, Jorge Pascua, Óscar Espritusanto, Pedro Cluster

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 Nuria Castejón, Observatorio de Cooperación Universitaria al Desarrollo

Millán Berzosa, Comunitae

Comunitae is a microcredit community, to enable people that would never have the possibility to borrow (or lend) money to be able to.

Jorge Pascua, Bubok

Bubok lets you publish everything you’ve written as a book. Publishing it’s not about technology, but also a cultural issue which Bubok aims at bridging.

Jorge de la Hidalga, Infoprision

There was a lot of misinformation about the life of people in jail, which caused refusal and exclusion. To bridge this problem, he issued Infoprision, as a guide for families with relatives in jail to look for information, guidelines, resources, etc. on how to behave, how to support relatives, where to ask for information, etc. It’s a virtual community too where people share their experiences and findings.

Óscar Espritusanto, Periodismo Ciudadano

Periodismo Ciudadano looks for best practices, translates documents, etc. so than the citizenry can set up their own citizen journalism projects. Periodismo Ciudadano is not a citizen journalism project, but a project for citizen journalism projects, a how to initiative.

Q & A

Espiritusanto: it’s not only about empowerment, but about the democratization of the channel, of the platform.

(Pedro Cluster, from indigencia, joins the round table and explains his experience with his blog about being homeless)

Ismael Peña-López: these empowerment projects, do they have an embedded criticism within? should they criticised the systems they are replicating or substituting? Pascua: there’s no substitution, it’s complementary; thus, no criticism intended. De la Hidalga: these projects are just citizen watchmen that remind the system — that generally works well — that there are some imperfections that need being polished, and that there are control devices that the citizenry is using. Berzosa: there’s both a complementarity and a criticism in these experiences; they are new models that both represent a criticism but that, at the same time, they provide alternative ways of doing things that the Internet just made possible. Espiritusanto: these models represent evolutions of existing systems; they are pioneers that go one step ahead of the rest of the system. Cluster: these empowerment projects defy the concept of the expert, which is the one that the “system” is based on.

Q: Is there a market that differentiates what is good from bad on the Internet? Pascua & Espiritusanto: it’s important that we have a sufficient level of digital literacy so that digerati oligarchies dominate not the debate or the digital tools. Then the “crowd” will be able to decide wisely.

Francisco Pizarro: How do we replicate our innovations? How do we go from pilot to mainstream, specially in social innovations? Berzosa: Competence is good, so being copied is a way to spread your ideas. De la Hidalga: a literate citizen will be able to tell good from bad and resonate the good things and mute bad ones. Espiritusanto: collaborating with your competence is getting more common every day, there are synergies in doing it and some projects even rely on this for success.

Espiritusanto: the most amazing thing is that the Internet has disclosed brand new ways of doing things, or doing things that we’d never thought before of. For instance

Pascua: the Internet is a mirror of real life, where some people succeed and some do not. The difference is that probability of being heard and sustainability are much higher. Ideas can be enabled and fostered as never before.

Marta Pastor: we’re investing in a medium (the Internet) that we do not control, but that is controlled by carriers, telecoms, etc. What if net neutrality is lost? Berzosa: net neutrality won’t be lost, it’s too important to allow it. Espiritusanto: alternatives would rise instantly, so no wonder about it.


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

e-STAS 2009 (IV). Round Table: Luis Millán Vázquez, Bárbara Navarro, Fernando Bothelo & Martin Alee Konzett

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 Idelfonso Mayorgas

Martín Alee Konzett,

ICT4D are enablers of empowerment and, most important, enablers of self-empowerment. We have to work towards a decentralized empowerment.

Bárbara Navarro,

ICTs have brought us (a) lots of information and (b) a voice to communicate.

Luis Millán Vázquez, FUNDECYT and expert at UN-GAID

We need to develop tools for the imagination, the Imagination Society. Most times, the problem is not doing things, but imagining them, thinking they are possible.

Fernando Bothelo, Literacy Bridge

We have to enable decentralization and taking ownership of the devices of control.

Q & A

Mayorgas: how to deal with control? Navarro: through open standards. Open standards provide confidence and make it possible improvement by third parties. Botelho: open standards have to apply to the whole process of information and communication, and think about it as an ecosystem.

Mayorgas: is cloud computing a solution to access ICTs? Konzett: a good thing about the “cloud” is that anyone can build their own “cloud”, with no need of being maintained or taken care of.

Mayorgas: IT for the people, or people for ITs? Vázquez: IT for the people, but not as a collective, but for the individual persons. We have to empower the individual beyond empowering communities. And universities have to bridge the knowledge divide.

Mayorgas: do we have to empower too the employees at firms (e.g. Google’s employees dedicating 20% of their times to their own projects)? Navarro: many interesting projects come from providing people with tools to enhance creativity. Botelho: Indeed, the processes are as important as the final results. The way things are done do matter and do determine the final results. And the methodology free software is being created and distributed is most valuable.

Luis Millán Vázquez: the Imagination Society — or the Information Revolution — links us through ideas, while the Industrial Revolution liked us through our common needs.

Marta Pastor: how do we actually bridge the digital divide? Fernando Botelho: when we take human rights seriously, everything else (i.e. access to ICTs) will be taken for granted. Luis Millán Vázquez: networks, technological literacy and ability to choose. Navarro: access to networks, open standards, declaration of access to technology and information as a universal service. Konzett: accessibility will most probably be not an issue, thus we should focus on education and open standards that enable decentralized innovation.


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