Workshop on the Politics of Digital Initiatives concerning Africa

By Kagan, Al | African Research & Documentation, April 1, 2007 | Go to article overview
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Workshop on the Politics of Digital Initiatives concerning Africa

Kagan, Al, African Research & Documentation

4-5 August 2006, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Summary of issues

Technology, funding, selection, free accessibility, partnership models, power/political relationships, priority setting, who decides, who benefits, who carries out the work, how used, how organized, what is included-these issues and many related topics were recurring themes during our discussions over the two days of the workshop.

Clearly technology is driving a great deal of what is happening, and in this setting where technology prevails, we are often so very focused on the technology that the purpose-the ultimate goal-of digital projects becomes less important. Considerably more attention needs to be given to the question of what is being digitized, who is participating in the decision making process leading to the projects, how the digital information will be used, by whom it will be used, how will it be formatted, and how will it be made accessible. While much discussion even on these topics can be consumed by technological considerations, the balance must be shifted to create a new relationship in the process. New models of engagement by all parties concerned are required if the prevailing patterns are to change.

In addition to technology, legal constraints and issues centered on ownership and intellectual property rights play a major role. Related to these issues is that of the copyright of the digital product of projects.

The location of the hard copy of the materials digitized is often a major issue in a digital project given the vast collections of African materials held in North American and European repositories. In addition to location, administrative decisions in repositories sometimes place institutional concerns over those related to the country of origin of the materials being digitized. Regardless of the location of the materials, a successful digitization project will incorporate into all aspects of its work substantive participation from the appropriate bodies in the country of origin of the documents.

Partnership as a concept in digital projects implies equality. In fact equality in the relationship of cooperating parties is often an unattained goal. In some cases it might not even be a goal. Equality of relationships in parties participating in digital projects is essential. In considering new relationships and new forms of collaboration in digital projects, emphasis should be placed on south-south co-operation.

Funding issues are also critical. The foundation representatives speaking at the workshop explained the frameworks in which they work and what expectations they have for relationships, productivity and sustainability with a recipient. Are there other models, other foundations, that might support an innovative approach to a digital project? Might The Christensen Fund, which has supported projects in indigenous knowledge preservation, provide funding for a digital project attempting to work in a new model?

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