Magazine article UN Chronicle

Context and Design in ICT for Global Development

Magazine article UN Chronicle

Context and Design in ICT for Global Development

Article excerpt

Information and communication technology is deeply woven into the fabric of society and is integral to the way we do business, entertain ourselves, talk lo each other, learn about the world, and even feed ourselves. With nearly live billion mobile phones worldwide, the reach of ICT is increasingly global. However, even with this near ubiquity, the benefits of ICT remain uneven--access to the "world information society" does not immediately grant membership.


There are many reasons for this. Resource-constrained countries are struggling to provide electricity and connectivity to remote villages and rapidly expanding urban areas; ICT for schools and offices remain seriously underfunded by local governments working to provide basic services; and no matter how compelling the latest personal computers, tablets, and smartphones may be, many families and businesses simply cannot afford them. Yet economics and affordability are not the whole story. There are other, less obvious factors that keep many people from using and benefiting from ICT, simply because most ICT is designed by and for the wealthiest 30 per cent of the planet. Among these factors are: constraints in education and literacy; an incredible diversity of small language communities; political, religious, gender, and other social prohibitions on use; and differences in cognitive models--how individuals frame and organize information about the world. These issues cannot be addressed simply by throwing faster or cheaper technology at them. Good design in any context requires that solutions be tailored to the needs and desires of the people who will use them, and this, in turn, depends on a deep understanding of the context and constraint in peoples' lives. A central problem with ICT for the poor is that this kind of understanding is often neglected.

The examination of context and designing for constraint are core topics of research for the Technologies for Emerging Markets group at Microsoft Research India. For the past six years, we have been researching issues surrounding ICT for global development (often abbreviated ICT4D). This article briefly highlights two of our projects, illustrating the importance of matching technology and constraint. In each case, the design of the technology is intrinsically connected to the context, needs, and capabilities of the end users and the aid organizations we are working with.


In India, as in many places in the developing world, paper remains a key component of information management. Visit any government agency, hospital, or school in India and you will see masses of paper and carbon copies used to keep track of almost everything. While the problems associated with paper are well known, paper brings with it many advantages. It's cheap, it's language-agnostic, people are very comfortable working with it, and there is a sense of permanence to paper that the intangibility of digital information cannot match. Our question: is it possible to combine the appeal and simplicity of paper with the many benefits of digital data manipulation?

To explore this question, we decided to focus on banking and other financial services for poor communities. An estimated 3.5 billion people worldwide currently lack access to formal financial services. In India, self-help groups (SHGs) for micro finance have been very successful in providing access to such services for poor, unbanked people. More than six million SHGs bring formal savings and credit services to more than 86 million rural households in India. Women meet on a weekly or monthly basis in groups of ten to twenty and pool their savings in small amounts to borrow cheaply from both the group's own accumulated capital and a linked bank.

However, one serious problem that SHGs face is the lack of reliable financial data management. In one common arrangement, "federations" of 150 to 200 SHGs work with an accountant in a nearby town to update their records on a weekly basis. …

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