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XVIII.4 July + August 2011
Page: 74
Digital Citation

African ICTD research (or the lack thereof)


Authors:
Shikoh Gitau, Paul Plantinga, Kathleen Diga, David Hutchful

As young practitioners and scholars, we are members of a wider community interested in HCI for development (HCI4D) and, more generally, ICT for development (ICTD). Our focus is popularly understood as the use of “digital technology to deliver specific development goals” [1]. We believe the best people to design technology to overcome development impediments are the people directly facing those impediments. Thus, given the extent of the socio-economic challenges that exist in Africa, we find it troubling that the works of African ICT practitioners and scholars living in Africa are under-represented in the HCI4D and ICTD corpus [2]. The poor representation of African researchers in the formal academic discourse indicates their overall lack of influence on the technologies and policies that transform the way in which information and knowledge are created and exchanged for the benefit of society. While there are pockets of excellent ICTD research and innovation originating from the continent, the rarity of such works in the discourse suggests a participation gap that threatens the African researcher’s ability to truly leverage the benefits of ICTs for their own communities and countries.

At the London ICTD2010 conference, we were overwhelmed by the sheer number of Africans in attendance. Yet the number of conference papers in the main paper sessions originating from African institutions was negligible: Other than one other paper in the main stream, and three more co-authored by Africa-based researchers in the larger poster session, there was very little to show in terms of African contribution. In the subsequent ACM SIGDEV conference, the participation was similarly low, with only two papers out of 24 coming from an African institution. Is it now a case of being seen but not heard? To the credit of the conference organizers, the first plenary session was on ICT and Development in Africa and included two presentations from Africa-based researchers. Since the first plenary sessions usually capture the attention of most conference attendees, it allowed us, as young researchers, to make a plea—or as Toyama aptly terms it, a “call to arms” [3]—to reflect on the ethical and theoretical roots of the ICTD field, and how these are undermined by the lack of African ICTD research.

In this article we reflect on the dearth of African representation in academic publications, address some of the feedback we have received since our initial research was published, and outline certain actions that we as young African researchers are taking to increase our presence in academic publications.

Representation Gap

The paper we originally published at ICTD2010 highlighted the low participation of African researchers in academic publications within the field and explored some of the underlying characteristics of this research gap. Contributions to “hard” topics in computer science and networking were particularly low, while contributions to the “softer” ICT policy and Information Systems fields were relatively high. There were also numerous references to contextualizing or adapting technology for African context, as well as managing external media influence from the West and now China. We suggested that there are three components to this representation gap:

  • Validity: The ICTD field is presumed to have strong participatory roots tied to the shift in development thinking over the past 50 to 60 years, but the lack of African research undermines this claim.
  • Shaping: Africa is not shaping the roots of “hard” technology development; instead, we see a preference for customization or contextualization. Until Africa becomes technologically deterministic, its development will continue to be dominated by external actors.
  • Relevance and legitimacy: External research—especially in “softer” areas of the HCI field—increasingly lacks legitimacy, particularly among African policymakers and government officials. This helps to sustain resistance to potentially useful technologies and policies.

Roots of the Problem

The roots of the problem with African research in general have been explored in significant detail within the ICTD field. They include the following:

  • Resources: Access to resources is one of the well-known challenges for African researchers, limiting their representation at conferences (and their integration into global academic networks), access to journals, and necessary support infrastructure such as broadband networks.
  • Research and innovation culture: In African universities the high demand for and focus on teaching diverts attention from research objectives and success. Moreover, the relative shortage of graduates in ICT means they draw high salaries in industry, and incentives for postgraduate study are therefore low. Finally, home governments often want to avoid spending scarce resources on what they see as wasteful research. This leads to copying, plagiarizing, and adapting rather than developing new ideas. And it ultimately undermines the development of a more fundamental innovation culture.
  • Research community: Low amounts of interaction between African researchers, both peers and mentors, exacerbates the negative aspects of research associated with the lonely road of academia. Collegial, collaborative relationships develop over many years of interaction and trust-building but are undermined by “big man” academic egos and competition for scarce resources. Further, cracking established global research networks can be a daunting experience for emerging African ICTD researchers.
  • Publishing norms: At a broader level, the research and publishing community is made up of academics with shared understandings of what constitutes priority research and acceptable methods. Publishers, therefore, have low incentives for diversifying output to alternative authors and an audience with limited purchasing power. This includes the omission of non-English publications, which affects the participation of the African Francophone, Lusophone, and Arabic populations, not to mention local language groups. While countries like Kenya and Nigeria have English as a working language, citizens have often been brought up using a vernacular home language. It is difficult to quantify the loss of context and meaning when translating between local languages and English.

Next Steps

Needless to say, our presentation provoked interest: We posed a challenge not only to the larger research community, but also to ourselves as an African ICTD research community. We received strong rebuttals pointing to the lack of capacity in Africa to produce world-class research output. Some argued that the best route African researchers can follow is to partner with more established researchers in the field from other continents. But, as we stated then and reiterate now, there is a need for indigenous research that emanates from the African continent. Partnerships between external research agencies and African researchers can result in a passive transfer of skills, but African researchers should also be empowered to lead their own research projects.

Acknowledging the weaknesses in African research and the need to align certain practices with those of other institutions, we welcome the move of the ICTD2012 committee to start a mentorship program that will give researchers from emerging areas guidance through their writing processes. In addition, we took on the challenge ourselves and established an online and physical space where African researchers can congregate and exchange ideas. The ICTD African Researchers network is an online community of young researchers based in Africa; many of us met at the parallel conferences of ICTD and ACM DEV. The recently launched R@iHub offers a physical space within Nairobi’s iHub where researchers can congregate and develop their research skills. It stands outside an academic institution and thus offers young researchers and academics the freedom to explore research at their own pace. It also offers opportunities for mentorship with renowned researchers in the field. These initiatives represent a way forward in two broad areas.

The first is to address resource and institutional issues both externally and internally. This includes advocating and incentivizing research (both academic and industry) and research-led teaching. This would also involve promoting collaboration between African universities for resource pooling, supporting open-access journals and reduced fees for improved access to information, and providing scholarships to conferences such as ICTD. Moreover, we emphasize the development of a local research community to grow peer and mentoring networks and encourage funding agencies to support African-led research and research capacity building. By supporting research in Africa by Africans, private companies, both international and local, can grow a potential source of competitive advantage and build long-term trust and legitimacy in the country and with local governments. Indeed, local governments may further prioritize funding for ICT research as an important growth sector and enabler of other sectors, while emphasizing the importance of original innovation and research to support the development of an innovation culture, and providing necessary platforms to nurture research. This could be coupled with the increasing involvement of returning African Diaspora members as potentially sympathetic and altruistic research partners. In the short term, this is an area in which the interaction design community can have a large impact, by developing methods relevant to the developing-world context. If adopted by African researchers, these methods would support the design of African technology for Africans by Africans.

The second broad area relates to the development of alternative research strategies within the ICTD field, including prioritizing the diversity of researchers as a credibility indicator for ICTD research. Also, while acknowledging the limitations of various forms of research, publishers can report on and integrate gray-area literature, such as working papers and technical papers, into formal publication streams. This includes exploring the impact and role of open innovation systems in relation to ICTD in Africa, and can potentially reduce the actual and perceived gap between “ivory tower” research in African institutions and the implementation of the research into practical benefits for African countries. Supporting this approach requires alternative dissemination methods such as “institutional repositories, online journal publishing, and digital archiving” [4] In addition, research would need to be conducted on the scope of patent, non-disclosure, and copyright agreements that can limit the dissemination of findings. Finally, local peer-reviewed journals should not be used only to publish local research, but also to encourage research collaboration and address issues specific to the country or context.

Conclusion

We make two general calls. We call on the wider ICTD community and the HCI4D community to recognize the lack of African research is more than an ethical gap for the field. Major developments from marginalized institutions that could make substantial contribution to the field are being missed—not just within the D fields but also in the wider fields of HCI and ICT research. Most people on the planet live in what are termed “developing” countries, and it is the research from these countries that will potentially impact the greatest number of people. We support and encourage current efforts (for example, offering bursaries to scholars from developing regions or reduced fees to join professional organizations, as ACM does) to address the global complexity of academic production and the resource challenges faced by emerging researchers. However, we also encourage the wider ICT community not to see inclusion of D research as a salve to conscience, but to recognize it has the potential to push the entire field forward.

However, involving the international community addresses only a part of the problem. We also call on African researchers to innovate in addressing existing infrastructural issues through greater collaboration and interaction. Investing in the exploration of alternative research strategies could help define better ways of doing academic “business” and provide a deeper epistemology of ICT disciplines. And at the individual level, African researchers should reflect on the imbalances between countries and create structures whereby citizens of countries with more resources can mentor citizens from countries with fewer resources. Even within their home countries, academics can be marginalized from rural communities and should be encouraged to bridge these differences through proactive, concerted efforts in local participation.

In short, we cannot turn a blind eye to the uneven nature of academic research. The current unequal mechanisms that support and judge research were developed and agreed upon in a pre-ICT environment. In their current form, neither research networks nor academic journals and the associated publishing environment work in favor of the success of African or developing countries. We imagine instead a different world. The opportunities provided by ICTs, such as open-access journals, should provide African researchers with a more equitable opportunity to share new theories and intellectual thinking. But this will not happen while the default thinking persists. If we are ever to see African researchers comment on and contribute to the solving of ICT problems in Africa, we need to start investigating the types of solutions we propose here. It may be that these are not the final words on the matter, but we believe it is time for at least some words to be said on this subject.

Acknowledgements

We would like to acknowledge the input of Erik Hersman of Nairobi’s iHub, Alison Gillwald of Research ICT Africa, Gary Marsden of the ICT4D Center, and Ken Banks from Frontline SMS for their comments that led to the revision of this work.

References

1. Information and communication technologies for development; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Information_and_communication_technologies_for_development

2. Gitau S., Plantinga, P., Diga K. ICTD research by Africans: Origins, interests, and impact. International Conference on Information and Communication Technologies and Development (London, UK, December 2010).

3. Toyama, K. Why R@iHub is vital to Kenya. March 10, 2011; http://www.ihub.co.ke/blog/2011/03/why-rihub-is-vital-to-kenya-by-kentaro-toyama/

4. Scholarly communication in Africa programme; http://www.researchoffice.uct.ac.za/socialinnovation/sca/

Authors

Shikoh Gitau is a Ph.D. student at the University of Cape Town, South Africa. She has an M.Sc. Computer Science from UCT and a B.Sc. (Hons) Computer Science from African Nazarene University. Gitau’s research interest is in the use of mobile phones for socio-economic development in Africa.

Paul Plantinga is a Ph.D. candidate in the Centre for Organizational and Social Informatics (COSI) at Monash University, based in Johannesburg, South Africa. His research focuses on the development of ICT policy in African contexts.

Kathleen Diga is a project manager under the South African Research Chair Initiative (SARChI) of Applied Poverty Reduction Assessment in the School of Development Studies at University of KwaZulu-Natal in Durban, South Africa. Her research focuses on spending behavior within the context of poverty and ICT in Africa.

David Hutchful is a user experience researcher specializing in the use of ICT for socioeconomic development. Prior to joining Grameen Foundation as a technical program manager, he was a researcher at Microsoft Research in the Technology for Emerging Markets (TEM) Group. He has an M.S. in Information and Human-Computer Interaction from the University of Michigan.

Figures

UF1Figure. A discussion at ICTD2010, which hosted many African researchers but featured little African research.

©2011 ACM  1072-5220/11/0700  $10.00

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