ICT4D: Facilitating communication and increasing the reach

Introduction

Information and communication technology for development (ICT4D) is a key component of contemporary humanitarian and development work. In humanitarian settings, such as for example a natural disaster or pandemic such as COVID-19 which the world is currently experiencing, ICT4D can be used to provide timely, accurate and reliable information to the affected population. In addition, it can be used to hear from the affected population in order to understand their situation and needs and responded in more effective manners. This post will look at how ICT4D can contribute to development, and in particularly humanitarian responses, by reaching a variety of audiences including those often left behind. Focus will be given to the role of ICT and social media, including blogs. This post will return to some of the examples which has been given in previous blogposts but also provide some additional examples, at the same as including more academic views.

Information and communication technology for development (ICT4D)

As stated in my first blogpost, information and communication technology for development (ICT4D) is a part of Communication for Development (ComDev) focusing especially on information and communication technology (ICT). It is a field that lies in the intersection between ICT, development and the transformative process by which ICT may lead to development.[1] Significant technological advancements and increased used of internet in the last decades has increased information sharing. Hyland Eriksen stated that “one of the most obvious features of contemporary globalization is the information revolution.” [2] The recent advancement has given more people the ability to access and use ICT. New technologies such as social media, for example Facebook, Twitter, TikTok and blogs, have become important platforms for discussions and information sharing which goes beyond one-way communication e.g. a state providing updates to its citizens or an organization providing information to their intended beneficiaries.

The study of ICT4D lies in an important juncture in time, “when ICTs are increasingly pervasive and when many different disciplines are involved in researching the area”.[3] In 2008, Avgerou identified three broad discourses which dominated the academic focus;

  1. ICTs as technology and knowledge transfer
  2. A process of socially embedded action
  3. Transformative intervention

However, in the last decade the academia, just as ICT in general, has increased and changed, and continue to do so. In 2017, Walsham identified some areas with future potential for ICT4D research, and amongst other wrote that “new ICT enabled models can transform the process and structure of development”. [4] Hence, he believes that ICT has a crucial role in development and great potential to contribute to the field. Another academic, Heeks, has provided good examples on how ICT have been, and can be, used in development, e.g. through what he called “connecting the excluded” which e.g. has been done through advertisements through SMS.[5] This is an important part in order to achieve development, as recognised by the “leave no one behind” slogan for the Sustainable Development Goals.[6]

One important factor which ICT and social media does is to facilitate the outreach and hence the listeners of the messages. As Manyozo stated “the act of speaking alone, even when successful, still guarantees rather little. The essence of the matter, …., is whether anyone is listening.”[7] Social media open up to new audiences with a possibility to reach not only at a local level, but also on a global level. It gives a voice, and listeners, to individuals who are otherwise excluded and not listened to. Youth and marginalized groups have taken advantage of this which has led to amongst other numerous social movements. In addition, as Rettberg put it, ICT has enabled a shift from “unidirectional mass media to participatory media, where viewers and readers become creators of media.”[8] This enables individuals to contribute to social and political change, something which is becoming increasingly recognised by academic scholars is various fields.[9]

Spreading awareness to wider audiences

One area where social media can be used for ComDev is in regards to awareness raising. These are often one-way communication but does play an important role in humanitarian settings where timely, accurate and reliable information to the affected population is crucial and life saving. Social media can be used by government authorities and organizations to share information to population affected by humanitarian crises. For example, it can be used to warn populations about upcoming natural disasters, such as cyclones or earthquakes. Furthermore, it can be used to inform people what to do afterwards and inform on what support is available.

ICT and social media makes it possible to reach the populations quicker, but also to reach audiences which are often excluded. It can contribute towards overcoming barriers such as distance and language.

A good example was provided in one of the earlier blogposts, “Awareness raising done right: The Story of Ebola” which looked at the video entitled “The Story of Ebola” produced by the Global Health Media Project in collaboration with the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, UNICEF and Yoni Goodman. The video uses storytelling to provide information on the Ebola virus disease and how it spreads by weaving messages into the story. Since this is a video, it is possible for illiterate people to understand the message, in comparison with awareness raising materials in the form of e.g. a poster or flyer with written information. Furthermore, the visual depiction, such as making the invisible germs visible, makes it easy to follow the video and understand, even if one doesn’t understand the language of the narrative. That being said, the video is available in a number of languages, including English, French, Swahili, Lingala etc.

 

Another examples was provided in the blogpost “Adapting to audience: Corona awareness on TikTok for youth”. It covered how communication strategies needs to be adapted to different audiences, using the youth as the main example. To reach the youth, the information needs to be shared in a way and through a medium, which fits them. In general, youth reads newspapers and watch news on the television less than most adult, but they are more frequently active on social media. Hence, social media is a good medium to reach youth as a target audience. Through bringing information and creating a space for sharing corona related thoughts on an already existing platform which the youth are using, such as TikTok which consists of short videos, it is possible to bring the corona discussion to the youth, on their terms. TikTok has taken proactive measure to educate people about the virus by both pushing back against spread of misinformation and by working with the Word Health Organization (WHO). The partnership with WHO has resulted in a Q&A page and a section on ”mythbusters”. Other organizations have also used TikTok to spread awareness on Corona. The videos on TikTok range from humoristic and youthful, to serious and informative. Furthermore, the Guardian reported that “teenagers on TikTok are bringing people together with memes about coping during the coronavirus pandemic”[10] hence providing a forum were youth can not only listen, but also share their thoughts and experience.

Obtaining information from affected populations.

Social media, such as WhatsApp, Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, can be used for much more than just one-way awareness raising, it can also be used to obtain information from affected populations and to inform humanitarian responses. Hence, social media can be used by affected population to communicate with their authorities, humanitarian actors and with each other. This can help authorities and humanitarian actors to understand the situation and the needs on the ground, both in humanitarian emergencies as well as in more long term development interventions. This is in line with the potential identified by Walsham above, i.e. to transform processes and structures of development. In addition, ICT and social media can be used by people to communicate with each other through messages, comments or other features provided by the social media platforms.

One example which was provided in the earlier blogpost “Social media in crisis” is Facebooks “Crisis Response” feature which include a “Safety check” function. If an incident, e.g. a cyclone, occurs which puts individuals in danger and a lot of people in the affected area are posting about it, a “Safety Check” function is activated which sends out a notification to individuals in the affected area. The individuals will then be able to mark themselves as safe and see the status of their friends.[11] Hence, the feature makes it possible to let people know you’re safe without messaging everyone individually. Furthermore, the feature also includes the option to offer help and makes donations during disasters. The help can include for example transport, accommodation, food or supplies. This opens up the delivery of aid beyond traditional actors, such as as states, organisations and civil society, to also include individuals as aid givers.

This “Safety check” is just one example of how ICT can be used to reach affected populations and to facilitate allow them to communicate with others, e.g. in hard to reach areas after a natural disaster or in an unsafe conflict areas.

Blogging

As previous blogposts have given examples mainly from social media such as Facebook and TikTok, while not given much recognition to the role of blogs, this will be lifted here. Blogs are closely connected to social media, Retterberg has stated that “Blogs are a form of social media that allows the individual to maintain power to a far greater extent than the most popular social media sites today.”[12]

Blogging is not as difficult as it may seem, one does not have to be an IT specialist who can code in order to set one up. There are various platforms and tools which facilitates the process. Through the blogging experience undergone through this course through this blog, a number of features has been discovered.

A key point is this is tools available in WordPress such as Readability and SEO scored. These helps creating more “blog friendly” text which are easy to read – just as blogs should be. While the Flesch Reading Ease-check target are adapted to ensure that an audience of around 13-15 years olds can easily read the texts, which is not always the targeted group for blogs and hence shouldn’t be followed too strictly, it nonetheless give important indicators and can help in the writing. Thing such as avoiding too long sentences/sections or including more transition words, can be useful for making the text easier to read for any audience.This facilitates the use of blogging and makes it easier for a broader category of individuals to start blogging and share their thoughts, ideas and knowledge.  This is also true for other social medias, it it is accessible and quite user friendly.

However, in order to achieve significant impact, outreach is important, this can be done partiality by using other social media, such as Twitter or Facebook, to interact with potential readers. To be successful, this takes time and effort, which has partially been lacking in the development of this blog. Followers to a blog, or other social media, e.g. YouTube, is something which is typically built up over time, only rarely significant increase in outreach is obtained overnight, and then it often due to a specific relevant element or it being shared by an influential individual.

Limitations and dangers with ICT

However, it is important to bear in mind the limitations and dangers with ICT.

While ICT and social media does indeed provide access to a constantly increasing numbers of individuals, there are none the less many individuals who are excluded. The world is still significantly in equal despite the significant developments. It is hence important to remember that while ICT makes it possible to reach more individuals, many of the poorest and most vulnerable are still left behind. In addition, some countries have censored content on the internet[13] or imposed taxes which in practice limits part of the populations access it due to financial constraints.[14]

Furthermore, the development of ICT has not only contribution to communication for good, but has also facilitated fake news, internet crime, pornography, identity theft, etc. These “darker areas” of the ICT development is something which needs further research.[15] Furthermore, Eriksen stated that  “electronic information can both be used from below, to criticize and expose powerful agents, and from above, to monitor citizens.”[16]

Some examples of this “dark side” has been provided in the previous blogpost on the Facebook “Safety Check” function. This included, as the Verge pointed out  “It sometimes gets activated when there isn’t a real emergency, leading to stressed out friends and relatives prodding you with Safety Check requests.” In addition, the TechCrunch has written about the very valid point that it can contribute to an “incorrect notion that the world is a terrifying place where unpredictable awful things happen frequently; they worsen the problem by attempting to treat the symptom”. However, this topic deserves some additional attention.

Another good examples, which illustrates how ICT and social media can spread hatred and the importance of fact checking, is the below video by Viralgranskaren/Metro:

However, important to remember, as Rettberg highlighted in the below quote is hat “Blogs, knives, and most other tools can be used for good or for evil. If we’re are of how to use them and how they are being used, we can help to shape the future”[17]

Conclusion

The above examples are just some of many which contributes towards giving a voice, and increasing listening, which as Manyozo stated above is essential, as well as the expansion of participator media as Rettberg wrote about. The use of social media to both reach and include more audiences show that ICT can not only “transform the process and structure of development” which Walsham wrote about, but that this is indeed already happening but there is also significant possibilities to increase its use and impact. The information revolution, through ICT and social media is without a doubt contributing to development, including connecting the excluded, but it is also important to remember its limitations and dangers.

 

 

[1] P.8 – 9 Maung K. Sein, Devinder Thapa, Mathias Hatakka & Øystein Sæbø (2019) A holistic perspective on the theoretical foundations for ICT4D research, Information Technology for Development, 25:1, 7-25

[2] P.182 Eriksen, Thomas Hylland (2014) Globalization: The Key Concepts (2nd ed.). New York: Bloomsbury

[3] P.18 Geoff Walsham (2017) ICT4D research: reflections on history and future agenda, Information Technology for Development, 23:1, 18-41

[4] P.19 Geoff Walsham (2017) ICT4D research: reflections on history and future agenda, Information Technology for Development, 23:1, 18-41,

[5] Heeks (2010b) found in Geoff Walsham (2017) ICT4D research: reflections on history and future agenda, Information Technology for Development, 23:1, 18-41,

[6] The United Nations,  “The Sustainable Development Goals Report 2016: Leaving no one behind” accessed through  https://unstats.un.org/sdgs/report/2016/leaving-no-one-behind on the 2nd of May 2020

[7] P.9 Manyozo, Linje (2016) The Language and Voice of the Oppressed in Hemer, Oscar and Thomas Tufte (Eds.) (2016) Voice and Matter: Communication, Development and the Cultural Return. Gothenburg: Nordicom

[8] P. I. Rettberg, J. W: Blogging (2nd edition). Oxford: Polity.

[9] P.82 Tufte, Thomas (2017) Communication and Social Change: A Citizen Perspective Cambridge: Polity

[10] The Guardian “’It’s corona time’: TikTok helps teens cope with the coronavirus pandemic” published on the 12th of March 2020  accessed through https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/mar/12/coronavirus-outbreak-tik-tok-memes on the 15th of March 2020

[11] Facebook, “How do I mark myself safe on Facebook or ask if someone else is safe during a disaster?” accessed through https://www.facebook.com/help/516656825135759?helpref=faq_content  on the 12th of March 2020

[12] P.65-66 Rettberg, J. W: Blogging (2nd edition). Oxford: Polity.

[13] E.g. China, BBC “Social media in China: What you need to know” published on the 1st of September 2012, accessed through https://www.bbc.com/news/av/world-asia-china-19399773/social-media-in-china-what-you-need-to-know on the 2th of May 2020

[14] E.g. Uganda, The Guardian “Millions of Ugandans quit internet services as social media tax takes effect” published the 27th of February 2019, accessed through https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2019/feb/27/millions-of-ugandans-quit-internet-after-introduction-of-social-media-tax-free-speech on the 2nd of May 2020

[15] P.28 Geoff Walsham (2017) ICT4D research: reflections on history and future agenda, Information Technology for Development, 23:1, 18-41,

[16] P.183 Eriksen, Thomas Hylland (2014) Globalization: The Key Concepts (2nd ed.). New York: Bloomsbury

[17] P.175 Rettberg, J. W: Blogging (2nd edition). Oxford: Polity.

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