is multidisciplinary by nature and
already deals both with quantitative
and qualitative research. Moreover,
developing-region users differ in their
employment and adoption of technology and thus comprise an important
research direction for HCI professionals. In fact, HCI is arguably the easiest
discipline within CS in which to work
on ICTD research. Other areas with
some inherent compatibility include
systems, networking, databases, and
AI. For example, in systems and networking, which are not as multidisciplinary as HCI and more quantitative
in character, ICTD work is less natural,
but it can still fit well when technology innovation and novel usage are involved. Examples from top-tier conferences include work on delay-tolerant
networking, distributed storage, and
novel MAC-layer protocols for long-distance WiFi. In these kinds of approaches to ICTD research, there must
be a core technical nugget in addition
to real-world deployments.
However, research requires a great
deal of effort per published report,
given the challenges of deployments;
over the long term, ICTD researchers
must aim to produce papers that are
fewer in number but of higher impact.
Moreover, it must be noted that ICTD
tends to be driven by the solving of a
problem rather than by technological
innovation (often, in search of a problem), which means that many ICTD
projects may not have a core technical nugget after all. Such problems,
although highly satisfying to solve, are
harder to claim as CS research.
For most projects, the real research
is in actually discovering the specification of the problem via repeated fieldwork and deployments, which is similar in feel to iterative design in HCI.
Although HCI is an exception, CS does
not generally value problem discovery,
especially if the end solution is simple
(had we known to apply it). Researcher
Matthew Kam went through such iteration to create effective educational
games on cellphones:
• Evaluating 35 existing games for
PCs with village students.
• Creating 10 test games for English
as a second language (ESL) and testing
them with 47 students.
•Studying 28 traditional village
games to make the games more intui-
tive (compared to Western games).
• Implementing a new set of games.
•Leading an ongoing multiyear
study on the educational value of these
Overall, this process has taken over
four years and continues to this day.
ICTD is also developing its own
community values over time. The
clearest values so far are novelty and
on-the-ground empirical results, both
quantitative and qualitative. Less clear
are the values surrounding repeatability, rigor, and generalizability, and
least clear is how to merge the values
of qualitative fields such as anthropology or ethnography with those of CS.
Consider generalizability: CS values
generalizable results as an indicator
of potential impact, while qualitative
researchers often emphasize the differences in groups or users and aim
to broaden the dialogue. This leads to
placing value on reusable technology
frameworks, such as HCI toolkits, that
can be customized and easily localized. We discuss one such framework
here for mixed paper/phone applications. ICTD is also creating its own
scholarly forums for discussing and
disseminating this work. The International Conference on Information and
Communication Technologies and
Development and the International
Conference on Social Implications of
Computers in Developing Countries
are two examples.
What about sustainability?
Long-term impact requires that ICTD
projects be self-sustaining. First, after
the researchers leave and the money
stops flowing, does the project continue? Second, can it be replicated in
Sustainability is challenging to
define, and researchers disagree on
the details. Most agree on financial
sustainability as a key element: the
deployment must produce enough income to at least cover its costs. In this
view, philanthropy is acceptable for
“kick starting” a project, but not for
supporting routine operational costs.
Similarly, while projects typically need
not be wildly profitable, they should
at least be cash-flow positive, as credit
can be challenging.
The operating-cost issues add significant constraints to ICTD solutions.
They include not just the cost of the
technology but also availability (uptime),
power requirements, potential for theft,
and logistics. One common approach
to financial sustainability is to commercialize a solution; this has worked well
for mobile phones and treadle pumps,
for example. Even if a for-profit venture
is not the purpose, researchers must
essentially address the same issues of
costs, cash flow, awareness (marketing),
and ongoing support.
Operational sustainability is the capacity of the permanent staff to keep
the project going technically (without
the researchers). In theory, financial
sustainability enables operational
sustainability (by paying for it), but in
practice it cannot do so all by itself.
This is because of limits on local skills,
supplies, and logistics. Solutions must
be not only easy to use, but also amenable to straightforward diagnosis and
repair with limited training.
Training costs are actually underrated. ICTD projects, particularly in
rural areas, cannot view training as a
one-time activity needed only when the
project starts. Once trained, IT workers
are often tempted to leave for better
jobs in urban areas or other countries.
Thus training is a recurring cost, and it
must be short and effective.
These kinds of sustainability are
fundamental to scaling a successful
pilot project. Unfortunately, devel-opment-work pilots rarely turn into
large-scale self-sustaining successes.
Typically the pilot is small enough and
has enough researchers involved (with
their own support) that the financial
and operational issues do not really
hinder it. Thus the pilot is mostly useful to validate prototypes and assess
community reactions. The understanding of financial sustainability
requires a longer trial with detailed accounting and no hidden subsidies (
unless they are expected to continue at
scale); it also requires dealing with replacement costs and expected equipment lifetimes. Operational sustainability must be evaluated via detailed
tracking of problems and how and by
whom they were solved. In both cases,
the system evolves to reduce costs or
Finally, replication is the process of
moving a successful project to a new
environment. As developing regions