Category Archives: Accessibility

“Reclaiming ICT4D” – in the beginning

It is always exciting submitting a book manuscript to a publisher, and today is no exception!  I have at last finished with my editing and revisions, and sent the manuscript of Reclaiming ICT4D off to Oxford University Press.  I just hope that they like it as much as I do!  It is by no means perfect, but it is what I have been wanting to write for almost a decade now.

This is how it begins – I hope you like it:

“Chapter 1

A critical reflection on ICTs and ‘Development’

This book is about the ways through which Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) have become entwined with both the theory and the practice of ‘development’.  Its central argument is that although the design and introduction of such technologies has immense potential to do good, all too often this potential has had negative outcomes for poor and marginalized people, sometime intended but more often than not unintended.  Over the last twenty years, rather than reducing poverty, ICTs have actually increased inequality, and if ‘development’ is seen as being about the relative differences between people and between communities, then it has had an overwhelming negative impact on development.  Despite the evidence to the contrary, I nevertheless retain a deep belief in the potential for ICTs to be used to transform the lives of the world’s poorest and most marginalized for the better.  The challenge is that this requires a fundamental change in the ways that all stakeholders think about and implement ICT policies and practices.  This book is intended to convince these stakeholders of the need to change their approaches.

It has its origins in the mid-1970s, when I learnt to program in Fortran, and also had the privilege of undertaking field research in rural India.  The conjuncture of these two experiences laid the foundations for my later career, which over the last twenty years has become increasingly focused on the interface between Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) on the one hand, and the idea of ‘development’ on the other.  The book tells personal stories and anecdotes (shown in a separate font).  It draws on large empirical data sets, but also on the personal qualitative accounts of others.  It tries to make the complex theoretical arguments upon which it is based easy to understand.  Above all, it has a practical intent in reversing the inequalities that the transformative impacts of ICTs have led to across the world.

I still remember the enjoyment, but also the frustrations, of using punch cards, with 80 columns, each of which had 12 punch locations, to write my simple programs in Fortran.  The frustration was obvious.  If you made just one tiny mistake in punching a card, the program would not run, and you would have to take your deck of cards away, make the changes, and then submit the revised deck for processing the next day.  However, there was also something exciting about doing this.  We were using machines to generate new knowledge.  They were modern.  They were the future, and we dreamt that they might be able to change the world, to make it a better place.  Furthermore, there was something very pleasing in the purity and accuracy that they required.  It was my fault if I made a mistake; the machine would always be precise and correct.  These self-same comments also apply to the use of ICTs today.  Yes, they can be frustrating, as when one’s immensely powerful laptop or mobile ‘phone crashes, or the tedium of receiving unwanted e-mails extends the working day far into time better spent doing other things, but at the same time the interface between machines and modernity conjures up a belief that we can use them to do great things – such as reducing poverty.

Figure 1.1 Modernity and the machine: Cambridge University Computer Laboratory in the early 1970s.


Source: University of Cambridge Computer Laboratory (1999)

In 1976 and 1977 I had the immense privilege of undertaking field research in the Singbhum District of what was then South Bihar, now Jharkhand, with an amazing Indian scholar, Sudhir Wanmali, who was undertaking his PhD about the ‘hats’, or periodic markets, where rural trade and exchange occurred in different places on each day of the week (Figure 1.2).  Being ‘in the field’ with him taught me so much: the haze and smell of the woodsmoke in the evenings; the intense colours of rural India; the rice beer served in leaf cups at the edges of the markets towards the end of the day; the palpable tensions caused by the ongoing Naxalite rising (Singh, 1995); the profits made by mainly Muslim traders from the labour of Adivasi, tribal villagers, in the beautiful forests and fields of Singbhum; the creaking oxcarts; and the wonderful names of the towns and villages such as Hat Gamharia, Chakradharpur, Jagannathpur, and Sonua.  Most of all, though, it taught me that ‘development’ had something powerful to do with inequality.  I still vividly recall seeing rich people picnicking in the lush green gardens of the steel town of Jamshedpur nearby, coming in their smart cars from their plush houses, and then a short distance away watching and smelling blind beggars shuffling along the streets in the hope of receiving some pittance to appease their hunger.  The ever so smart, neatly pressed, clothes of the urban elite at the weekends contrasted markedly with the mainly white saris, trimmed with bright colours, that scarcely covered the frail bodies of the old rural women in the villages where we worked during the week.  Any development that would take place here had to be about reducing the inequalities that existed between these two different worlds within the world of South Bihar.  This made me look at my own country, at the rich countries of Europe, and it made me all the more aware of two things: not only that inequality and poverty were also in the midst of our rich societies; but also that the connections between different countries in the world had something to do with the depth of poverty, however defined, in places such as the village of Sonua, or the town of Ranchi in South Bihar.

Figure 1.2: hat, or rural periodic market at Hat Gamharia, in what was then South Bihar, 1977 1.2 Source: Author

            Between the mid-1970s and the mid-2010s my interests in ICTs, on the one hand, and ‘development’ on the other, have increasingly fascinated and preoccupied me.  This book is about that fascination.  It shares stories about how they are connected, how they impinge on and shape each other.  I have been fortunate to have been involved in many initiatives that have sought to involve ICTs in various aspects of ‘development’.  In the first instance, my love of computing and engineering, even though I am a geographer, has always led me to explore the latest technological developments, from electronic typewriters that could store a limited number of words, through the first Apple computers, to the Acorn BBC micro school and home computer launched in 1981, using its Basic BASIC programming language, and now more recently to the use of mobile ‘phones for development.  I was fascinated by the potential for computers to be used in schools and universities, and I learnt much from being involved with the innovative Computers in Teaching initiative Centre for Geography in the 1990s (see Unwin and Maguire, 1990).  During the 2000s, I then had the privilege of leading two challenging international initiatives that built on these experiences.  First, between 2001 and 2004 I led the UK Prime Minister’s Imfundo: Partnership for IT in Education initiative, based within the Department for International Development (UK Government Web Archive 2007), which created a partnership of some 40 governments, private sector and civil society organisations committed to using ICTs to enhance the quality and quantity of education in Africa, particularly in Kenya, South Africa and Ghana.  Then in the latter 2000s, I led the World Economic Forum’s Partnerships for Education initiative with UNESCO, which sought to draw out and extend the experiences gained through the Forum’s Global Education Initiative’s work on creating ICT-based educational partnerships in Jordan, Egypt, Rajasthan and Palestine (Unwin and Wong, 2012).  Meanwhile, between these I created the ICT4D (ICT for Development) Collective, based primarily at Royal Holloway, University of London, which was specifically designed to encourage the highest possible quality of research in support of the poorest and most marginalized.  Typical of the work we encouraged was another partnership-based initiative, this time to develop collaborative research and teaching in European and African universities both on and through the use of ICTs.  More recently, between 2011 and 2015 I had the privilege of being Secretary General of the Commonwealth Telecommunications Organisation, which is the membership organisation of governments and people in the 53 countries of the Commonwealth, enhancing the use of ICTs for development.

Two things have been central to all of these initiatives: first a passionate belief in the practical role of academics and universities in the societies of which they are a part, at all scales from the local to the international; and second, recognition of the need for governments, the private sector and civil society to work collaboratively together in partnerships to help deliver effective development impacts.  The first of these builds fundamentally on the notion of Critical Theory developed by the Frankfurt School (Held, 1980), and particularly the work of Jürgen Habermas (1974, 1978) concerning the notion of knowledge constitutive interests and the complex inter-relationships between theory and practice.  The next section therefore explores why this book explicitly draws on Critical Theory in seeking to understand the complex role and potential of ICTs in and for development.  Section 1.2 thereafter then draws on the account above about rural life in India in the 1970s to explore in further detail some of the many ways in which the term ‘development’ has been, and indeed still is, used in association with technology.”


Filed under 'phones, Accessibility, Africa, Caribbean, Commonwealth, Communication, Ethics, ICT4D, ICT4D general, India, Radio, Story-telling, Uncategorized

If m-learning is the answer, what is the question?

I was very privileged that Adrian Godfrey asked me to say a few words to introduce the session on m-education that the GSMA convened earlier today at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona.  It was good to be with a fun group of panelists, and I hope that we gave them some food for thought.

So, this is what I said.  It was designed to be provocative, but its intent was to emphasise that there are many different interests in the use of mobile devices for learning, and that if we are going to take advantage of the enormous potential that they can offer for the poorest and most marginalised then we need to recognise these interests, and work together in carefully crafted partnerships to deliver effective learning opportunities.

“If m-learning is the answer, what is the question?
MaasaiLess than two weeks ago, I was in northern Tanzania.  Walking across the dry savannah, I entered the thorned enclosure of a boma, or small village. I was welcomed by the Maasai chief’s son, who engaged me in conversation.  I remembered seeing striking images in the international media around 2007 of Maasai warriors, resplendent in their red, “lion proof” robes, holding mobile ‘phones to their ears, and knowing that I was due to speak a world away, here in Barcelona today, I slowly began to explore the question of mobile telephony.  I should not have done so.  The conversation left me embarrassed and humbled.

As my friends used their smart-phones to take photos, I asked “Does anyone in the village have a mobile phone?”

“No” he said, in his excellent English.

One of my friends asked “Would a mobile ‘phone not be useful to call your friends in other villages?”

“Why?” he responded, “I can walk two or three hours to see them”.

And I admired his life.

Earlier, he had shown me the small hut where young children were learning the alphabet and counting in English. So I gently sought to explore the benefits of mobile learning: “But if you had a smart-phone, could you not use it to get learning resources for your children?”.

He looked bemused. My question meant little to him.  He had asked for chalk and books.

I changed the subject.

Of course, many Maasai – and indeed poor people in rural areas across Africa – do indeed use mobile ‘phones, for a wide range of purposes.  But this brief conversation re-emphasised many of the challenges of mobile-learning, and highlights the importance of the question: “if m-learning is the answer, what is the question”.

Let me therefore tease out just four of these questions here in my opening comments:

If m-learning is the answer, what is the question?
How do we increase our data traffic?”  To me, this is one of the most important questions –  all too often asked behind the closed doors of the luxurious offices of mobile operators – that is answered by the term “m-learning”.  It is nothing to do with education or learning. There is far more data capacity in the world than is currently used.  The arrival of the submarine cables across Africa in recent years has transformed connectivity, and much remains unused.  Mobile networks are expanding rapidly, but again there is insufficient demand for their use. Hence, it is crucial for operators to encourage the development of more services if they are to generate the profits that they seek.  Mobile banking has been one such successful service emanating from Africa; now mobile health services, and mobile-learning are seen as important means of moving beyond the simple data requirements of social media apps.

If m-learning is the answer, what is the question?
“How can we gain external funding from governments and donors so that we can extend our networks?”
The costs of putting networks into low-density rural areas, far from the fibre backbones of most countries, greatly outweigh the likely returns, at least in the short term. It is “uneconomic”.  In many poorer countries of the world, operators have been able to gain lucrative revenue opportunities from those living in the relatively small dense urban areas, and have been able to circumvent requirements to provide universal coverage, that would benefit all citizens. Hence, operators are always seeking to find sources of co-financing that can help them extend their networks into “marginal” areas.  Where they have to pay taxes into Universal Service (or Access) Funds, they naturally want a share back in extending networks.  They need a handle to persuade governments, and indeed donor agencies, to provide resources to enable them to extend their infrastructure. How better than to persuade them that by so doing they will enable all of their citizens to benefit from the opportunities that m-learning has to offer.  “If you will help fund the networks, you can then use them to ensure that every citizen has access to m-learning, alongside m-health and m-gov”.  This makes real sense.  With the drive to deliver the Millennium Development Goals, the thirst by the international donor community to ensure that “their” targets are reached, and the aspirations of “enlightened” governments really to deliver valuable services to their citizens, m-learning really is the answer.

If m-learning is the answer, what is the question?
“What is the best market opportunity for our company?”
  Education is no longer of value largely for its own sake; it is a commodity to be bought and sold; it has become a vibrant market.  Hence, there are considerable profits to be made by everyone in the education industry.  The company could be an app-developer, eager to find the “killer” education-app.  It could be a publisher, eager to extend its sales.  It could be a teaching company (often known as schools), eager to grow the market for the services offered by its teachers.  Academics in research companies (sometimes still known as universities) are eager to compete to gain prestigious research grants to study, or perhaps more usually to “prove”, the potential of m-learning, and fuel this thriving industry. The explosion of mobile telephony, and the expectation that it will soon become ubiquitous opens up vast new possibilities for companies to extend the reach of their educational “solutions”.  We truly can achieve education for all, if only we can ensure that the poorest people can still afford a cheap smartphone, and that we can have universal network coverage.   And that is the point, it is education for all. Unlike “health”, which is mainly for those who are ill, learning is something that everyone “must” do.  It is institutionalised in our education systems, and now we are all encouraged to partake in lifelong learning.  Education is 24 x 7 x 365 x 80 or so, depending on how long we live – the magic multiplier number is 6,384,000 times the number of people in the world! This is a market indeed.

If m-learning is the answer, what is the question?
“How can we reach the most marginalised in our societies, and give them the highest possible quality of learning opportunity?”
  I guess this is the question that most people would have expected me to begin with. Of course m-learning provides a wealth of opportunity for the enlightened, the altruists, those who care about reducing the inequalities that digital technologies otherwise enhance, and hopefully some governments and civil society organisations, who are committed to providing quality learning opportunities for the poorest and most marginalised in our societies – those living in isolated rural areas, street children, people with disabilities.  The ubiquity of networks and devices, their mobility – anywhere, anytime – and their simplicity of use, all make mobile devices – be they phones, tablets or laptops, wonderful platforms for learning.

But we still need to work harder to find what works best. We still need high-quality, locally produced content, and above all we still need teachers trained in ways of using these technologies in the best interests of pupils.  Perhaps mobile devices may even one day free us completely from what many people see as being the shackles of an outmoded school system…”


Filed under 'phones, Accessibility, Africa, Commonwealth, Development, Education, ICT4D

Contributions to GSMA MWC Ministerial discussion on mobile-learning

It was great to be on Monday’s panel on “Why put ‘mobile’ in education?” hosted by Adrian Godfrey during the GSMA’s Mobile World Congress Ministerial Programme in Barcelona.  Mike Trucano set the panel underway by giving an important keynote on “Education, jobs and national productivity – why mobile education matters”, which was as usual full of down-to-earth sensible suggestions.  I suggested that governments should try cloning him, and each then have one clone to help them implement effective ICT and education initiatives.

Rebecca Walton (British Council) then hosted a panel discussion that also included Carolina Jeux (Telefónica), Chris Penrose (AT&T), and Tarek Shawki (American University, Cairo), asking us each a pre-set question to get the ball rolling.  Mine was “What are the three things that policy makers should know about mobile technologies in education, and what are the three things that governments should do?”.  This is actually much tougher than it might appear – keeping the list down to only three things each!

Here was my response:

Three things policy makers should know about mobile technologies in education:

  • The focus should be on the learning and not on the technology
  • Never ignore the content – far too many initiatives focus on putting equipment into schools or into learners’ hands – but often there is insufficient relevant content – and pupils do not always know how to access this themselves
  • It is essential to provide high quality training for teachers in how to use technologies in the classroom – and particularly mobile devices of all kinds. Keep mobile switched on in classrooms (and beyond)!

Top three things governments should do:

  • Approach mobile learning in a holistic and integrated way – bringing together all relevant ministries – ICTs, energy, education…
  • Focus on the most marginalised.  The market will take care of the majority, and it is the responsibility of states to deliver services for their poorest citizens. Hence, governments must implement programmes to support those living in isolated rural areas, and that will enable people with disabilities to gain the benefits of mobile learning
  • Begin by ensuring that the basic infrastructure is in place – electricity and connectivity (preferably mobile broadband) as far as possible making this universal.

I wonder what your three answers to these questions might be?

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Ensuring disability agendas are embedded effectively in national ICT strategies

At today’s WSIS Forum session on ICTs and disability (#ICT4DD) led by the Commonwealth Telecommunications Organsation and the UNESCO Chair in ICTD at Royal Holloway, University of London, more than 35 people in Geneva and some 15 people participating externally came together to explore ways through which accessibility/disability issues can be included more effectively in national ICT strategies.  Three breakout groups came up with some 17 main reasons why disability issues are not more included within such policies and strategies, and then identified 7 practical ways through which these challenges can be overcome.  Details of the outcomes are summarised in the mind map below (click on the image itself for a larger version, or the link below for a full sized version).

WSIS Disability session

Solutions recommended included:

  1. The need to build awareness
  2. Mainstreaming accessibility
  3. Providing incentives, whilst also using regulation and enforcement
  4. Education as a means for affecting cultural change
  5. Using a quality label as a means for creating a minimum standard
  6. Capacity development
  7. The involvement of all stakeholders (Nothing about us without us)

Thanks to everyone who participated, and to all of the session partners including the ITU, G3ICT, the University of Michigan, OCAD University, the Daisy Consortium, and the Global Public Inclusive Infrastructure initiative.


Filed under Accessibility, ICT4D

Social networks, digital technologies and political change in North Africa

Much has been written about the potential of new ICTs, and particularly mobile technologies and social networking software, to transform political and social systems.  A fundamental question that underlies all work in ICT4D is whether new ICTs can indeed be used by the poor to overthrow oppressive regimes, or whether, like other technologies before them, ICTs are used primarily by the rich and powerful to maintain their positions of power.  Until very recently, it seemed that despite the potential of ICTs to undermine dominant political structures, most attempts to do so have been ruthlessly crushed.  The ruling regime in Iran was thus able to suppress the ‘Twitter Revolution’ of 2009-10, and the Burmese government likewise maintained its grip on power despite extensive use of mobile ‘phones and the Internet during protests in 2007.

Recent events in North Africa, with the overthrow of President Ben Ali in Tunisia and the continuing protests against President Mubarak in Egypt, have widely been attributed in considerable part to the agency of mobile ‘phones and the use of social networking environments over the Internet.  Whilst it is too early fully to judge their importance in fueling such political protests, the following reports provide evidence in support of such claims:



Wider ramifications

Much research needs to be undertaken on the real role of ICTs in these ongoing political processes.  What seems apparent, though, is that many participants do indeed believe that these technologies are helping them achieve their objectives.


Filed under 'phones, Accessibility, Africa, Development, Ethics, Social Networking

UNESCO publishes report on ICTS for people with disabilities

UNESCO has recently published a short report by a group of experts on “ICT for persons with disabilities“.

This presented the following recommendations to UNESCO for consideration:

“Making UNESCO ICT-accessible
The group of experts recommended that UNESCO should ensure overall accessibility of persons with disabilities. To achieve this goal the Organization should improve its online presence and the accessibility of its website. It should also create accessible physical environment, develop appropriate procurement and recruitment policies, and ensure training and retaining of the employees.

Mainstreaming ICT in inclusive education
UNESCO is encouraged to foster effective use of ICT that are accessible, adaptive and affordable for person with disabilities. Specific guidelines and tools are needed to teach persons with disabilities and to ensure that corresponding ICT competencies are embedded in initial teacher training.

Mobilizing resources and international cooperation
The experts stressed the importance of identifying arguments for shifts in policy practices and determining funding opportunities where UNESCO could get involved. It is important to cooperate with organizations of persons with disabilities in order to get the best possible input and to have credible action lines and projects for funding.

Creating an information and knowledge access ecosystem
This recommendation focuses on “touch points”, such as WorldWide Web, broadcasting, publishing, languages, etc., in the system in which people and humans interact with information and services. It also includes e-governance, which could be used to promote e-voting and e-democracy initiatives for citizen participation in an accessible way, as well increase participation in cultural activities.”

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ICTs and Special Educational Needs in Ghana

Godfred Bonnah Nkansah and I are delighted that our paper on the contribution of ICTs to the delivery of special educational needs in Ghana has just been published in Information Technology for Development, 16(3), 2010, 191-211. The paper not only provides rich empirical evidence of the usage and potential of ICTs in the special educational needs sector in Ghana, but also argues strongly that much more attention should be paid to the positive benefits that ICTs can bring to the lives of people with disabilities across Africa.

This paper explores three main issues in the context of Ghana: constraints on the delivery of effective special educational needs (SEN); the range of information and communication technologies (ICT)-based needs identified by teachers, pupils and organizations involved in the delivery of SEN; and existing practices in the use of ICTs in SEN in the country. It concludes that people with disabilities continue to be highly marginalized, both in terms of policy and practice. Those involved in delivering SEN nevertheless recognize that ICTs can indeed contribute significantly to the learning processes of people with disabilities. Governments across Africa must take positive action to ensure that such experience with ICTs can be used to enable those with SEN to achieve their their full potential, whether in special schools or included within mainstream education.

For media comments on this research see:

  • The Commonwealth Secretariat News


Filed under Accessibility, Africa, Education, Ethics, ICT4D