Category Archives: Postgraduate supervision

ICT4D Collective and Centre recognised as world’s 10th top science and technology think tank


ICT4D-72dpiforwebI am deeply humbled that the ICT4D Collective and Research Centre that we tentatively created at Royal Holloway, University of London, back in 2004 has just been recognised as the world’s 10th top Science and Technology Think Tank in the 2012 Global GoTo Think Tank Report launched at the World Bank and the United Nations in New York last week.  This accolade is all the more special because the ranking is based very largely on peer review, and therefore reflects the opinions of many people in the field who I respect enormously.  More than 1950 experts and peer institutions participated in the ranking process for the report which was produced by the Think Tanks and Civil Societies Program at the University of Pennsylvania.

Boy on streetThe Collective was established above all else to bring together colleagues who are committed to undertaking the highest possible quality of research in the interests primarily of poor people and marginalised communities.  Its work is premised on the assumption that ICTs can indeed be used to support poor people, but that we need to work tirelessly to overcome the obstacles that prevent this happening.

LogoIn 2007, we were delighted that the Collective and Centre was given the status of the UNESCO Chair in ICT4D, and although I am now only an Emeritus Professor at Royal Holloway, I am very privileged that for the time being I retain this title while also serving as Secretary General of the Commonwealth Telecommunications Organisation.  It is great to be able to draw on my past research and teaching experience in this new role, to help governments across the Commonwealth use ICTs effectively and appropriately for their development agendas.

Then, in 2009 Royal Holloway, University of London, formalised the position of the ICT4D Collective by creating a new multidisciplinary research centre on ICT4D, that brought together expertise primarily from the schools and departments of Geography, Computer Science, Management and Mathematics (Information Security), with contributions also from colleagues in Earth Sciences, Politics and International Relations, and Information Services.  This provides really excellent opportunities to develop new research at the exciting boundaries between disciplines.

Scholars 1Over the eight years of the existence of the ICT4D Collective, we have focused on a wide range of activities, but have particularly sought to serve the wider interests of all researchers and practitioners working in the field of ICT4D.  We were thus delighted to host the 2010 ICTD conference, which brought more than 500 colleagues to our campus, and we were immensely grateful to the generous sponsorship from global institutions that enabled us to provide scholarships for people to attend from across the world (pictured above).  We have also focused much attention on supporting doctoral researchers, and it is excellent to see them now flourishing in their subsequent careers.

LanzhouMost recently, under new leadership, the Centre is continuing to thrive, and has launched an exciting ICT4D strand within its established Master’s programme on Practising Sustainable Development.  In 2012, a Branch of the UNESCO Chair in ICT4D was also established at Lanzhou University in China, reflecting the growing collaboration between our two institutions, and recognising the huge importance that China is increasingly playing not only in terms of the practical implementation of ICT initiatives, but also into research in this area.

A huge thank you to all who suggested that the ICT4D Collective and Centre should be recognised in this way.  It is a massive spur to us all to keep up the work that we have been doing, and to share it more effectively with all those interested in, and committed to, using ICTs to support poor people and marginalised communities.

The top 20 ranking of Think Tanks in Science and Technology from the 2012 Global GoTo Think Tank Report is given below:

1. MIT Science, Technology, and Society Program (STS) (United States)
2. Max Planck Institute (Germany)
3. RAND Corporation (United States)
4. Center for Development Research (ZEF) (Germany )
5. Information and Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) (United States)
6. Battelle Memorial Institute (United States)
7. Technology, Entertainment, Design (TED) (United States)
8. Institute for Future Technology (IFTECH) (Japan)
9. Consortium for Science, Policy, and Outcomes (CSPO) (United States)
10. Information and Communication Technologies for Development (ICT4D) (United Kingdom)
11. Science and Technology Policy Research (SPRU) (United Kingdom)
12. Institute for Basic Research (IBR) (United States)
13. Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) (South Africa)
14. African Technology Policy Studies Network (ATPS) (Kenya)
15. Bertelsmann Foundation (Germany)
16. International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) (Austria)
17. Energy and Resources Institute (India)
18. The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) (India)
19. Santa Fe Institute (SFI) (United States)
20. African Center for Technology Studies (ACTS) (Kenya)

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On critical thinking…


thinker smallI overheard a strange and depressing conversation about critical thinking at last month’s otherwise excellent Online Educa conference in Berlin. Ever since then it has been nagging away at my mind.  So many of those involved in the conversation seemed to have a conceptualisation of critical thinking that is so totally at odds with my own!  For many of them, critical thinking seemed to be something destructive, a form of negative criticism of the works of others. Critical thinking, in their views, was all too often damaging, destroying the confidence of young academics, and a means through which supervisors impose and re-enforce power relations over their doctoral students.  This is so alarmingly different from my own perspective, that I feel I should share some of my thoughts here, not only to contribute to the debate, but also so that others may perhaps gain some insight into alternative views of critical thinking.  Here, then, are my list of the ten most important aspects of critical thinking.

  1. First, critical thinking is something hugely positive. It should be very far from the negative caricature summarised above.
  2. It is a way of creating new knowledges, rather than simply encouraging the regurgitation of accepted truths.  All too often, universities across the world today focus on teaching students accepted truths that they then learn and regurgitate in examinations, rather than liberating them to think for themselves.
  3. Critical thinking is therefore hugely creative, a way of encouraging people to craft new ideas that will hopefully better explain, or help us to understand, the world in which we live.
  4. It is fundamentally concerned with questioning and challenging accepted norms and arguments, weighing them up both through the power of reason and logic, but also through empirical experience to see which, for the moment, can continue to be accepted as approximations to some truth.
  5. My notions of critical thinking derive heavily from my engagement with the Critical Theory of the Frankfurt School, and especially the writings of Jürgen Habermas (notably Theorie und Praxis. Sozialphilosophische Studien, Neuwied, 1963, and Erkenntnis und Interesse. Suhrkamp, Frankfurt am Main, 1968).  In particular, for me, Critical Theory provides two important underpinnings for critical thinking: its emphasis on the interests behind all knowledges, and its focus on emancipation.
    • There is no such thing as value free science.  All science or knowledge, is created by individuals, or groups of sentient people, for particular purposes.  We must therefore understand these interests, and indeed our own interests, if we are to reach agreement on the extent to which such ideas can be accepted as accounting for any particular observations of reality.  Critical thinking is in part about understanding the interests underlying any claim to knowledge.
    • The ultimate purpose of critical thinking is about emancipation, both for the individual thinker, but also perhaps more importantly for the wider community of which that thinker is a part.
  6. Critical thinking is self-reflective, requiring a conscious consideration of how and why a particular set of thoughts comes into being.  In this sense, it is an ancient tradition, going back at least to Socrates, but being developed by scholars such as Dewey (Moral Principles in Education, SIU Press, 1909), and more recently Glaser (An Experiment in the Development of Critical Thinking, Columbia University, 1941) and Ennis (Critical Thinking, Prentice Hall, 1996).
  7. Critical thinking is committed to action. This, again, derives in part from my own commitment to Critical Theory, but it emphasises that thinkers must also be actors.  Unless knowledge is shared, in a sense liberated from the confines of the thinker’s own body, then its creation is a purely selfish, indeed arrogant process.  If society permits some of its members to be set apart for thinking (most usually in universities), then it is incumbent on those thinkers to ensure that the outputs of their thinking are indeed used for the betterment of society.
  8. Critical thinking involves serendipitous rigour (about which I have written elsewhere).  We need both to be rigorous in ensuring that we create places for serendipity, and likewise be rigorous in how we respond to serendipitous occurrences.  Serendipity is essential to the creative aspect of critical thinking.
  9. Critical thinking requires clarity of method.  I do not want to be prescriptive in defining any single particular set of methods, not least because many such lists already exist (Glaser, 1941; Fisher, Critical Thinking: An Introduction, CUP, 2001), but most of these focus on the importance of reason, logic, judgement, argument, inference and analysis.
  10. Finally, for me critical thinking is fundamentally about those who are privileged enough to be thinkers, using their thinking skills to enhance society and not just selfishly for themselves; it is, in particular, to use such thinking to help and enable the poorest and most marginalised individuals to improve their lives.  This is not just about action (point 7 above), but about action committed to a particular social and political cause.

There are, of course, many other aspects of critical thinking, but reflecting on that conversation in Berlin, these seem to me to be the most pertinent responses. Let me conclude, though, with a quotation from Herman Hesse’s Steppenwolf (Penguin, 1966, p.21), “‘Most men will not swim before they are able to.’ Is that not witty? Naturally, they won’t swim! They are born for the solid earth, not for the water. And naturally they wont think. They are made for life, not for thought. Yes, and he who thinks, what’s more, he who makes thought his business, he may go far in it, but he has bartered the solid earth for the water all the same, and one day he will drown”.  I used this years ago as the introduction to one of my chapters in The Place of Geography and it still seems as pertinent now as it did then!

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ACU Session at WISE 2011: Doctorates, development and the brain drain


I was delighted to be able to help the Association of Commonwealth Universities run a workshop on “Doctorates, development and and brain drain” at the recent World Innovation Summit for Education (WISE) held in Doha from 1st-3rd November.  This focused on four key themes:

  • the purposes of a PhD and the characteristics of those who have PhDs
  • the quality of a PhD; do we need standards?
  • alternative modes of delivery for doctorates
  • the brain drain

Although the number of participants was small, the discussion was highly interesting, and the mind map below attempts to capture what we discussed (click WISE 2011 for a .pdf version).

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On publishing in ICT4D


During the recent ICTD2010 conference, Hari kindly brought together a group of us to discuss academic publishing in the field of ICT4D.  Each speaker was to talk for about ten minutes, directing our ‘advice’ primarily towards those who may be less experienced in academic publishing.  Whilst I absolutely love seeing, holding and smelling the first copy of one of my new books, or reading one of my new papers in an academic journal, or seeing authors that I respect referencing one of my publications in their own work, I now recognise that a system that I once admired has become fundamentally, perhaps fatally, flawed.  There is sadly much that is not really scholarly and little at all that is value free in the world of academic publishing today.  It does not foster the excellence or originality that it is  intended to achieve.  All too often it leads instead to a morass of mediocrity and replication.

Two comments in the distant past still haunt me:

  • when my first academic paper was published, a friend and colleague said “congratulations, but you don’t expect anyone will read it do you”; and
  • a senior colleague in a government department once said to me: “I don’t ever read academic papers, I get consultants to provide a short synthesis of them for me”.

The reality of academic publishing is that very few papers are ever actually read, and few people are ever influenced by what is written in journals.

Some of the most challenging problems to do with academic publishing are:

  • Academic journals are fundamentally a way to ensure professional exclusivity.  They are a means through which one group of academics excludes others from participating in their ‘mysteries’.  Thus ‘apprentices’ have to learn the rituals and obey the rules if they wish to belong to this exclusive and privileged club.
  • Because of the need for authors to obey the rules, journals all too frequently fail to promote the very innovation that is meant to be their life blood.  There is a real danger that referees or editors will reject papers that are too innovative or fail to abide by the logics and requirements of a particular journal’s editorial board.
  • Many citation cartels exist, whereby in order to boost their rankings in citation indices, academics agree to cite each other’s papers in their own works.
  • There are also real issues surrounding the dominance of the English language, and far too few journal editors or reviewers are willing to pay heed to different cultural traditions of academic writing style.  We should do much more to enable people from different linguistic backgrounds to get their papers published in the ‘top’ journals.
  • Peer review is by no means the innocent, quality control exercise it is meant to be.  Far too often academics use it as a way of preventing ideas that are contrary to their own from being published.
  • Citation indices usually only incorporate the more prestigious journals, and thus often omit the more innovative and cutting edge papers.
  • The emphasis on quantity rather than quality of publication means that vast numbers of dreadful papers are submitted to journals – and it is very frustrating for editors and referees to have to sift through the dross!

The net outcome of these is that far too many papers that are published are mediocre and tend to replicate existing knowledge.  Moreover, many of these problems have become exacerbated over the last 20 years as academic publication in ‘top’ journals has become such an important part of research assessment exercises.

I offered five key tips for less experienced academics who wish to succeed in this environment:

  • The most important tip is that one must realise that academic publishing is a game.  New academics therefore have to learn the rules and play by them – if they want to achieve success in terms that the profession’s gatekeepers have defined.  Once your career is established, then you are in a position to try to change the rules!
  • Write something that is reasonably good and then submit it to a journal.  Referees are bound to suggest revisions, and so don’t be hurt by the comments.  Use them, alongside your own developing ideas, to improve the paper and resubmit it – in most cases it will eventually be published (as long as it is reasonably good in the first place!)
  • Publish less, but publish better; focus on quality rather than quantity.  When I was head of department, I remember encouraging colleagues to make sure that they published just two or three papers a year in major journals, and a book every three to four years.
  • Remember that few people actually read academic journals. If you want your ideas to have an impact, it is therefore essential that you make them available in different formats and contexts – as, for example, through your own blog
  • Only ever agree to have your supervisor’s name as an author on the paper if she or he has actually written a substantial amount of it!  Good academics don’t need to have their names on your research – although it is always nice to recognise their advice in an acknowledgement.

Two final points are worth mentioning.  The first is that publishing in a multidisciplinary field such as ICT4D is fraught with a particular set of additional difficulties.  Where academic success is defined in large part through publication in prestigious journals, most academics seek to publish their work in their own discipline’s top-ranked  journals.  It is thus more prestigious for a computer scientist working in ICT4D to publish in a top computer science journal than in a new ICT4D journal. Those who edit cross-disciplinary journals often therefore find that the papers that are submitted to them are those that have been rejected by other more mainstream journals.  Consequently, papers published in multidisciplinary journals are often of less good quality than those in the major single disciplinary journals.  This does, though, provide editors of multidisciplinary journals with an opportunity to be innovative and creative in what and how they publish. Moreover, it is incumbent on those working in the field to support new journals that are indeed trying to break the mould of traditional academic arrogance and exclusivity.

Finally, we need to explore alternative modalities of publishing.  Those of us working in the field of ICT4D should seek to use ICTs creatively to enable multiple voices from many different backgrounds to share their research findings.  However, we still need to find appropriate business models to enable more open and free publication options to be created.  Traditionally, journal publishers have added considerable value to the publication process, not least through funding the editorial and publication process.  Such costs remain to be covered, and few ‘free’ journals have yet actually enabled high quality original academic papers to be widely disseminated. We also need to work creatively with existing publishers, since they have much to offer the publication process.

For some of my more detailed reflections on peer review see:

[For the presentations by Geoff Walsham, Cathy Urquhart and Shirin Madon as well as the full discussion see the video “Publishing ICT4D Research available from ICTD2010 videos and photos]

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Analysis in Geographical Research


There are many books that provide students with detailed accounts of the methods that they can use in geographical research, but very few that give much guidance on analysis.  Hence, whilst students – both undergraduate and postgraduate – can often undertake a competent piece of empirical data collection, all too often they come unstuck when it comes to how to analyse the data.  This note is therefore intended to provide a quick checklist of tips to help with analysis in geographical research, and it is derived particularly from my experiences in helping PhD students to grapple with these issues.

  • Do not be beguiled into thinking that there is one definitive way to analyse data – there are many different types of analysis.  Thus, positivist approaches focus on ‘explanation’ and ‘prediction’, whereas hermeneutic approaches focus on ‘understanding’; some critical approaches tend to focus on encouraging ’emancipation’.   Whichever approach one adopts, though, there are certain key principles that can generally help to guide analysis.
  • Analysis is the way in which researchers choose to make sense of the data. All good research will have some kind of analytical framework, which makes clear to the reader how the author has tried to interpret diversity in the empirical data.
  • Analysis must refer back to the conceptual/theoretical framework of the research.  Research is about moving knowledge forward.  Hence, the analytical chapters of a thesis, must show how the empirical data gathered has enabled the author to make sense of questions raised by the literatures examined in the conceptual or theoretical introductory chapters to a thesis.  Analytical chapters must have just as comprehensive a bibliography as the methodological and theoretical chapters.
  • Analysis should focus on the ‘why?’ questions.  All too often, students tend to concentrate on descriptive questions, such as ‘what?’, ‘where?’, ‘who?’ and ‘when?’ when gathering data, without then going on to ask ‘why?’.  Unless ‘why?’ is asked, it becomes very difficult to explain or understand  what is actually going on.  This applies just as much to asking why particular geomorphological structures are shaped as they are, as to asking why people behave in the ways that they do.  ‘How?’ questions fall between these two extremes – they can be used to ‘explain’ ‘how’ something works, but I do still prefer to read about ‘Why?’ as well.
  • It can be helpful to think about ‘dependent’ and ‘independent’ variables when trying to shape an analytical framework.  Particularly when working within a positivist approach, it is useful  to think about one group of variables (the independent ones) explaining the variation and differences in the pattern of the ‘dependent’ ones.
  • It is very important to have a good idea about the analytical framework before going out ‘into the field’ to collect data.  Unless one has some idea in advance about how the data are actually to be analysed, there is a danger that much redundant data could be gathered or that it will not be possible actually to explain or understand it.  Remember the ‘Why?’ questions!  This raises important issues to do with the balance between ‘inductive’ and ‘deductive’ approaches.  Very little research is either purely deductive or inductive, and there is always an exciting interplay between theoretical and empirical work.  Even when the research is heavily inductive, a focus on consistently asking ‘why?’ questions in the field can help to ensure  rigorous analysis.
  • Analysis is about imposing structure.  Very often when one is immersed in exploring the data gathered in empirical fieldwork it is difficult to see any structure in it.  Sometimes it is therefore useful to step back and try to look at it in a different way.  Asking (and answering!) a simple question, such as ‘What are the three main factors that help to explain this?’, can help to impose structure.

I do hope this is all helpful advice.  Please add comments below about the things that you find helpful in undertaking analysis.

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25 years of PowerPoint


For some excellent advice on how not to use PowerPoint, see Max Atkinson’s recent article ‘celebrating’ 25 years of PowerPoint in the BBC’s online magazine.  It contains some great tips!

The BBC magazine also has a  selection of amusing PowerPoint experiences – 10 good ones, and ten bad!

Born on the 14th if August 1984, PowerPoint is still going strong – quite a testimony to the way our lives have been transformed by computer technologies.

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… on serendipitous rigour


Rhinefield-House-smallFor a while now, I have been thinking around the notion of ‘serendipitous rigour’ – which might at first sight appear to be a contradiction in terms.  However, sitting in the luxurious wasteland of the New Forest at the EPSRC Think Free retreat, I have discovered that others are also grappling with this notion.

So, herewith some interconnected  thoughts:

  • there is value in bringing together the concepts of ‘serendipity’ and ‘rigour’ – and in encouraging research practices based upon their intersection
  • serendipity can be defined as the effect whereby someone  accidentally discovers something fortunate or beneficial, particularly while looking for something else entirely – it is therefore crucial for creativity and the advancement of knowledge [note the origins of ‘serendipity’ in the Peregrinaggio di tre figluoli del re di Serendippo published by Michele Tramezzino in Venice in 1557, from which Horace Walpole coined the word]
  • the addition of the notion of rigour to that of serendipity is important for two reasons in that
    • we rigorously need to create ‘places’ where we can actually foster such serendipity, and
    • we also need rigorously to take advantage and benefit from the opportunities that serendipity provides

By encouraging the promulgation of serendipitous rigour, we may be able to escape the shackles and confines of our sterile academic milieu, and develop new concepts and practices that could make the world a better place

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