Tag Archives: research

Safeguarding and digital technologies in research activities

The following is the text of a recent piece (revised version 2) that I wrote for a research project in which I am involved, but which may well have wider relevance. There is much more that could be written on this topic, but I hope it provides helpful guidance on some of the more important issues that need to be addressed by researchers with respect to safeguarding and the use of digital technologies, especially following the rapid expansion of their use since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.


Context

The COVID-19 pandemic has had significant impacts on the lives of most people, with social interactions becoming mediated much more through digital technologies than was heretofore the case.  Digital technologies are usually promoted as always having positive impacts, or at worst being benign.  This, though, is an unrealistic picture, and their ability to accelerate and accentuate negative as well as positive behaviours and experiences gives rise to significant safeguarding concerns. While the term safeguarding is traditionally used to refer only to children and vulnerable adults, it is now used much more widely and in a sense everyone without good knowledge of how to use digital tech safely is subject to potential harm from its use. The relevant safeguarding issues can broadly be divided into those relating to the self, those relating to others, and those impacting the environment.

Taking care of oneself

Many people have experienced a considerable increase in the time they spend using digital technologies as a result of COVID-19, not all of which is healthy or indeed safe.  Those responsible for safeguarding should always check that their staff enjoy the use of digital technologies safely, securely and wisely.

  • Time out.  Try to spend at least one day a week without use of any digital devices or connectivity; learn again the joys of the physical world, and the beauties of nature.
  • Digital duration. How long do you spend using digital technologies each day?  This can be very harmful both to the body and to the mind.  Think about installing a screen-time checker that will let you know!  Ensure your working environment (desk, screens, chairs) is appropriate for your body.  Give your eyes some time to relax and explore distant horizons.  Get up and take a short walk at least every hour.
  • Office hours.  Digital tech is frequently used to extend work time, and this has been exacerbated during COVID-19 lockdowns.  Set yourself appropriate office hours, and don’t respond to e-mails out of these. Submit a formal complaint if your boss insists you respond to e-mails all hours of the day and night.  When working across time zones always ask for arrangements to be made that can include you at appropriate times.  Don’t self-exploit (unless you really want to).
  • Privacy.  The more time you spend on digital technologies, the more information you give to others about yourself.  You might be happy to be merely a data point, but if not don’t just automatically click on accept when asked about permissions or cookies.  Think about using software that limits how much others can find out about you.  Use search engines that offer privacy such as DuckDuckGo.
  • Security. Always install relevant protection (antivirus, web, ransomware, privacy, malicious traffic) and use it (techradar Guide).  Create complex passwords.  Be aware of scams, spam and phishing attacks, and keep safe by never simply clicking on links without checking that they are safe – especially if they are from people not know to you.
  • Online conferences and meetings.  Be very careful in online calls, especially if you cannot see everyone.  In face-to-face meetings it is possible to pick up signs of how people react to what you are saying and thus adjust in real time, but this is impossible with most video calls.  It is thus easy to cause offence without meaning to.  Don’t waste your time attending the thousands of online conferences or meetings that you are invited to – most are a complete waste of time.  Only join ones that are critical to what you are doing, or are of real interest.  Think of limiting your time to c. 8 hours of online meetings a week, and spend the rest doing things that are productive and worthwhile!
  • Use social media carefully.  Social media can be great for connecting with people that you want to, but it can also be deeply hurtful and the cause of much violence.  Be careful over what you write, and avoid using it if you are angry or tired.  If you are trolled, never reply because it only exacerbates the attacks.  Don’t just accept anyone as an online friend unless you know who they are.  Take time away from social media.  Read guides on wise use of social media (such as that produced by Greater Good at Berkeley).  Report any abuse or harassment to the appropriate authorities (see how to respond to digital violence).
  • Never use personally identifiable media for professional purposes.  In particular, do not use your own digital media for research purposes.  Instead, always ask to use official e-mails, telephone numbers and media outlets.  For example, never use your personal mobile number to join a group on apps such as WhatsApp, especially for conducting interviews or focus groups, because you can never be sure who else is in the group, and what they might subsequently contact you about.
  • Behave wisely.  Remember that it is almost certain that some-one/thing, somewhere is almost certainly tracking and recording in some way everything you do online.  Do not be the one who causes harm to others online.

Do to others as you would have them do to you – but remember they are different from you

In many ways, safeguarding advice relating to others is the application of the above principles to everyone else, but especially to members of the team of which you are a part, and all those with whom you are researching.  It is crucially important to remember, though, that what is deemed to be acceptable use to some may not be acceptable to others.  There is as yet little global agreement on what is acceptable behaviour in using digital technologies.

Within a team

General advice that is often seen as being helpful for avoiding digital harm includes:

  • Always listen more than you speak in digital meetings – and do listen, rather than doing all the other digital things you need to catch up on;
  • Never impose one particular technology on everyone in the team – try to reach consensus but if someone will not use one particular app or device, find an alternative solution;
  • Never expect an immediate response to an e-mail, or on social media – if you wish to send e-mails at four in the morning your time do not expect others in your time-zone to respond;
  • Dramatically reduce the number of online meetings that you think should be held, especially when working across time-zones – most are an excuse to pretend people are working, most are poorly managed, and it is much more efficient to seek input on policy documents by sharing drafts (if relevant using multi-authoring tools) than it is to do so in an online meeting;
  • Be accepting of varying cultural digital practices, but make it clear if any of these offend you and explain why; and
  • Be strict in clamping down on any use of digital technologies for sexual harassment or other forms of abuse – these should be reported immediately through standard existing safeguarding procedures;
  • Find ways to mitigate the personal costs to team members of using digital technologies – remember that costs of internet connectivity, hardware and apps can be high for individuals, especially in economically poorer contexts;
  • Always ensure that team members are fully trained in how to use the digital technologies chosen by the team, and are fully aware of protocols concerning security, safety and privacy;
  • Ensure that all material and data relating to the team’s research activity is kept as digitally secure as possible, encrypted on trustworthy servers, and with strong password protection;
  • Always explain if you are recording a meeting, and do not do so if any team member objects – also, don’t be critical of those who object for whatever reason.

With research participants

  • Always explain to research participants how you will use and protect  any digital data that you generate together;
  • If you need participants to use any digital technologies, ensure that they are fully trained in their use;
  • Never force participants to use a specific piece of digital technology (or app) – always try to use the technologies with which they are familiar;
  • Never use digital surveillance or tracking mechanisms without the explicit and fully informed permission of participants – and even then try to find an alternative (you never know who else might be accessing the information);
  • Do all you can to protect participants from harm or abuse from their use of digital technologies.

Think about the environmental impact of the digital technologies you are using, and mitigate their harms

Digital technologies are often seen as a good way to reduce environment harm, but this is by no means always so, and many practices in the digital technology sector are anti-sustainable (see further here).  Those who consider that environmental harm should be included within safeguarding should be aware of the following:

  • The ICT sector contributes more carbon to the atmosphere than does the airline industry (see here from 2017) – virtual conferences are not carbon-neutral;
  • Video uses much more bandwidth and electricity than does audio (see here) –encourage participants in online meetings to keep their video off when they are not speaking;
  • Never contribute to e-waste by purchasing new digital tech just for the sake of the research grant – do all you can to repair and reuse your digital tech, and only purchase new when you absolutely have to (see the The Restart Project for examples and evidence);
  • Use digital tech (both hardware and software) that is as environmentally sustainable as possible;
  • Minimise the use of electricity (including in data servers, device production, and device usage), and where possible use renewable powered energy (such as solar mobile devices);
  • Purchase and use digital tech(including apps) from companies that are committed to minimal environmental impact (not just satisfying carbon emissions criteria);
  • Always switch off digital tech when not in use, and don’t just put them on standby;
  • Consider conducting an environmental audit of all digital tech used in your research.

Version 2

4th June 2021

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Filed under digital technologies, research, technology

On PhDs (in ICT4D): the good, the bad and the ugly

Several friends in recent weeks have contacted me about whether or not they should consider doing a PhD – and the first question I always ask is “why?”. How they answer that has a huge impact on how I answer their own question. However, it has made me realise that although I have written many bits and pieces about the changing character of a PhD, I have never pulled them all together into a single place. This reflection is therefore in part a summary of how I see PhDs as having changed since I completed all 642 pages of my own thesis in 1979 (having started in 1976). I hope that the insights I have gained in the 41 years since then may be of value not only to those considering doing a PhD, but also more widely to others engaged in the supervision and management of doctoral research in universities.

In summary, whilst there continue to be some brilliant students who complete outstanding theses within three years, the sad truth is that over the last 25 years the PhD has become significantly devalued and corrupted. It is time for fundamental change in PhD “production”.

I say this with enormous regret, since I see the PhD process as being of huge value and importance. It is, though, the only conclusion I can reach after having supervised 28 MPhil and PhD students since the mid-1980s (across different disciplines, and most as the only or first PhD supervisor), having examined PhDs in some 25 universities in 11 countries, having served for a decade on the Commonwealth Scholarship Commission (2004-14), and having also held various other roles relating to postgraduate research and training.

The following inter-related issues seem to be of most importance:

Not all PhDs are equal

There are huge differences in the requirements for and the quality of PhDs, not only between different countries, but also within countries, and even between departments in the same university. This is despite the use of external examiners who are meant to be arbiters of equivalence, and also despite the observation that most universities have fairly similar broad criteria for a PhD that focus on the advancement of knowledge through theoretical and empirical work. Imagine, for example, my shock when I was asked to agree to a PhD being awarded, thinking as I do that usually some 6 months of empirical field research is required for a good PhD in my field(s), only to be told that two weeks in the field was deemed to be sufficient by the university in question. The quality of expected intellectual curiosity, analytical acuity, conceptual ability, quantity of work, linguistic capability, and many other factors all vary hugely. The best PhDs remain outstanding pieces of research, but that cannot be said of all. Sadly, almost anyone with some ability can now be awarded a PhD at some university, even without resorting to some of the corrupt practices outlined further below.

Money talks and grade inflation

Grade inflation is well known at the undergraduate level (see for example Richmond, 2018; Lambert, 2019), but it has also happened at the Master’s level and even with PhDs. Unfortunately many (although again I stress not all) Master’s courses are poorly taught, and often seem to be mainly a means for universities to make as much money as possible from students willing to pay to differentiate themselves from their peers by having an additional Master’s qualification. This is a global phenomenon, but happens even in some UK universities that have a good reputation, which enables them to attract numerous higher fee-paying students from oversees. As undergraduate degrees become of lower value, it makes increasing sense for those students who can afford it to opt to get a step ahead by doing a Master’s degree – regardless of its quality. I have heard far too many stories of students paying to do a Master’s degree in a presitigious university, fully aware of the poor reputation of the teaching on the course, but still choosing to do so because of its perceived future benefit for their careers. Sadly there is a conspiracy of silence over this, because few students are willing to say publicly how poor the courses are, because that would immediately devalue them and thus their own status. Likewise no academic is likely to say that they teach a poor course, even if they rarely actually teach much of it themselves because they are too busy doing research and instead leave most of the teaching load to teaching assistants. The same is increasingly happening at the doctoral level. Universities are desperate for the much larger funds that PhD students bring – especially from overseas – and having accepted students they will do almost anything to ensure that they pass in one way or another. This can only lead to a lowering of quality.

The duration of a PhD

In the distant past, PhDs could unfortunately sometimes become a lifetime’s work, although they were never really intended to be this, and it has always been possible to complete an excellent PhD within three years. The expected duration of a PhD also varies somewhat between countries with different academic traditions. Nevertheless, from the 1980s onwards in the UK, Research Councils with their concerns to show value-for-money put increasing pressure on universities to limit the term of a PhD to a maximum of 4 years. Today, many universities insist that students must submit within four years, and failure to do so means that a degree is not awarded. In part this is driven by competition in league tables that include completion rates in their calculations, but it has also unfortunately often had the effect of reducing the quality of work submitted. In my experience, students who come from different academic traditions and more disadvantaged backgrounds often find it very difficult to adjust to starting a PhD in the UK, and I know that several of my own students in the past who completed very good PhDs would simply not have been able to do this within the 4-year limit now imposed. That would have been a shame, because they produced excellent PhDs and have gone on to do great things.

The pre-requisites for doing a PhD

It may seem strange for some to think that in the 1970s I went straight from doing an undergraduate degree to completing a PhD successfully. Now in the UK, most students must have at least one Master’s degree before starting, and even then they still have to do large amounts of postgraduate training especially in their first years of a PhD. In part this reflects the grade inflation that has so beset the sector over the last quarter of a century, with many people saying that Master’s degrees now are about the same standard that undergraduate degrees were from the “best” universities only a few years ago. However, it also reflects the increasing complexity of PhDs, and the requirement for postgraduates who wish to teach to gain relevant skills and training for their future academic career whilst doing their PhDs. Nevertheless, I still believe that a well-supervised, well-educated, outstanding undergraduate should be able to embark on a PhD without the necessity of spending time completing a Master’s qualification just for the sake of the certificate, especially when it is poorly taught and not necessarily of direct relevance to the topic of their proposed PhD.

Many other prospective students also seem to think that just because they have gained a Master’s degree somewhere (indeed anywhere in the world) that means they are undoubtedly capable of getting a PhD. This is very far from the truth. Only a few Master’s students in my experience have the inellectual curiosity and acuity successfully to complete a high quality PhD.

The challenges of part-time PhDs

I was recently asked if I thought that someone could successfully complete a PhD whilst also holding down a full-time job elsewhere. I responded quite simply “no”! It is extremely difficult if not impossible to do this and to submit a good thesis within a reasonable time period. Part-time degrees are meant to imply just that, namely that the student is also doing part-time paid work as well (not full-time), and if a full-time PhD is meant to be 3-4 years in length, then a part-time one, working >20 hours a week on it would require dedicated commitment for seven years which is a very tough order. I stand by this statement, and find it almost incredulous that some people can think of working 40-50 hours a week in paid employment and also do a PhD – especially when I feel that good PhD students should be committed to working at least 50 hours a week on their research for three entire years (with a few short holiday breaks). Yet many people still sadly do seem to think that they can complete a PhD with only a minimal amount of effort. This sadly just goes to show how the status of a PhD has fallen over the last half century!

There was definitely a time, though, in the mid-2000s when I very much championed the cause of part-time distance-based PhDs, and encouraged several people living in various parts of the world to join our ICT4D (Information and Communication Technology for Development) research community whilst working part-time in paid employment. This placed heavy burdens on them, and also on me as a supervisor, but it taught me a huge amount. None of them found it at all easy – and some found it very, very tough. However, they succeeded. Back in 2007 I therefore drafted a paper based on these experiences, although somehow never bothered to make the small number of revisions requested by a journal editor for it to be published. Having re-read it recently, I still think it has something of interest to say to those who are thinking of embarking on such a mode of PhD research and am now making it available here for anyone who might be interested – although it is undoubtedly somewhat dated.

Whose PhD actually is it?

I, perhaps too simplistically, still believe that in most cases a PhD should be the work of a single person, who actually does all, or certainly the vast majority, of it, from the research, fieldwork and analysis, to the writing up and presentation. To be sure things are sometimes more complex in laboratory sciences, or on expeditions when team work is essential, but even then the actual PhD should remain largely the work of one person – supported and guided by a supervisor (or a supervisory team) – and the precise amount contributed by others clearly stated. Not so long ago, supervisors worked carefully with their students, regularly going through manuscripts and helping them improve the quality of their academic writing. This is especially important when working with students from different cultures and academic traditions, and whose first language may not be the language in which the PhD has to be written. In the past, I often found myself spending a whole day going through a 10,000 word chapter for a student, and suggesting revisions to the text that could improve it. Increasingly, though, academics are discouraged from assisting students with developing these academic linguistic skills, because they don’t have the time to do it, because they are told that this is specialist work for support services to do, or because students who are accepted to do a PhD should already have these skills; sometimes students even object to supervisors commenting in detail about such things as sentence structure and written style, even though such comments are designed to help them develop these relevant skills!

A very specific, but increasingly common, issue arises when students send their draft work to an external “proof reader” before submitting it (there are many examples of companies offering this service, such as Scribendi, ProofReading, or Oxbridge Proofreading). It is relatively easy for a supervior to see when this happens, because there appears to be a dramatic, overnight, improvement in the quality of a student’s written work. It is, though, exceedingly difficult to know how much of a manuscrpt is actually written by the student, and how much by the “proof reader”. Given that having a PhD in a given language is meant to be indicative of the academic abilities of a person in that language, it seems to me that any substantial revision by someone other than a supervisor suggesting revisions to a draft is unacceptable.

At a further extreme, there are very clear examples of students getting a “friend” to do some of the work for them, such as doing the statistical calculations, drafting figures, preparing the templates, or even rewriting parts of it. If a thesis is meant to be a student’s own work, then these practices are likewise not acceptable. I remember drawing more than 50 figures with stencils and a Rotring pen for my own thesis, each of which took at least a day to complete – and that was without all of the computer generated graphs as well (which took some time to do back in the 1970s)!

Corruption within the system.

There are indeed many good supervisors, PhD students and management systems to support them across the world, but it also needs to be recognised that there are also many poor systems and outright corruption that must be rooted out, not least in my own country, the UK. Some dubious practices have already been suggested above, but these pale into significance when compared with the following examples.

Poor supervision and problematic examination boards

Sadly, there remain too many examples of poor doctoral supervision, although in my experience almost every academic I know well is hugely committed to this role, and sees it as a central and enjoyable part of their work. It is after all the main means through which new blood is brought into the system! Nevertheless, I am personally aware that the following practices still occur, and I am sure there are many others as well:

  • One of the main complaints is that some supervisors only rarely see their students. This has always been the case, but I know of cases where students have still had to complete their theses with only a handful of supervisory meetings over three years, and have been discouraged from making formal complaints about this because their supervisor is a “good academic researcher” and colleague in a department. Most students in such situations are also under severe pressure, not least because supervisors are often required as referees in their subsequent job applications, and in disciplines where supervisors are expected to be named authors on papers to make a complaint would severely handicap the submission of future publications from their theses.
  • Other supervisors have been known to use their students’ work primarily to build their own career and without giving them the credit for their original research [Partly for this reason, I have never asked to be an author on my students’ papers, and only ever write joint papers with them when I do a substantial amount of the actual research].
  • Some supervisors have tried to prevent their students from submitting their theses – occasionally right at the last minute – even when they themselves haven’t made the time to read and comment on final drafts. [It should always be up to the student to decide when a thesis is submitted].
  • Others are willing to take on large numbers of doctoral students for the prestige and income they generate, but know they don’t have time to supervise them all properly; the weakest often fail to swim and eventually drop out.
  • When it comes to the examination, it is sadly often the case that supervisors tend to try to find “softer” examiners for “weaker” candidates.
  • As an external examiner, I have also encountered very strong (and indeed quite upsetting) pressure from internal committees to change my mind; at least I won’t be asked to be an external again for such universities! [Increasingly, I have found myself warning universities that I will make judgements according to the standards that I consider appropriate, and when I suspect that a candidate may be weak I do not accept the invitation to be an external examiner. I have also been known to give my honest opinion of a piece of work, whilst adding the caveat that I don’t know the normal standard acceptable in an institution/country, and I would of course be willing to discuss the matter further].
  • I have recently been made aware of the term “Sexually Transmitted Degrees”, which is apparently quite common in certain parts of the world, particularly for undergraduates, but also occasionally for postgraduate degrees as well. I have to admit to being shocked that I hadn’t known of this term until the last few years – perhaps this shows just how naïve I am! It is, though, an issue that must be addressed – and the complexities involved mean that this is not necessarily always as easy as might at first sight be thought.

Fortunately, systems are being put in place by many universities to reduce such practices, but they do still exist, and tighter mechanisms need to be implemented to reduce poor supervisory and examination practices.

Student corruption

Much has been said and written before about problems with the supervisory process, but a few doctoral students are also themselves engaged in clearly corrupt practices. The extent of such corruption globally is unknown (although see Osipian, 2012; Denisova-Schmidt, 2018), but some inappropriate practices with which I am familiar include:

  • Paying someone to write part or all of a thesis. There is a fine line between this and the increasingly common use of “copy editors” noted above, but the widespread and sophisticated use by universities of plagiarism detecting software (such as Turnitin) has meant that those students who don’t have the time (or ability) to write their theses are now turning to professional dissertation and thesis writing services (see for example, Study Aid Essays, British Hub, UK Top Consultant, WritePaperForMe). One of these brazenly advertises its services as follows:

For 9 Years … has supported over 3,000 undergraduate, postgraduate & doctorate students with original custom essays, proposals, reports, literature reviews, full dissertations and statistical analysis in a wide range of subject areas

  • Arranging for a friend who will be supportive to serve as the external examiner. This should be precluded by the systems a university has in place for the appointment of examiners, but I even know of a case where it appears there was collusion between the student and the supervisor to ensure that a favourable friendly examiner was appointed.
  • Unfounded malicious accusations by students against their supervisors with the intent of ensuring that they are awarded their doctorates. Although these cases are rare, it is easy for a student to blame a supervisor for their own failings. Despite the apparent power relationships in favour of supervisors, some universities are so concerned about the “bad press” that can follow in such circumstances that they tend to find ways through which the student can succeed, even when the consequent standard is low.
  • The giving of lavish gifts by a student to their supervisor. This can be hugely complex, especially because gift giving has varying meanings and significance in different cultures. Nevertheless, it can be very problematic for a supervisor to accept expensive gifts from a postgraduate student before the award of the degree, even when there is no devious intent behind it [Gifts of appreciation after the award of a degree do, though, still seem appropriate should a student wish to give them].
  • I know several examples where doctoral students have not done the empirical field research themselves, but have instead paid for assistants to do it on their behalf, and do not acknowledge or admit such “help” in the text of a thesis. Given that I expect a thesis to be “all the student’s work” (see above), I cannot condone this practice, but I am aware that it seems to be acceptable by some universities in certain circumstances. Translation also represents a challenge, and I confess that in the past I have usually insisted that students learnt a language of the country in which they were doing their research.
  • I have not myself encountered cases where thesis data have been fraudulently “created”, but notorious examples exist, and the scale of this problem is undoubtedly greater than many people care to admit, not only in postgraduate research but also more widely in academia (see Hopf, Mehta and Matlin, 2019).

Many of these dimensions of corruption are extremely difficult to prove, but universities should recognise that they exist, and should do more to prevent them. In a nutshell, as less-able people seek to gain doctorates, the likelihood of fraud and corruption undoubtedly increases.

This is not only morally wrong, but it is also unfair on those many students who work extremely hard to achieve a PhD, it devalues the worth of PhDs in general, and it contributes yet further to a lowering of the overall quality of academic research.

A positive conclusion

Despite the above comments, I like to believe that most supervisors and doctoral students work collaboratively and well together, and that many truly original and excellent theses continue to be crafted across the world. Working with able postgraduates has certainly been one of the real joys of my academic career although there is no doubt that supervisory relationships are among the most fraught and challenging of any in academia. It is truly a blessing to see how the careers of most of those students who I have had the privilege to supervise have flourished and blossomed, and it is a joy to keep in touch with so many of them.

In the 2000s, recognising the need for me to give greater clarity about what was involved in doing a PhD in our ICT4D Collective, and to help students undertstand my own expectations of the superviosry process, I produced two documents. Having looked at them again, it is evident that they need some updating (they were last updated in 2007 and 2008), but I still stand by almost everything contained within them, and so am posting them here as a guide for potential students (and interested others) to what I try to practise as far as supervision is concerned:

The first of these emphasises that a good PhD should not be a life-work – that will come later! Instead, I have found that it is often easier to see a PhD primarily as something that provides evidence of the achievement of a key set of seven academic skills (slightly adapted below):

  • Being thoroughly conversant with the key intellectual debates in a particular subject area, and using this to provide a conceptual framework for the thesis
  • Being able to identify important novel issues from these that will form the focus of their research, and developing these into a clear aim
  • Being able to design a relevant methodology to undertake rigorous empirical work that will add to our collective knowledge in that research field
  • Then using this to undertake research and gain empirical evidence in a particular place or places
  • Analysing the results of that field research in the context of the theoretical or conceptual framework
  • Writing this up clearly and effectively in an interesting way
  • Drawing relevant conclusions that move knowledge forward, and (for the field of ICT4D) make new practical recommendations in the interests of the poorest and most marginalised.

Over the years, I have come to realise that students have varying strengths and weaknesses in achieving each of these. Many have difficulties in engaging theoretically and developing an approprioate conceptual framework, whilst the majority find the empirical field research most enjoyable. Nevertheless, a good prior degree should enable the first four of these elements to be done relatively easily. Unfortunately, some students can only get this far, and find it impossible satisfactorily to analyse the data, which results in an overly descriptive and thus problematic thesis.

I do hope that these reflections may be of help and interest to those embarking on a research degree – although I have very deliberately not answered the question that I posed at the beginning! That’s up to you, but I hope that what I have written will help you answer it!

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Filed under ICT4D, Postgraduate supervision, research

Understanding global diversity in the impact of COVID-19

Having written quite extensively about the dire responses of the British government to the crises surrounding COVID-19 earlier in the year, I have held back from further criticism and writing about this for almost two months. It seems extraordinary, though, how few lessons seem to have been learnt in Europe from our experiences with COVID-19 so far, and how so many people seem to be surprised at its recent resurgence. As many of us have said for a long time, this was only to be expected, and is a direct result of the the behaviour both of individuals and also of governments. Above all, it seems to to reflect the selfish individualism, rather than communal responsibility, that has come to dominate many societies in Europe and North America in the 21st century.

The lack of research as to exactly why different countries have such varying mortality rates is also shocking (see my The influence of environmental factors on COVID-19 written in May). As a global community, very much more attention should have been given to this, so that we could by now have a better understanding of what has worked, and what has failed. Answers to these questions would enable governments now to be implementing better policies across the world to mitigate the COVID-19 related deaths that are becoming ever more numerous.

The chart below indicates the very differing numbers of deaths from COVID-19 per 100,000 population in the countries of the world that have had more than 5,000 deaths as of 21st September 2020 (data from https://coronavirus.thebaselab.com). While all such data are notoriously problematic, reported deaths from COVID-19 are more reliable than are data for case numbers (see my Data and the scandal of the UK’s COVID-19 survival rate written in April). Deaths above the usual average (excess mortality) are probably an even better measure, but are unfortunately much more difficult to obtain at a global scale. Furthermore, it must be emphasised that this sample does not include all those countries that have had far fewer deaths, and that much more research is needed in explaining why it is indeed these 25 countries that have had the most deaths in the first place.

This chart raises many unanswered questions, but does at least show two key things:

  • Some countries have “performed” very much “better” and others much “worse” than average. India, Indonesia, Germany and Pakistan appear to have performed significantly better than Peru and Belgium. Why is it, for example, that Peru has 30 times more deaths per 100,000 than does Pakistan? Yet it is extremely difficult to see what either of these groups of countries might have internally in common.
  • There nevertheless seems to be a broad group of very different countries including Sweden, Spain, the UK, Brazil, Chile, Ecuador and the USA that have so far had between 50 and 70 deaths per 100,000. Again, these countries are very diverse, be it in terms of size, demographic structure, political views, or government policies towards COVID-19, although most seem to be fairly right wing and individualistic. Interestingly Sweden with its much more relaxed policy towards social restrictions during COVID-19 appears to have done neither better nor worse than other countries in this group.

The challenge, of course, is to try to understand or explain these patterns but sadly too little research has been done on this in a systematic way to be able to draw any sound conclusions. Put simply, we do not yet really know why countries have had such diverse fortunes. Nevertheless, it is possible to begin to draw some tentative conclusions:

  • Much has been made of the environmental factors possibly influencing the spread of COVID-19, but very little actual process-based research has satisfactorily shown how viable SARS-CoV-2 actually is under a wide range of environmental conditions (see my The influence of environmental factors on Covid-19: towards a research agenda from May). The data above serves as a cautionary warning: countries with similar broad environments tend to have very differing COVID-19 trajectories. Why, for example, are Latin American countries suffering much worse than those of Africa and Asia, although they share many environmental characteritsics in common?
  • A second challenging conclusion is that the actual policies followed by governments may not be that significant in influencing the spread of COVID-19. It is thus striking that Sweden, which has followed very different policies from its neighbours, has not done significantly better or worse than them or indeed other countries such as the UK and the USA, which are widely seen to have failed in dealing with COVID-19.
  • In searching for explanations, it is also pertinent to see whether these rates could in any way be related to varying levels of inequality. However, using the Gini coefficient as a measure of inequality there seems to be no significant relationship with mortality rates (R2 = 0.027).
  • Religious beliefs and practices, likewise, do not seem to be particularly good at explaining these differenceces, although nominally Christian (or atheist) countries do fill the top 15 places in terms of mortality rates, before Iran in 16th place. Other countries with large percentages of Muslims, including Turkey, Egypt, Indonesia and Pakistan all have less than 10 deaths per 100,000. The difference between India and Pakistan (neighbours in South Asia) is particularly interesting, in that India (predominatly Hindu) has a mortality rate more than double that of Pakistan. No satisfactory explanation for this has yet been identified.
  • There has also been some speculation that individualistic societies, where people care more about themselves than they do about being responsible for their neighbours, are having higher mortality rates than do more communal societies, and in this respect the contrasts between the USA and China are indeed very marked. It is extremelt difficult to measure individualism but correlations between the Geert Hofstede Individualism (IDV) Index and mortality rates do not have a strong correlation (R2 = 0.048).

No single explanation would simply account for all of these differences. An important conclusion must therefore be that there is indeed not a single solution (apart from a vaccine or other medical interventions) that is likely to prevent dramatic increases in the prevalance of COVID-19 in these countries, and that many more deaths are therefore certain over the next six months. As individuals, we all know what can make a difference: avoid large groups, wear masks, stay outside as much as possible, wash our hands regularly, and above all act responsibility with respect to others. At all times we mut act as if we have COVID-19, and imagine how we would feel if we were the other people with whom we were interacting, and they knew that we had COVID-19. If there is any solution to COVID-19, it must be that we act responsibly rather than selfishly (see my A differentiated, responsibilities-based approach to living with the Covid-19 pandemic written in June).


The full list of countries with >5000 deaths by 21st September and therefore included in this analysis is (in descending order of deaths per 100,000) : Peru, Belgium, Spain, Brazil, Chile, Ecuador, USA, UK, Italy, Sweden, Mexico, France, Colombia, Netherlands, Argentina, Iran, South Africa, Canada, Russia, Germany, Turkey, India, Egypt, Indonesia, Pakistan

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Donor and government funding of Covid-19 digital initiatives

Masai children 2We are all going to be affected by Covid-19, and we must work together across the world if we are going to come out of the next year peacefully and coherently.  The world in a year’s time will be fundamentally different from how it is now; now is the time to start planning for that future. The countries that will be most adversely affected by Covid-19 are not the rich and powerful, but those that are the weakest and that have the least developed healthcare systems.  Across the world, many well-intentioned people are struggling to do what they can to make a difference in the short-term, but many of these initiatives will fail; most of them are duplicating ongoing activity elsewhere; many of them will do more harm than good.

This is a plea for us all to learn from our past mistakes, and work collaboratively in the interests of the world’s poorest and most marginalised rather than competitively and selfishly for ourselves.

Past mistakes

Bilateral donors and international organisations are always eager to use their resources at times of crisis both to try to do good, but also to be seen to be trying to do good.  Companies and civil society organisations also often try to use such crises to generate revenue and raise their own profiles.  As a result many crises tend to benefit the companies and NGOs more than they do the purportedly intended beneficiaries.

This was classically, and sadly, demonstrated in the Ebola outbreak in West Africa in 2014, especially with the funding of numerous Internet-based initiatives – at a time when only a small fraction of the population in the infected countries was actually connected to the Internet.  At that time, I wrote a short piece that highlighted the many initiatives ongoing in the continent.  Amongst other things this noted that:

  • “A real challenge now, though, is that so many initiatives are trying to develop digital resources to support the response to Ebola that there is a danger of massive duplication of effort, overlap, and simply overload on the already stretched infrastructure, and indeed people, in the affected countries”, and
  • “Many, many poor people will die of Ebola before we get it under control collectively. We must never make the same mistakes again”.

I have not subsequently found any rigorous monitoring and evaluation reports about the efficacy of most of the initiatives that I then listed, nor of the countless other digital technology projects that were funded and implemented at the time.  However, many such projects hadn’t produced anything of value before the crisis ended, and most failed to many any significant impact on mortality rates or on the lives of those people affected.

In the hope of trying not to make these same mistakes again, might I suggest the following short-term and longer-term things to bear in mind as we seek to reduce the deaths and disruption caused by Covid-19.

Short-term responses

The following five short-term issues strike me as being particularly important for governments and donors to bear in mind, especially in the context of the use of digital technologies:

  • Support and use existing technologies.  In most (but not all) instances the development and production of new technological solutions will take longer than the immediate outbreak that they are designed to respond to.  Only fund initiatives that will still be relevant after the immediate crisis is over, or that will enable better responses to be made to similar crises in the future.  Support solutions that are already proven to work.
  • Co-ordinate and collaborate rather than compete. Countless initiatives are being developed to try to resolves certain aspects of the Covid-19 crisis, such as lack of ventilators or the development of effective testing kits (see below).  This is often because of factors such as national pride and the competitive advantage that many companies (and NGOs) are seeking to achieve.  As a result, there is wasteful duplication of effort, insufficient sharing of good practice, and the poor and marginalised usually do not receive the optimal treatment.  It is essential for international organisations to share widely accepted good practices and technological designs that can be used across the world in the interests of the least powerful.
  • Ensure that what you fund does more good than harm.  Many initiatives are rushed onto the market without having been sufficiently tried and tested in clinical contexts.  Already, we have seen a plethora of false information being published about Covid-19, some out of ignorance and some deliberate falsification.  It is essential that governments and donors support reliable initiatives, and that possible unintended consequences are thorouighly considered.
  • Remember that science is a contested field.  Value-free science does not exisit.  Scientists are generally as interested in their own careers as anyone else.  There is also little universal scientific agreement on anything.  Hence, it is important for politicians and decision makers carefully to evaluate different ideas and proposed solutions, and never to resort to claiming that they are acting on scientific advice.  If you are a leader you have to make some tough decisions.
  • Ensure that funding goes to where it is most needed.  In many such crises funding that is made available is inappropriately used, and it is therefore essential for governments and donors to put in place effective and robus measures to ensure transparency and probity in funding.  A recent letter from Transparency International to the US Congress, for example, recommends 25 anti-corruption measures that it believes are necessary to ” help protect against self-interested parties taking advantage of this emergency for their own benefit and thereby undermining the safety of our communities”.

In the medium term…

Immediate action on Covid-19 is urgent, but a well thought-through and rigorous medium-term response by governments and donors is even more important, especially in the context of the use of digital technologies:

  • We must start planning now for what the world will be like in 18 months time.  Two things about Covid-19 are certain: many people will die, and it will change the world forever.  Already it is clear that one outcome will be vastly greater global use  of digital technologies.  This, for example, is likely dramatically to change the ways in which people shop: as they get used to buying more of their requirements online, traditional suppliers will have to adapt their practices very much more rapipdly than they have been able to do to date.  Those with access to digital technologies will become even more advantaged compared with those who cannot afford them, do not know how to use them, or do not have access to them.
  • Planning for fundamental changes to infrastructure and government services: education and health.  The impact of Covid-19 on the provision of basic government services is likely to be dramatic, and particularly so in countries with weak infrastructures and limited provision of fundamental services.  Large numbers of teachers, doctors and nurses are likely to die across the world, and we need to find ways to help ensure that education and health services can be not only restored but also revitalised.  Indeed, we should see this as an opportunity to introduce new and better systems to enable people to live healthier and more fulfilled lives.  The development of carefully thought through recommendations on these issues, involving widespread representative consultation, in the months ahead will be very important if governments, especially in the poorest countries, are to be able to make wise use of the opportunities that Covid-19 is creating.  There is a very significant role for all donors in supporting such initiatives.
  • Communities, collaboration and co-operation.  Covid-19 offers an opportunity for fundamentally different types of economy and society to be shaped.  New forms of communal activity are already emerging in countries that have been hardest hit by Covid-19.  Already, there are numerous reports of the dramatic impact of self-isolation and reduction of transport pollution on air quality and weather in different parts of the world (see The Independent, NPR, CarbonBrief).  Challenges with obtaining food and other resources are also forcing many people to lead more frugal lives.  However, those who wish to see more communal and collaborative social formations in the future will need to work hard to ensure that the individualistic, profit-oriented, greedy and selfish societies in which we live today do not become ever more entrenched.  We need to grasp this opportunity together to help build a better future, especially in the interests of the poor and marginalised.

Examples of wasteful duplication of effort

Already a plethora of wasteful (in terms of both time and money), competitive and duplicative initiatives to tackle various aspects of the Covid-19 pandemic have been set in motion.  These reflect not only commercial interests, but also national pride – and in some instances quite blatant racism. Many are also very ambitious, planning to deliver products in only a few weeks.  Of course critical care ventilators, test kits, vaccines and ways of identifying antibodies are incredibly important, but greater global collaboration and sharing would help to guarantee both quantity and quality of recommended solutions.  International Organisations have a key role to play in establishing appropriate standards for such resources, and for sharing Open Source (or other forms of communal) templates and designs.  Just a very few of the vast number of ongoing initiatives are given in the reports below:

Critical care ventilators

Testing kits

Despite criticisms of the replicative and wasteful nature of many such initiatives, there are a few initiatives at a global scale that do offer hope.  Prime among these must be Jack Ma’s donation of 20,000 testing kits to each of 54 African countries, which will go some way to reducing the need for these to be domestically produced across the continent.  But this is sadly only a small shower of rain on an otherwise parched continent.  Working together, we have much more to be achieved, both now and in the months ahead.

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The attitudes and behaviours of men towards women and technology in Pakistan

Gender digital equality, however defined, is globally worsening rather than improving.[1]  This is despite countless initiatives intended to empower women in and through technology.[2]  In part, this is because most such initiatives have been developed and run by and for women.  When men have been engaged, they have usually mainly been incorporated as “allies” who are encouraged to support women in achieving their strategic objectives.[3]  However, unless men fundamentally change their attitudes and behaviours to women (and girls) and technology, little is likely to change.  TEQtogether (Technology Equality together) was therefore founded by men and women with the specific objective to change these male attitudes and behaviours.  It thus goes far beyond most ally-based initiatives, and argues that since men are a large part of the problem they must also be an integral part of the solution.  TEQtogether’s members seek to identify the best possible research and understanding about these issues, and to incorporate it into easy to use guidance notes translated into various different languages.  Most research in this field is nevertheless derived from experiences in North America and Europe, and challenging issues have arisen in trying to translate these guidance notes into other languages and cultural contexts.[4]  TEQtogether is now therefore specifically exploring male attitudes and behaviours towards women and digital technologies in different cultural contexts, so that new culturally relevant guidance notes can be prepared and used to change such behaviours, as part of its contribution to the EQUALS global initiative on incresing gender digital equality.

IMG_5561

Meeting of EQUALS partners in New York, September 2018

Pakistan is widely acknowledged to be one of the countries that has furthest to go in attaining gender digital equality.[5]  Gilwald, for example, emphasises that Pakistan has a 43% gender gap in the use of the Internet and a 37% gap in ownership of mobile phones (in 2017).[6]  Its South Asian cultural roots and Islamic religion also mean that it is usually seen as being very strongly patriarchal.[7]  In order to begin to explore whether guidance notes that have developed in Europe and North America might be relevant for use in Pakistan, and if not how more appropriate ones could be prepared for the Pakistani content, initial research was conducted with Dr. Akber Gardezi  in Pakistan in January and February 2020.  This post provides a short overview of our most important findings, which will then be developed into a more formal academic paper once the data have been further analysed.

Research Methods

The central aim of our research was better to understand men’s attitudes and behaviours towards women and technology in Pakistan, but we were also interested to learn what women thought men would say about this subject.[8]  We undertook 12 focus groups (7 for men only, 4 for women only, and one mixed) using a broadly similar template for both men and women, that began with very broad and open questions and then focused down on more specific issues.  The sample included university students and staff studying and teaching STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics), tech start-up companies, staff in small- and medium-sized enterprises, and also in an established engineering/IT company.  Focus groups were held in Islamabad Capital Territory, Kashmir, Punjab and Sindh, and they were all approximately one hour in duration. We had ideally wanted each group to consist of c.8-12 people, but we did not wish to reject people who had volunteered to participate, and so two groups had as many as 19 people in them.  A total of 141 people participated in the focus groups.  The men varied in age from 20-41 and the women from 19-44 years old.  All participants signed a form agreeing to their participation, which included that they were participating  voluntarily, they could withdraw at any time, and they were not being paid to answer in particular ways.  They were also given the option of remaining anonymous or of having their names mentioned in any publications or reports resulting from the research.  Interestingly all of the 47 women ticked that they were happy to have their names mentioned, and 74 of the 94 men likewise wanted their names recorded.[9]  The focus groups were held in classrooms, a library, and company board rooms.  After some initial shyness and uncertainty, all of the focus groups were energetic and enthusiastic, with plenty of laughter and good humour, suggesting that they were enjoyed by the participants.  I very much hope that was the case; I certainly learnt a lot and enjoyed exploring these important issues with them.

This report summarises the main findings from each section of the focus group discussions: broad attitudes and behaviours by men towards the use of digital technologies by women; how men’s attitudes and behaviours influence women’s and girls’ access to and use of digital technologies at home, in education, and in their careers; whether any changes in men’s attitudes and behaviours towards women and technology are desirable, and if so how might these be changed.  In so doing, it is very important to emphasise that although it is possible to draw out some generalisations there was also much diversity in the responses given.  These tentative findings were also discussed in informal interviews held in Pakistan with academics and practitioners to help validate their veracity and relevance.

I am enormously grateful to all of the people in the images below as well as the many others who contributed to this research.

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Men’s attitudes and behaviours towards the use of digital technologies by women in Pakistan

When initially asked in very general terms about “women” and “digital technology” most participants had difficulty in understanding what was meant by such a broad question.  However, it rapidly became clear that the overall “culture” of Pakistan was seen by both men and women as having a significant impact on the different ways in which men and women used digital technologies.  Interestingly, whilst some claimed that this was because of religious requirements associated with women’s roles being primarily in the sphere of the home and men’s being in the external sphere of work, others said that this was not an aspect of religion, but rather was a wider cultural phenomenon.

Both men and women concurred that traditionally there had been differences between access to and use of digital technologies in the past, but that these had begun to change over the last five years.  A distinction was drawn between rural, less well educated and lower-class contexts, where men tended to have better access to and used digital technologies more than women, and urban, better educated and higher-class contexts where there was greater equality and similarity between access to and use of digital technologies.

Whilst most participants considered that access to digital technologies and the apps used were broadly similar between men and women, both men and women claimed that the actual uses made of these technologies varied significantly.  Men were seen as using them more for business and playing games, whereas women used them more for online shopping, fashion and chatting with friends and relatives.  This was reinforced by the cultural context where women’s roles were still seen primarily as being to manage the household and look after the children, whereas men were expected to work, earning money to maintain their families.  It is very important to stress that variations in usage and access to technology were not always seen as an example of inequality, but were often rather seen as differences linked to Pakistan’s culture and social structure.

Such views are changing, but both men and women seemed to value this cultural context, with one person saying that “it is as it is”.  Moreover, there were strongly divergent views as to whether this was a result of patriarchy, and thus dominated by men.  Many people commented that although the head of the household, almost always a man, provided the dominant lead, it was also often the mothers who supported this or determined what happened within the household with respect to many matters, including the use of technology and education.

In the home, at school and university, and in the workplace

Within the home

Most respondents initially claimed that there was little difference in access to digital technologies between men and women in the home, although as noted above they did tend to use them in different ways.  When asked, though, who would use a single phone in a rural community most agreed that it would be a male head of household, and that if they got a second phone it would be used primarily by the eldest son.  Some, nevertheless, did say that it was quite common for women to be the ones who used a phone most at home.

Participants suggested that similar restrictions were placed on both boys and girls by their parents in the home.  However, men acknowledged that they knew more about the harm that could be done through the use of digital technologies, and so tended to be more protective of their daughters, sisters or wives.  Participants were generally unwilling to indicate precisely what harm was meant in this context, but some clarified that this could be harassment and abuse.[10] The perceived threats to girls and young women using digital technologies for illicit liaisons was also an underlying, if rarely specifically mentioned, concern for men.  There was little realisation though that it was men who usually inflicted such harm, and that a change of male behaviours would reduce the need for any such restrictions to be put in place.

A further interesting insight is that several of the women commented that their brothers are generally more knowledgeable than they are about technology, and that boys and men play an important role at home in helping their sisters and mothers resolve problems with their digital technologies.

At school and university

There was widespread agreement among both men and women that there was no discrimination at school in the use of digital technologies, and that both boys and girls had equal access to learning STEM subjects.  Nevertheless, it is clear that in some rural and isolated areas of Pakistan, as in Tharparkar, only boys go to school, and that girls remain marginalised by being unable to access appropriate education.

Boys in rural school in Tharparkar

Boys in rural school in Tharparkar

Furthermore, it was generally claimed that both girls and boys are encouraged equally to study STEM subjects at school, and can be equally successful.  Some people nevertheless commented that girls and boys had different learning styles and skill sets. Quite a common perception was that boys are more focused on doing a few things well, whereas girls try to do all of the tasks associated with a project and may not therefore be as successful in doing them all to a high standard.

There were, though, differing views about influences on the subjects studied by men and women at university.  Again, it was claimed that the educational institutions did not discriminate, but parents were widely seen as having an important role in determining the subjects studied at university by their children.  Providing men can gain a remunerative job, their parents have little preference over what degrees they study, but it was widely argued that traditionally women were encouraged to study medicine, rather than engineering or computer science.  Participants indicated that this is changing, and this was clearly evidenced by the number and enthusiasm of women computer scientists who participated in the focus groups.  Overall, most focus groups concluded with a view that generally men studied engineering whereas women studied medicine.

In the workplace

There is an extremely rapid fall-off in the number of women employed in the digital technology sector, even if it is true that there is little discrimination in the education system against women in STEM subjects.  At best, it was suggested that only a maximum of 10% of employees in tech companies were women.  Moreover, it was often acknowledged that women are mainly employed in sales and marketing functions in such companies, especially if they are attractive, pale skinned and do not wear a hijab or head-scarf.  This is despite the fact that many very able and skilled female computer scientists are educated at universities, and highly capable and articulate women programmers participated in the focus groups.

Women employed in the tech sector

Women employed in the tech sector in Pakistan

Part of the reason for this is undoubtedly simply the cultural expectation that young women should be married in their early 20s and no later than 25.  This means that many women graduates only enter the workforce for a short time after they qualify with a degree. Over the last decade overall female participation in the workforce in Pakistan has thus only increased from about 21% to 24%, and has stubbornly remained stable around 24% over the last five years.[11]

Nevertheless, the focus groups drilled down into some of the reasons why the digital technology sector has even less participation of women in it than the national average.  Four main factors were seen as particularly contributing to this:

  • The overwhelming factor is that much of the tech sector in Pakistan is based on delivering outsourced functions for US companies. The need to work long and antisocial hours so as to be able to respond to requests from places in the USA with a 10 (EST) – 13 (PST) hour time difference was seen as making it extremely difficult for women who had household and family duties to be able to work in the sector.  There was, though, also little recognition that this cultural issue might be mitigated by permitting women to work from home.
  • Moreover, both men and women commented that the lack of safe and regular transport infrastructure made it risky for women to travel to and from work, especially during the hours of darkness. The extent to which this was a perceived or real threat was unclear, and there was little recognition that most threats to women are in any case made by men, whose behaviours are therefore still responsible.
  • A third factor was that many offices where small start-up tech companies were based were not very welcoming, and had what several people described as dark and dingy entrances with poor facilities. It was recognised that men tended not to mind such environments, because the key thing for them was to have a job and work, even though these places were often seen as being threatening environments for women.
  • Finally, some women commented that managers and male staff in many tech companies showed little flexibility or concerns over their needs, especially when concerned with personal hygiene, or the design of office space, As some participants commented, men just get on and work, whereas women like to have a pleasant communal environment in which to work.  Interestingly, some men commented that the working environment definitely improved when women were present.

It can also be noted that there are very few women working within the retail and service parts of the digital tech sector.  As the picture below indicates this remains an environment that is very male dominated and somewhat alienating for most women.

tech

Digital technology retail and service shops in Rawalpindi

Changing men’s attitudes and behaviours towards women and technology

The overwhelming response from both men and women to our questions in the focus groups was that it is the culture and social frameworks in Pakistan that largely determine the fact that men and women use digital technologies differently and that there are not more women working in the tech sector.  Moreover, this was not necessarily seen as being a negative thing.  It was described as being merely how Pakistan is.  Many participants did not necessarily see it as being specifically a result of men’s attitudes and behaviours, and several people commented that women also perpetuate these behaviours.  Any fundamental changes to gender digital inequality will therefore require wider societal and cultural changes, and not everyone who participated in the focus groups was necessarily in favour of this.

It was, though, recognised that as people in Pakistan become more affluent, educated and urbanised, and as many adopt more global cultural values, things have begun to change over the last five years.  It is also increasingly recognised that the use of digital technologies is itself helping to shape these changed cultural values.

A fundamental issue raised by our research is whether or not the concern about gender digital equality in so-called “Western” societies actually matters in the context of Pakistan.  Some, but by no means all, clearly thought that it did, although they often seemed more concerned about Pakistan’s low ranking in global league tables than they did about the actual implications of changing male behaviour within Pakistani society.

Many of the participants, and especially the men, commented that they had never before seriously thought about the issues raised in the focus groups.  They therefore had some difficulty in recommending actions that should be taken, although most were eager to find ways through which the tech sector could indeed employ more women.  Both men and women were also very concerned to reduce the harms caused to women by their use of digital technologies.

The main way through which participants recommended that such changes could be encouraged were through the convening of workshops for senior figures in the tech sector building on the findings of this research, combined with much better training for women in technology about how best to mitigate the potential harm that can come to them through the use of digital technologies.

Following the main focus group questions, some of the participants expressed interest in seeing TEQtogether’s existing guidance notes.  Interestingly, they commented that many of the generalisations made in them were indeed pertinent in the Pakistani context, although some might need minor tweeking and clarification when translated into Urdu.

However, two specific recommendations for new guidance notes were made:

  • Tips for CEOs of digital tech companies who wish to attract more female programmers and staff in general; and
  • Guidance for brothers who wish to help their sisters and mothers gain greater expertise and confidence in the use of digital technologies.

These are areas that we will be working on in the future, and hope to have such guidance notes prepared in time for future workshops in Pakistan in the months ahead.

Several men commented that improving the working environment for women in tech companies, and enabling more flexible patterns of work would also go some way to making a difference.  Some  commented how having more women in their workplaces had already changed their behaviours for the better.

 

Acknowledgements

We are extremely grateful to colleagues in COMSATS University Islamabad (especially Dr. Tahir Naeem) and the University of Sindh (especially Dr. M.K. Khatwani) for facilitating and supporting this research.  We are also grateful to those in Riphah International University (especially Dr. Ayesha Butt) and Rawalpindi Women University (especially Prof Ghazala Tabassum), as well as those companies (Alfoze and Cavalier) who helped with arrangements for convening the focus groups.  Above all, we want to extend our enormous thanks to all of the men and women who participated so enthusiastically in this research.  It was an immense pleasure to work with you all.

 

[1] Sey, A. and Hafkin, N. (eds) (2019) Taking Stock: Data and Evidence on Gender Equality in Digital Access, Skills, and Leadership, Macau and Geneva: UNU-CS and EQUALS; OECD (2019) Bridging the Digital Gender Divide: Include, Upskill, Innovate, Paris: OECD;

[2] See for example the work of EQUALS which seeks to bring together a coalition of partners working to reduce gender digital equality.

[3] See for example, Manry, J. and Wisler, M. (2016) How male allies can support women in technology, TechCrunch; Johnson, W.B. and Smith, D.G. (2018) How men can become better allies to women, Harvard Business Review.

[4] Especial thanks are due to Silvana Cordero for her important contribution on the specific challenges of translation in Spanish in the Latin American context.

[5] Siegmann , K.A. (no date) The Gender Digital Divide in Rural Pakistan: How wide is it & how to bridge it? Sustainable Development Policy Institute (SDPI)/ISS; Tanwir, M. and Khemka, N. (2018) Breaking the silicon ceiling: Gender equality and information technology in Pakistan, Gender, Technology and Development, 22(2), 109-29; see also OECD (2019) Endnote 1.

[6] Gilwald, A. (2018) Understanding the gender gap in the Global South, World Economic Forum,

[7] Chauhan, K. (2014) Patriarchal Pakistan: Women’s representation, access to resources, and institutional practices, in: Gender Inequality in the Public Sector in Pakistan. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

[8] This research builds on our previous research in Pakistan published as Hassan, B, and Unwin, T. (2017) Mobile identity construction by male and female students in Pakistan: on, in and through the ‘phone, Information Technologies and International Development, 13, 87-102; and Hassan, B., Unwin, T. and Gardezi, A. (2018) Understanding the darker side of ICTs: gender, harassment and mobile technologies in Pakistan, Information Technologies and International Development, 14, 1-17.

[9] All names will be listed with appreciation in reports submitted for publication.

[10] Our previous research (Hassan, Unwin and Gardezi, 2018) provides much further detail on the precise types of sexual abuse and harassment that is widespread in Pakistan.

[11] https://www.theglobaleconomy.com/Pakistan/Female_labor_force_participation/

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Findings from research on mobile use amongst marginalised groups in China

I spent five weeks this summer undertaking research in Beijing and Gansu thanks to a UK-China Fellowship for Excellence from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.  The central purpose of my research was to explore the information and communication needs of poor and marginalised communities, especially people with disabilities (in Beijing) and farmers in rural areas (in Gansu Province).  I learnt so much – and probably more from the informal discussions than I did from the  focus groups and interviews that I conducted!  Many thanks are due to Professor Ding Wenguang and Chen Fei for all of their help and assistance in arranging meetings, and translating our dialogues.

The premises underlying my research were that:

  • all too often, new software and hardware are designed for the mass market, and then need to be ‘adapted’ to suit the ‘needs’ of poor and marginalised people
  • frequently, well-intentioned new technologies are developed in some of the richer parts of the world and then ‘applied’ in poorer countries; researchers are then surprised that there is little take up for their products
  • hence, we still need to get a much better understanding of the needs of these communities, and focus much more on designing technologies explicitly with their interests in mind
  • China has 18% of the world’s population, and so the market size of marginalised communities makes it worth developing products commercially for them

The resultant data are so rich that it is difficult to summarise them in detail.  However, the following seem particularly pertinent

Rural areas

  • The diversity of people and communities in rural areas of China is replicated in a diversity of needs.  ‘One size fits all’ solutions are not appropriate, yet the size of the market for particular groups is nevertheless very large given China’s overall population
  • Almost everyone already has at least one mobile ‘phone – mobiles are already widely used for information and communication, even for Internet access.  There are real implications for Africa – if electricity and connectivity can be provided
  • Economic information is particularly desired – especially on such things as agricultural input prices and market prices – particularly by men.  I was surprised at how dominant and significant this was.
  • There seem to be important gender differences in usage – women placed greater emphasis on social communication and health information; young male migrant workers in contrast seemed dominated by a desire to use mobile broadband to meet with girls.
  • Value for money is important – c. RMB 2-3 per month is all that most people are willing to pay for subscription services
  • Trust of source of information is also very important – there seems to be a lot of bogus messaging – and differing views as to what kind of organisation was most trustworthy.
  • There is real potential for village level training in effective use of mobiles – especially by women for women
  • For many users, the existing functionality of mobiles is more than they can cope with

Disabilities

  • There is huge potential for innovative hardware and software solutions – many interesting ideas were proposed
  • There is therefore a large opportunity for sharing good global practice with colleagues in China in the use of ICTs for people with disabilities in China
  • Information about location and direction is crucial for blind people – we need to think more innovatively about how to deliver on this
  • Screen size and configuration (not touch screen) are very important for blind people – Blackberry wins out over iPhones here!
  • There is an enormous opportunity for audio books (not only for blind people). Perhaps a civil society organisation could develop this, and even market audio books to generate income.
  • Security code challenges are important for blind people
  • Shopping information – much potential for RFID and 2D bar codes for blind people.
  • A powerful text scanner and reader in a mobile phone for blind people would be useful
  • Visualisation and touch/vibration of sound could also be developed further

There is a huge agenda ahead, and I am enthusiastic about ways in which we can encourage delivery on some of these exciting opportunities.  Thanks so much to BIS, Lanzhou University and Peking University for supporting this research, and to all those who contributed through their wisdom and hospitality

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Filed under 'phones, China, ICT4D

Resources for sharing development knowledges

Sitting in an interesting meeting of the International Advisory Group of IDS’s MK4D (Mobilising Knowledge for Development) initiative, it struck me that there are now a number of  similar initiatives, all trying to tackle the sharing of development knowledges in rather different ways, and yet no central place where these are all listed.  So, here is a list of some of the ones that I think are most interesting (sorted alphabetically!):

  • bytesforall – a citizen’s network in South Asia that identifies, discusses and builds network on emerging issues related to ICT and its impact to development
  • Comminit – The Comunication Initiative Network, where communication and media are central to social and economic development
  • Development Gateway – an international nonprofit organization with the mission to reduce poverty and enable change in developing nations through information technology (includes the Zunia programme)
  • Eldis – based at IDS and aiming  to share the best in development policy, practice and research (within the MK4D package for work at IDS)
  • Global Development Learning Network – cooordinated by the World Bank, the Global Development Learning Network (GDLN) is a partnership that collaborates in the design of customized learning solutions for individuals and organizations working in development
  • IDRC/CRDI (Canada’s International Development Research Centre) – supporting applied research to find local solutions that will have lasting impacts on communities around the world.
  • IICD – using ICTs to help people in Africa and Latin America access the information that can transform their lives
  • infoDev – supports global sharing of information on information and communication technologies for development (ICT4D), and helps to reduce duplication of efforts and investments
  • R4D (Research4Development)- the portal to DFID centrally funded research
  • Zunia Knowledge Exchange

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Filed under ICT4D