Some thoughts on Research as an Element in Telecentre/Community Informatics Practice

Posted on March 20, 2010

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I’m currently in the very final stages of a 2 ½ month series of travels/visits to various community informatics locations and individuals/organizations in South and East Asia.

While in Sri Lanka I had a chance to meet with the corporate social responsibility group of the largest local cell phone company. Among other things we discussed a project that they are developing for farmers which will allow them to phone into a central location to get regularly updated price reports on various crops. The project has just started so they don’t yet have data on user uptake but the project seems a viable one since the only cost to the company is the cost of the call centre (and compiling the information) and the call centre can be put to other purposes during those times of the day or year when inquiries are slack.

The project is a quite straightforward one and the company sees that it could very likely be financially viable (from the additional revenue generated by the associated traffic) while at the same time providing a useful service, disintermediating for the farmers from the need to rely on middlemen for providing prices. They further are looking on this as developing a cell platform on whose foundation a range of additional similar services might be provided to farmers or others (i.e. a call in to a human or electronic database for regularly updated information of value).  As well they are looking at the possibility of establishing an exchange point where farmers or others could call in with something they have to sell and others could call in looking to buy certain items. (Notably, at this point they don’t see the need (or perhaps possibility) of charging for any of these services, relying on the increase in cell traffic (and presumably customer loyalty) as being sufficient to make the service(s) viable.

As we were discussing the service and its background (they appear to have adopted the overall strategy which was initially pioneered in Sri Lanka by one of the local NGO’s actively involved in telecentre development) the discussion shifted over to one examining the role of “research” in relation to the services they were developing and overall for their approach to providing (value added and other) services particularly in rural areas (which notably comprise some 80% of Sri Lanka’s overall population). What came out in our discussion was that the cell company sees itself as having a very significant untapped “research” resource in the nationwide grassroots network of local small entrepreneurs found in every village selling air time on their behalf.  These independent agents are currently recognized by the company as a potential source of market information and I suggested that they might also be a source of ideas for new products as they are very close to the villagers and would very much have their finger on the pulse of what kind of cell based services might be of interest to end users.

I’ve been thinking about this research resource/research approach as I’ve been looking at other community informatics implementations and programs elsewhere in Asia and beyond.

As I’ve discussed elsewhere in part in What is Community Informatics (and Why Does It Matter? ) Community Informatics research differs from conventional social science research in a number of ways:

1. it is future oriented rather than retrospective i.e. it looks towards what could (should) be done rather than what has been done in the past

2. it is iterative i.e. it builds from research (and practical) result to research (and practical) result

3. its desired outcome is practical success rather than explanatory models with explanatory models being inputs to practice rather than vice versa

4. it operates in a highly volatile environment where basic conditions such as the underlying technology platforms, service offerings and cost structures, and policy contexts may be in rapid and unpredictably evolution

What is notable in my various travels and equally in reflecting on the experience elsewhere is how little actual useful research has been conducted or is being conducted into the community use of ICTs particularly from a perspective which attempts to understand the current in order to inform the future.  Much of the research that has been undertaken is in the form of case studies many of which are interesting and even useful but most of which suffer from having been framed (for the purposes of academic credit) within the methodological or theoretical constraints of one academic discipline or another – thus we have anthropological studies of technology uptake which focus on how the technology reinforces (or not) existing cultural patterns of power and privilege, geography studies of how ICT uptake contributes to patterns of migration (rural-urban), sociological studies which examine ICT uptake through a lens of gender and local culture and so on and so on.  Each of these is of course, valuable in its own right and together they can inform technology design, implementation strategy and ICT policy but they lack the immediacy or linkages to actual community informatics developments to directly influence how these are undertaken.

In practice it appears in fact, that none of the major community informatics program initiatives undertaken at the national level either by governments or NGO’s have had significant research components associated with them.  Thus the programmes with which I have some direct familiarity (as for example in India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, South Africa, Canada) all proceeded with major implementations in the field with no installed capability for acquiring information concerning these implementations in a systematic (methodologically rigourous) manner and thus had no capability of undertaking feedback based research as a means to “feed forward” into planning and programme evolution and development.  What this has meant of course, is that these programmes have not had the  capacity or the information resources to learn from their mistakes (or successes) or to plan for effective adaptations in the face of on-going and quite rapid evolution in technology platforms, service applications, policy contexts and so on.

The very powerful model for research suggested by the Sri Lanka mobile company i.e. using its field network as a source for information collection is one that would under certain circumstances transfer quite directly and usefully into other contexts where community informatics networks had been established (e.g. telecentre networks) as part of overall programs. Thus for example, in Bangladesh the 2000 telecentres affiliated with Bangladesh Telecentre Network (BTN) could, with appropriate training and direction from a central/core research facility, undertake a range of research activities supportive of the evolution of the network in a variety of ways including for example:

1. the identification and testing of appropriate business/sustainability models

2. the identification of new products and services for delivery via the individual telecentres

3. feedback on appropriate skill/training requirements for telecentre operators

4. the identification and testing of necessary technology and telecommunications platforms for the telecentres and other community informatics installations

5. data concerning outcomes and impacts of investment in the individual sites and the overall network

6. scans of local technology environments and innovation capacities as preliminary to new investments

7. and so on…

However, for any of this research to be conducted there is the need for a relatively sophisticated (and reasonably well funded) research capacity at or near the “hub” of the network which acts as to design the research, do research/data collection training for individual telecentre operators, do analysis of systematically derived data towards quantitatively robust results, do qualitative assessments of feedback from the telecentres in the field and so on.  This core research capacity should be driven by those with formal research experience and qualifications since in some instances (but not all) formal research design and outputs will be required (as for example to support evaluations or funding proposals).  As well, the research element will need to be in touch with the larger community informatics research community as a means to identify emerging issues, themes and opportunities as the basis for positive evolution in the local activities and network based programs and to extend horizons and overcome the parochialism which inevitably arises in many locally based networks.

Funding this type of research support to local network development would be a very cost-effective way for donors to contribute to the on-going sustainability and effectiveness of locally based community informatics. As well, it would be very desirable to find ways of bridging more academically focused research into this kind of research support as for example through linking on-going academic research into this as an element or through internships/post-docs and so on.  But the key is find a means to develop and sustain a core “professional” research activity as part of the central network development and facilitation function presumably at a national level since the issues being addressed and the specialized skills required will have national implications (and the cost of which would be such as to warrant being amortized over relatively large networks).

A key element of the requirement is that the research and researchers be a constitutive element of the network being researched.  Only in this way will there be sufficient trusted communication between the research core and the field to allow for effective data collection and truly informed data analysis and interpretation.  As well of course, the availability of research such as this as part of the on-going operations of the network will strengthen the network considerably by providing background information for training, for technology change and upgrading, for proposal development and evaluation and so on.

A research approach which builds up from on-going telecentre networks into the work of research cores rather than down from the work of individual (usually academically located) researchers will thus be of immensely greater benefit to the central telecentre (community informatics) activities while also contributing useful information on a national and where there are suitable opportunities for inter-connections and linkages, on an international level as well.

Research funding which only focuses on and provides support to the academic element of the research in such a fragile and volatile area such as telecentres/community informatics runs the very real risk of ensuring the survival of the research while allowing what is being researched to decline and even expire. Community Informatics research if properly conducted and appropriately linked as a constitutive element of the community informatics practice can be a very considerable on-going support to the practice itself.  Research (and researchers) which are not so embedded run the very real risk either of irrelevancy, of inappropriate distancing and detachment, or even of competing for those scarce resources required for network survival.

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