Recently, the CEO of Datawind presented his case to the World Bank on why the Aakash tablet computer will revolutionize education in India. During his talk, he presented this slide as justification that his tablet was not the XO and that Datawind would be more successful in reaching a 5 million units sold milestone than OLPC.
While I agree that Suneet Singh Tuli’s business plan of selling tablets directly to consumers based on clear market advantages is more sound than Nicholas Negroponte’s idea of selling millions of laptop to governments based on a handshake with presidents, I do not see a better education plan. In fact, I see none.
What I do see is Datawind and OLPC focusing on hardware sales. OLPC started the netbook revolution – cheap laptops for everyone, and Datawind is starting a “netlet” revolution – cheap tablets for everyone. Congratulations to both. But without a serious focus on educational software and content, and the integration of both into the national curriculum and into teachers’ daily instruction, the Aakash will have the same issue as the OLPC:
It will be a cool gadget that pushes boundaries in computing, and leaves education as moribund as before.
Whenever you hear of how poor, hungry, or desperate Africa is, I want you to think of this photo. This is innovation happening in real time in Nigeria. Two teenagers have a business with a laptop and an SD card reader. They take DVD movies people buy in the market and convert them to digital format. Why? Because few have DVD players but many have mobile phones, and these two found opportunity moving data from one to the other.
Replicate this over a country, a continent, and believe that Africa is not a basket case, nor makers of just baskets. Africa is dynamic and money is being made everywhere.
This is my entry in Ken Bank’s ICT4D Postcards project. Join us with a post card from your perspective
Yesterday, Erik Hersman (aka. White African) dropped a blog bomb into the sometimes contentious debate around the term ICT4D – information and communication technologies for development. In his The Subtle Condescension of “ICT4D” post he says:
I have cognitive dissonance over the term “ICT4D“. The term “ICT4D” is confusing, hypocritical and has a whiff of condescension that makes me cringe. As I understand it, it’s what NGO’s do in places like Africa and Asia, but if the same things are done in poor communities in the US or Europe, it’s not called ICT4D, it’s called civil society innovation or a disruptive product.
To be honest, at first I felt Erik was being confusing, hypocritical and condescending himself, as he is the co-founder of a very successful project, Ushahidi, which is an amazing free-to-the-user grant-supported tool for crowdsourcing information and visualizing data that was sometimes thrown into an emergency as an instant cure-all to those under served and misrepresented – the best and worst of ICT4D all in one.
But then I calmed down, thought about how ICT4D might look like to the average African. They might be seeing it as OLPC, the poster child for all the wrong ways to go about ICT4D. I spent six years of my life kicking OLPC in the shins to try and change their approach as I believed that they we sullying a good idea with their foolishness.
Now I will take six minutes of my life to change the ICT4D debate to make sure good ideas are better understood.
ICT4D and ICT4$ are two whole different industries
Let us not confuse two whole different uses of ICT. In the tech start up world, ICT is a means to make money. Software developers code products like MXit or M-PESA and hope to sell them at a profit to to venture capital funders and people that are currently under served by the market place. The focus is on $. This is ICT4$ and they should be proud of their efforts.
In the international development world, ICT is used to deliver education, healthcare, etc more efficiently. We have great products like FrontlineSMS, ChildCount+, and Ushahidi, and sell them to donor funders so we can deliver them free or subsidized to those under served by government or in market failure situations. The focus is on impact versus $. This is ICT4D, and I am proud to use the term.
Notice the different focus. In no way should a tech startup and its funders seeking to maximize profit seek to work in ICT4D, just like it would be laughable for a development organization (funder or implementer) to run a tech startup to be the next Facebook.
Projects can be ICT4D and ICT4$
Having said that, there is overlap. A product can be both ICT4$ and ICT4D. Let us take Mxit and Ushahidi as examples. MXit is certainly ICT4$ – its sole aim it to create wealth for its developers. At the same time, MXit can help promote literacy, expand needed communications, and be a foundation on which development organizations do their efforts more efficiently. That would be an ICT4D use of an ICT4$ product.
Ushahidi certainly started as ICT4D – its sole aim was to help those without a voice be heard. At the same time, it can be sold as ICT4$ as a tool for business to increase their profitability. Say Coke uses it to track stockouts or customer satisfaction – in Africa or Arkansas. I would cheer on that usage of Ushahidi just as much as Haitians did after their earthquake.
Neither ICT4D nor ICT4$ is perfect
Now Erik does point out that there are many development workers who parachute in, talk too much, then leave too quickly to have their projects make any real difference. The same can be said of a number of software developers too. We’ve all met arrogance in every field.
Erik also points out that many ICT4D projects are not financially sustainable – they exist as long as the grant funding does. The same can be said about startup companies. The current Silicon Valley metric is that only 20% of startups succeed. The World Bank says 30%-60% of theirs succeed.
Now we can argue what “success” means, but the greater point is that failure happens everywhere. We should not be ashamed of it – in fact we should celebrate failure. At least we’re doing something.
ICT4D and ICT4$ should be symbiotic
I am firm believer that ICT4D has the same overall goals as ICT4$ – to do well by doing good. We are all here to make money, even if we do it different ways. And we want to feel good about our work, regardless of the end client.
So I wish Erik all the best in keeping his distance from ICT4D while a co-founder of a great ICT4D project. I remember a conversation we had once where he reminded me he is a web technology professional first, and made more from that than Ushahidi. I’ll be the first to tell a venture capitalist that they should invest in his next startup, or in any African software developer’s big dream. There is real money to be made in Africa. I support efforts like VC4Africa and Coded In Country every way I can. And I have certainly pitched the idea of investing in African companies to VC’s before – often to jeers and laughter.
But VC’s dismissal of African opportunities hasn’t stopped me from investing my time and efforts into a nonprofit tech startup, Inveneo, which is combining the best of ICT4D and ICT4$ the best we can. We sell our consulting services, we sell hardware, and gladly take grants and donations. We are certainly mercenary in our business approach – there are no “charity” projects. Yet our services are all designed to do good while we do well.
We work through local ICT companies, who often make much more than us on projects, and a few have even grown larger and more profitable than Inveneo itself. We do not “parachute” anywhere – if a project is not designed sustainably, we don’t do it (yes, we have walked away from projects and left cash on the table). And we tirelessly promote good ICT4D practices, because Erik is right, “ICT4D” can be a loaded term to some.
I work every day to make sure the load “ICT4D” carries is a positive one that benefits those who need it the most, first. I ask you and he to do the same.
After recently hosting Fail Faire DC to great success, I give you the 10 levels of failure as a framework for ICT interventions, with great deference to Jamer Hunt for starting the meme on the types of failures and David Roy for building on it. May you fail at reaching #1.
- Catastrophic failure
Failure a scale so vast as to encompass the lives and livelihoods of generations to come. Examples: the meltdowns at Fukushima Dai-1 and Chernobyl; building codes in Haiti before January 2010. Possible future catastrophic fails: asteroids, climate change.
- Abject failure
This failure marks you and you may not ever fully recover from it. People lose their lives, jobs, respect, or livelihoods. Examples: British Petroleum’s Gulf oil spill; mortgage-backed securities.
- Start-up failure
A big bet backed by money and momentum, that wipes out both when the market shifts or the business model hits reality. Examples: Pets.com; Jumo.org; Solyndra LLC
- Structural failure
It cuts – deeply – but it doesn’t permanently cripple your identity or enterprise. Examples: Apple iPhone 4’s antenna; Windows Vista.
- Glorious failure
Going out in a botched but beautiful blaze of glory – catastrophic but exhilarating. Example: Jamaican bobsled team.
- Epic failure
This is a failure that brings joy to all and perhaps even fame and stardom for the fail succeeder. Examples: Celebrity antics; Youtube videos of people falling down; FAILblog
- Common failure
Everyday instances of screwing up that are not too difficult to recover from. The apology was invented for this category. Examples: oversleeping and missing a meeting at work; forgetting to pick up your kids from school; overcooking the tuna.
- Version failure
Small failures that lead to incremental but meaningful improvements over time. Examples: Linux operating system; evolution.
- Predicted failure
Failure as an essential part of a process that allows you to see what it is you really need to do more clearly because of the shortcomings. Example: the prototype — only by creating imperfect early versions of it can you learn what’s necessary to refine it.
- Opportunity Failure
The failure to take risks that leaves you wanting and is usually associated with sentences that begin with, “I should have…” Examples: Not buying Apple stock in 2006; Not selling Nokia stock in 2010; Not getting off your butt today.
What fails or failure examples have I left out? Tell me in the comments.
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