Developing a practice-oriented research agenda on how new technologies and open data can support vulnerable communities

by: November 16th, 2010 comments: 4

I am a professional researcher; which means that testing claims is part of my job description. Do new technologies offer opportunities for people in places like Kibera to improve their lives? If yes, how? What happens when open source values and practices and a commons based approach to knowledge creation meet the development world?

When I met Mikel Maron and Erica Hagen back in June, I proposed to undertake a study of Map Kibera project that would be critical and constructive. Critical in the sense that it would provide an honest basis for assessing the project’s undeniable successes whilst understanding the difficult issues that it had to grapple with. Constructive in that we would aim to inform the methodology that Ground Truth developed for Map Kibera by bringing in insights from other traditions and bodies of knowledge. We were keen to see what would happen if we brought together technologists with experts in vulnerability and poverty reduction and participatory development practitioners to explore the possibilities opened up by the combined potential of open data, open geographical information systems (GIS), social media and information crowd-sourcing tools for marginalised populations.

The UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) has given us the opportunity to realise this goal. I have just returned to the UK after three weeks in Kenya where we organised a number of research and training activities with Ground Truth, their local partners, Map Kibera contributors (mappers, Kibera news network journalists and SMS reporters) and Kiberan community opinion leaders. Sammy Musyoki, a participatory development expert organised focus groups to explore issues around community engagement whilst Mark Skipper, from Aptivate, worked with Map Kibera participants on how they can best share their skills and continue to explore the potential of the tools at their disposal.

Initial findings from the research point to the complexity of sustaining a knowledge commons in a development context. The structure of motivations that underpin the creation of Wikipedia and open source software projects, for example, needs to be rethought for places where people struggle everyday to make ends meet. The value of these technologies is also not evident to everybody, nor, when it is acknowledged, is it understood in the same way. For Ground Truth, the process of defining an agenda in cooperation with local stakeholders and Map Kibera participants has been far more difficult than the technical challenges involved in creating a community information platform.

Further analysis will refine these insights and connect them to existing debates around the role of information and communication technologies for development. Interviews with leaders of other projects that have adopted a commons based approach to information in support of vulnerable groups will also help refine our research agenda by highlighting commons themes and points of departure.

One of the most important lessons, however, from my time in Kenya relates to the opportunities for mutual learning that initiatives like Map Kibera hold for technologists, development experts and practitioners. Learning that can give rise to new practices in support of the needs and agendas of marginalized communities which include new livelihood opportunities for the poor and commons based, community-driven processes for data generation. We will be using this blog to share reflections and insights from our research project and on what these practices might look like.

Evangelia Berdou, Vulnerability and Poverty Reduction Team, Institute of Development Studies

This post is part of a series exploring the ideas and issues that have emerged in our research project with Institute of Development Studies, supported by DFID. All posts from the Map Kibera team, the researchers from IDS, our trainers and colleagues are collected here. As always, we are eager to discuss this work, so we hope to hear your comments.

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