Do’s and Don’ts for using Digital Tools in the Covid-19 response – Learning from the ICT4D field

Date: 15 June 2020

Author: Dorothea Kleine

Professor Dorothea Kleine leads SIID’s Digital, Data and Innovation research theme. She has undertaken research in the area of ICT4D (Information and Communication Technologies for Development) including as an action researcher and an adviser to practice and policy.

She has been an adviser on digital development to UNESCO, Unicef, UNCTAD, Oxfam, Malala Fund, and the UK’s DFID, German GIZ, the Canadian IDRC, South African CSIR, to the global umbrella organisation of mobile phone operators GSMA, and to local NGOs in Brazil, Kenya and South Africa.

Since the Covid-19 crisis began, many people involved in the response have been looking to use digital tools in their efforts to help, in countries around the world.

As a result, many of us with expertise in digital development, who have carried out action research or evaluations in ICT4D, have been asked for advice. I have been contacted by several colleagues, researchers seeking to make a difference, from global health, journalism and economics.

Based on 18 years of being involved and observing ICT4D projects, of making (and observing) mistakes, of developing (and observing) good practice, here are the top tips I have been offering. I share these as a fellow learner, as there is no such thing as best practice, only an ongoing effort of mutual learning across disciplines.

Here we go:

  1. Do not start with the technology. Start with people. What needs are particular groups of people expressing? Do not presume to know about other people’s lives and impose “solutions”. Ask them. This is difficult to find out in times of travel restrictions and social distancing, so work first through existing partnerships (see point 3).

  2. Do not start with the technology. Start with the purpose. You are not primarily “building an app”. You are for example trying to inform people. This purpose/intervention aim should be defined in the overlap space of what people or organisations are genuinely asking for and the things you can offer, in expertise, in networks and what you can secure funding for. Once you have defined the purpose, move to point 3.

  3. Do not start with the technology. Once you have defined your purpose, define your audience and partners. If you can, design with the people themselves, from the start. The results will be better. Think about existing partnerships you have first, as building partnerships in a crisis situation risks taking time from organisations who need to focus on their Covid-19 and related crisis management and response. You can ask your existing partners about their needs or needs of organisations they work with, or engage with organisations who have indicated a need that you think you can help with, or be introduced to others via your partners. Follow the contours of existing partnerships, as time is of the essence and building understanding and trust takes time.

  4. Do not start with fancy technology. Repurpose. Research and follow people’s usage patterns. This is a crisis, there is no time to develop entirely new systems from scratch. People’s habits do change rapidly in a crisis, but these are purpose-driven changes. Most people have enough on their minds and would rather not spend the headspace on learning complicated new software.

  5. Inclusivity: If you are following the principle of leaving no one behind, which is enshrined in the Sustainable Development Agenda, then you need to understand the life situation of some of the most vulnerable. How much internet access do they have? How much electricity do they have? How expensive is data? Care responsibilities take away time and this can disproportionately affect the time of women and girls as they carry an unequal part of the burden. You can respond in two ways:

    • either build for the least advantaged (eg radio does not require data and can be listened to while doing other things)

    • or build multi-channel (eg combine radio, SMS, and an app-based solution which works on smartphones)

  6. Design in close consultation with the users throughout. This is harder due to social distancing but it is absolutely vital.

  7. Consider the Principles for Digital Development. These were developed by a number of organisations in the digital development space. In the current situation I would stress:

    • Understand the existing System; Reuse and Repurpose;

    • Be collaborative; Use open standards, open data open source, open innovation (yes but be pragmatic, not wedded to particular software, and follow user habits, see point 4).

    • I would pay less attention to: Design for Scale – if your intervention helps a small group of people through this crisis, that’s good enough for me.

    • Build for Sustainability – they mean long-term financial sustainability. This is a crisis, you may not need this. Use a donations-driven, crowd-funder, or buy1-pay2-model – try to avoid user fees as the crisis is already exacerbating inequality.

    • In the sense of environmental sustainability – Yes please do bear this in mind in your design, consider for example e-waste and energy costs of your intervention. We are in a pandemic crisis within a larger climate change and biodiversity crisis.

  8. Ethical considerations: A large part of the academic ICT4D community has recently co-developed and endorsed the ICT4D ethical standards. This is a good reference point as you plan your project. Remember that partners will bring their commercial and political agendas to the project and in your choice of partners you need to reflect on the compatibility of these agendas with the interests of the marginalised people you are working with and for.

  9. Privacy and data: Avoid risks in this area. This is a complex field and advice strongly depends on which technologies you choose. If you are using for example, mobile phone metadata or tracing tools, at the very least, have a planned review point and a clearly marked, clean de-installation route/ off-switch.

  10. Tools for understanding context. You have a feeling that you don’t know enough about the context for which you are designing? One tool you can consider is the Choice Framework. I developed it, based on fieldwork, as a systemic map of and a systematic way of thinking about the development process. It has been used by many action researchers in designing interventions.

  11. You are engaging with powerful technology that people often invest a lot of hope in. Remain modest in recognising and explaining your expertise and its limits, and what you can offer. Keep learning. Iterate.

  12. Reach out. There is no need to repeat mistakes the ICT4D research community has made previously. Contact colleagues in this field and ask for advice if you get stuck.

Good luck – and solidarity to all who are trying to make a difference through our joint, multi-stakeholder, interdisciplinary Covid-19 response. We all have much to learn from each other.