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Sam does the 11th Annual ICT4D Conference

May 21, 2019

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Samantha Musoke

Project Director, IFR4NPO

What a thrill to be at the 11th ICT4D conference in Uganda this week.  With over 900 attendees from about 80 countries, this was the definitive space to share innovations and discuss the emerging trends, challenges, and solutions in IT for development. The conference explored the evolution from big data to responsible data across a wide variety of programmatic themes and applications.

In the opening to the final day plenary, Nigel Tricks of Norwegian Refugee Council challenged us to think differently in the face of a 50% funding gap for humanitarian aid. Yes, the needs are increasing, and there are ever greater demands, but we as a sector must also face up to our inefficiencies. With a clarity of focus that resonates well with the equivalent specific pointers for climate change action in the news this week, he identified the two game changers for how we work that could have the biggest impact on reducing costs while simultaneously increasing effectiveness:

  1. Do MUCH more direct cash granting. The case has been definitively made. The technology (including blockchain) exists. We are just resistant to change.
  2. Replace our face to face trainings (which are expensive, infrequent, subject to fraud – all those transport / lunch allowances, signatures and fingerprint blobs of variable quality, and questionable impact) with online, mobile-ready training

These will be big disrupters – rather than the geographical carving up of regions among the big agencies, individuals will be able to choose where to access their learning. Innovators will win big, and learning will be democratized. With the opportunity came a warning: any organization that is not integrating digital development into the heart of its strategy will be left behind.

From Humentum’s point of view this was both encouraging and disconcerting, but by no means surprising. We have been ahead of the curve in becoming a fully virtual organization and are strategically focusing on online delivery options for all four of our key training areas.  But having been embedded in design and delivery of face to face training in financial management and fraud for the last 14 years, I know there is something special about the experience of physical interaction that will never be totally replaced.

Subsequent panel discussions highlighted the role of Artificial Intelligence. Despite this being an audience of super tech savvy wizzes, I was grateful that the moderator reminded us of the three basic ingredients of AI:

  1. Machine learning
  2. Ability to understand even idiomatic use of language
  3. Ability for machines to interact with others (humans or other machines)

There is so much data that can be collected and analyzed by AI computers. Who knew that conversations on every radio chat show in Uganda are being analyzed to understand what issues people are calling in about, to gauge attitudes on a range of topics of interest to those trying to change behavior (e.g. behaviors around HIV).

Satellite and drones collect data about crop health and water levels 30m below ground.  This means that financial services (savings, loans, pensions, crop insurance) products can now be tailored uniquely to a specific farmer rather than trying to have a one size fits all product. With the right access, NGOs can track changes in airtime consumption or mobility data as indicators of community shock or vulnerability or analyze use of mobile money transactions to understand why it has taken off in East Africa but not in Asia.

But with this big data comes a big responsibility. Governments need to be careful not to overregulate, thereby stifling innovation and denying populations the potential benefits.  Users also need to be protected from predatory practices, and unwittingly creating digital profiles they don’t want.

We were encouraged to think about what data we already had and what questions we could ask of it.  With my finance hat on, I could not help but think of the wealth of data locked inside the financial ledgers of thousands of NGOs, not well understood, mined, analyzed, shared or used for decision making, fraud detection, cost reduction, or to drive innovation.

With over 25 sessions at the conference I can only give the tiniest of snapshots, and have not done justice to the wealth and range of applications, collaborations, and developments that were chewed over this week. But in a nutshell: inspiring, challenging, exciting, and more urgently important than ever.