In the 2008 US presidential election, Barack Obama mobilized and coordinated an unprecedented number of people and resources through innovative uses of mobile phones and online social networking tools. In early 2008, Georgia began disseminating information through Google blogs, to counter a Russian denial of service (DoS) attacks against Georgian websites. In 2001, more than a million Philippine citizens protested then President Estrada mobilized by waves of text messages eventually toppling the government (Rheingold, 2002). More recently, Egyptians have begun to organize through Facebook to protest the government. Indian state governments (Tamil Nadu , Kerala , etc.) have mandated open standards and Brazil’s public sector is now required by law to use non-proprietary, open source software. In the Philippines indigenous communities are using a participatory geographic information systems methodology to claim their ancestral domain and manage their own human and natural resources in a more sustainable way. In Mexico, participatory budgeting (a process through which citizens can influence or contribute to decisions on the use and distribution of public resources) has been facilitated by the growth of the Internet (Cabannes, 2004). Some of the world’s greatest universities, such as MIT, have now made their curriculum openly available on the Internet. Similarly, a consortium of 18 South African and international organizations work together to create freely accessible educational resources and course design guidance for teachers in Sub-Saharan Africa.
What do all of these anecdotes have in common? First, they are all predicated on the emergence of new information and communication technologies (ICTs) that have greatly enhanced possibilities for communication and collaborative action. Second, all of these activities have taken advantages of a relatively open structure of technology and content to push to effect social change.
The world is changing and new information and communication technologies (ICTs) are powerful contributors to this change. Many aspects of society are shifting from an industrial model with vertical hierarchical structures to a networked society with increasingly horizontal organizational structures (Castells 2000; Benkler 2006). This change has been underpinned by the Internet and interconnected devices for computation and communication that have massively improved communication and collaboration possibilities. As the cost of new technologies decreases these trends should continue – facilitating the diffusion of powerful (and smart) networked devices that can access the expanding network infrastructure.
In this environment we believe “openness” is an increasingly relevant concept for ICT for development (ICT4D) activities. This perceived relevance emerges from three important sources: (1) inductive logic applied to our empirical observation, (2) the experiences of others, and (3) theory. First, as development practitioners engaged in ICT4D activities and research, we observe that new ICTs applied for development, or other purposes, are often leading to more openness in terms of structures and processes. Second, we have noticed through informal consultations and other venues that “openness” has been a recurring theme of interest for ICT4D practitioners and researchers, including some of our partners. Third, the focus on openness is particularly topical for two main reasons: (1) new ICTs enable a whole new range of open ICT4D activities and (2) policy choices made now will shape the future possibilities to use these open ICT enabled activities for developmental gain. Only with a proper understanding of the possibilities, both theoretically and empirically, can we hope to influence policy in a pro-development direction.
Given our primary understanding of the potential of Openness to inform ICT4D activities, this paper is a deeper exploration of these concepts and their appropriateness and applicability. As part of this conceptual exploration, we view openness (defined in section 2.2) and “Open ICT4D” as a working hypothesis. We do not assume a priori that all activities must be more open and that all open activities will lead to positive developmental benefits. We accept that different forms of Open ICT4D activities will be more or less appropriate given different developmental contexts and that there will undoubtedly be trade-offs between competing interests and values. This is especially true given the transformative potential of this paradigm that at times challenges traditional organizational and social structures and processes. Indeed, it is exactly these set of issues that motivates this paper: when, how, to what extent, and in what circumstances can the power of more open ICT4D activities be applied to achieve the developmental goals of poverty alleviation, improved health and education, increased equitable economic growth and deepened democracy? What are the tradeoffs?
This live document proceeds as follows. Section 2 provides one approach to answering two central questions: “What is openness?” and “Why Open ICT4D?” The first question requires a definition of the concept of openness. We then turn to answering the second question through a theoretical consideration of the links between ICTs, openness and human development; that is, how and when do more open ICT4D processes bring more social value than correspondingly closed processes? After establishing the theoretical foundations, Section 3 provides some empirical insight into the ICT4D, openness and human development linkages through a broad review of current ICT4D “open” activities. To organise our thinking we examine activities across (and the relationships among) different layers – social (socio-economic, legal-institutional), technological (Internet infrastructure, devices and standards), and content (e.g., open educational resources, information, cultural content). Then, drawing from the theoretical discussion and the particular open activities, we extract cross cutting issues for future research as well as threats to openness. Finally, we conclude by asking questions that have emerged from our study of Open ICT4D.