In his recent article on MobileActive.org, Paul Currion posed the question, “If all You Have is a Hammer, How Useful is Humanitarian Crowdsourcing”. Currion argued that those working in disaster response “…don’t need more information, they need better information.” He argued that Ushahidi’s Haiti deployment was an example of the failure of crowdsourcing to add value to disaster response efforts and ongoing humanitarian work. This pointed critique of Ushahidi and the use of social media in a humanitarian context resulted in an enthusiastic, and sometimes heated, debate in the article’s comments section.
A couple weeks ago, Nick Kristof published a New York Times article titled DIY Foreign-Aid Revolution and Dave Algoso wrote an excellent critique just a few days later in Foreign Policy. Because this is the internet and two weeks makes it venerable news, I thought about letting it slide by, but it’s been bugging me increasingly since then. This is partly because I have worked both at a small 3 person NGO with a great idea and not much else, as well as a large USAID contractor with hundreds of staff members and millions of dollars in projects, and I still cannot decide which is “better.” But it’s also because I think ICT for development has a unique spot between these worlds, and I think it’s going to change the conversation in years to come.
It’s hard for ICT4D evangelists to avoid the perception that they have an irrational belief that technology will immediately fix all the world’s problems. Malcolm Gladwell’s recent critique of technology for social change provides us with a great opportunity to consider what we are realistic to expect. I think most would agree with him that social media, when it works, functions by weak associations of public support—getting the Gap logo back—rather than high cost actions like facing off the Basij.
We’re going to continue to look at emerging mobile health applications this week. While last time the focus was on promising technologies on the horizon, these projects share an approach that maximizes the impact of what’s already available—in most places that means sending an SMS. The low cost and high penetration of mobiles make them an incredibly powerful platform for promoting health. In these examples, mobiles are used to expand public health education and improve patient monitoring.