Tag Archive | ethnography

Time to look beyond ICT4D: New media research in Uganda offers a different perspective

Beyond ICT4D: New Media Research in Uganda is a collection of ethnographic reports from diverse perspectives of those living at the other end of the African ICT pyramid. Crucially, these texts refocus on the so-called “ICT4D” debate away from the standard western lens, which depicts users in the developing world as passive receivers of Western technological development, towards Ugandans whose use and production of technologies entail innovations from the ground up. It is this ‘other’ everyday point of view that is too often missing in the ICT4D debate: valuable voices that put technologies, projects and organizations into their proper context.

Conducted in 2009 by a group of five Masters in New Media (humanities) students from the University of Amsterdam under the supervision of Geert Lovink the research examines both the role and implementation of ICTs in Uganda, covering a wide range of subcultures and projects, including internet cafe usage, print media, NGOs and communities, software subcultures and civic new media. The book argues that now is the time to look beyond the technology layer and instead focus on the social implications and local consequences of digital media’s widespread use. By recognizing the impact that ICTs have on society and identifying what functions currently and what needs to be improved, we can more effectively understand and develop these technologies in the future.

Initiated and introduced by Dutch-Australian media theorist and internet critic Geert Lovink this Theory of Demand publication was produced at the Institute of Network Cultures (HvA).

Authors: Ali Balunywa, Guido van Diepen, Wouter Dijkstra, Kai Henriquez and Ben White (yours truly).

Colophon: Authors: Ali Balunywa, Guido van Diepen, Wouter Dijkstra, Kai Henriquez and Ben White. Editor: Geert Lovink Copy editing: Cindy Jeffers, Lily Antflick and Morgan Currie. Design: Katja van Stiphout. DTP: Margreet Riphagen. Printer: ‘Print on Demand’.

Publisher: Institute of Network Cultures, Amsterdam 2011. ISBN:

This publication is also available through various print on demand

Download the free pdf.

The Rise of a Startup Culture in Africa [Video Presentation]

Technology + Entrepreneurs + A vision = Startups in Africa in need of Venture Capital.

This is a one line summary of the presentation I recently gave at the 1% Event in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. In the presentation I talk about the rise of the techprenuer in Africa and the cheetah Generation that is now empowered with the knowledge and tools they need to change the world. This presentation builds on a lot of the ethnographic research I did in Kampala, Uganda and my experiences working on the ICT Entrepreneurship program at Hivos. I also talk about AfriLabs as a network organization connecting technology incubators in Africa and VC4Africa (Venture Capital for Africa) as a platform for crowdsourcing network, information and capital via the web.

From Theory to Business, a shift beyond ICT4D

The African ICT space is experiencing an explosion of activity. This period of growth and development was first marked by the UN General Assembly decision to host the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) in 2001. The first phase of this summit took place in Geneva 2003 and was used to outline concrete steps needed to establish the foundations for a global information society. The second phase took place in Tunis 2005 and was used to put Geneva’s Plan of Action into motion as well as outline initial framework for Internet governance, financing mechanisms and a plan needed to follow-up the implementation of the Geneva and Tunis documents.

These events were instrumental in putting forward a multi-stakeholder policy needed to encourage the creation of a true global information society. Remarkably, more than 19,000 participants from 174 countries attended these two events. The WSIS served as an effective call to action and established an initial road map needed to close the digital divide, a term used to describe the information gap that exists between the connected and the unconnected populations of the world. An otherwise noble effort, it is important we review both existing and new intentions. We have to constantly assess the progress made since these historic events and refine our strategies moving forward.

Incommunicado (referring to a state of being without the means or rights to communicate) is a forum that took place in 2005 and was an early step in this process. This event was in a new effort to start addressing developments post WSIS and in the interest to introduce both a critical and alternative point of view. Specifically, the event arose out of the need to start looking seriously at ‘info-development’ and ‘ICT4D’ and to deconstruct both the theory and the practice. To look beyond the rhetoric and to critically challenge the emerging sector otherwise tasked with closing the digital divide.

It is clear that the Flattening of the World, as described by Thomas Friedman in 2005, introduces a new era as described by Incommunicado, ‘where most computer networks and ICT expertise were located in the North, and info- development mostly involved rather technical matters of knowledge and technology transfer from North to South. While still widely (and even wildly) talked about, the assumption of a ‘digital divide’ that follows this familiar geography of development has turned out to be too simplistic. Instead, a more complex map of actors, networked in a global info-politics, is emerging.’ It is along these lines that Incommunicado introduces a new space that supports an outside opinion and perspective on the activities of the major agencies (like the ITU, UNDP, UNESCO, WIPO and the UN), international NGOs and multinational corporations dedicated to addressing the issues at hand. This approach is grounded in the deconstruction of ICT4D as a term, an approach and an agenda.

So where are we four years later? What progress has been made and what can we learn from our experiences? How has the situation changed and how can we best move forward? Now that initial policy is in place how can we transition from theory to business?

More importantly, we need to look beyond the actual technology and in the effort to better understand what is actually happening with our local cultures and societies in the process. As Christine Hine explains in her book Virtual Ethnography, ‘one particularly persuasive current format is the foretelling of strange new futures based around the advent and widespread use of computer-based communication, with Negroponte (1995) and Gates (1996) among the most prominent in a legion of futurologists. To date, far more effort has been expended on predicting the revolutionary futures of (technology) than has been put into finding out in detail how it is being used and the ways in which it is being incorporated into people’s daily lives.’ It is on this foundation that we can move past the technical and into the social, where we can recognize the impact ICT’s have on our societies and better manage them moving forward.

Read ‘An African ICT Explosion’

Ethnographic Research Approach

I think now is a good time to explain a little more about my research in Uganda and my ethnographic approach to this process. In short, ethnography of (ICTs) can look in detail at the ways in which the technology is experienced in use.

Pay Phone Operator in Kampala

Pay Phone Operator in Kampala

Christine Hine explains, “At the most basic level, (ICTs) are used as a way of transmitting bits of information from one computer (or mobile) to another. The architecture of (ICTs) provides ways for addressing the information that is sent, so that it can be split up into packets, sent out across the network and recombined by the recipient. All kinds of information are in theory equal: bits are transmitted in the same way whether they represent text, audio, images or video. The meaning of the bits comes from the patterns which they make, from the software which is used to interpret them, and of course from the users who send and receive them.”

Ethnography of (ICTs) can look in detail at the ways in which the technology is experienced in use.

For my research I plan to spend 2.5 months here in Kampala. Its not a great deal of time, but I do hope it gives me enough space to appreciate some of developments taking place here on the ground. I will use this time to deconstruct the relationships, activities and understandings of the different actors here in the country. I will also spend considerable time updating my blogs with small observations. As described by Christine Hine, ‘the aim is to make explicit the taken-for-granted and often tacit ways in which people make sense of their lives.’

Needless to say, it is important I get close enough to the culture here that I can really understand how it works. At the same time, I need to keep a certain distance if I am going to be able to objectively report on it. In this way, ethnography is used to develop an enriched sense of the meanings of the technology and the cultures that enable it and are enabled by it.

Ethnographic Methodology

Thomas Molony, in his case study Trading Places in Tanzania, describes ethnographic research as extensive ‘Hanging Out.’ I like this description. Spend time with people and learn from them. To observe and document impressions as they emerge and to explore their meaning in depth. The ethnographic research approach stems from the social sciences. Otherwise the sociology of science, technology and media.

It is suggested that we can usefully think of technologies and media as having interpretive flexibility: ideas of their sensible user are developed in context. Local contexts of interpretation and use therefore form the ethnographic field. Christine Hine

My research approach will consist of direct, first-hand observation of daily behavior. The research will focus on the ‘end user’ experience and will make use of the following research methodologies.

• Conversation with different levels of formality – This can involve small talk and long interviews. Also seek out local government officials, managers of multinationals and other groups that can give addditional insight into the macro economic developments.

• Detailed work with key consultants about particular areas of community life – From previous UvA related research, its clear that experts and local consultants hold a wealth of knowledge as they deal with these issues professionally and on a day to day basis.

• In-depth interviewing – Conduct in-depth interviews with local actors and stakeholders who can give an overview and broader insight into the behavior of individual user groups i.e. the owner of a large internet cafe, the manager of a local radio station, the local governor and so on.

• Discovery of local beliefs and perceptions – Via extensive interviewing (chit-chat, short and long) uncover some of the local beliefs and perceptions. This is fundamental to better understanding different views and approaches to technology.

• Problem-oriented research – Recognize local problems specific to the location and how users work to overcome these hurdles. I.e. flooding, electricity outages, elections or other anomalies that are unique to the local environment.

• Team research – Compare the field research to see where there are commonalities and where there are differences.

• Case Studies – Projects or activities that fall into the research category. These examples can be used to support observations.

What percent of your income do you spend on mobile phone credit?

Rashid spends 40% of his income on mobile credit

Rashid spends 40% of his income on mobile credit

Kampala – April 8th – Interview with Rashid

Today I had the opportunity to interview Rashid. He grew up in Kampala and is a student at the Makerere University. He is 27 years old and uses both a mobile phone and Internet.

Mobile Profile: Unlike other users I have met he has only one mobile phone, but does have three sim cards (MTN, Zain and Warid)! He subscribed with MTN in 2000 because it was the cheapest at that time. He took a second subscription with Zain in 2006. He took the second subscription mainly because he had a friend who could give him the same phone number he uses with MTN (only the first three digits change and depending on the network). He took his third subscription with Warid because a friend got him the number and the company, for a short period, was offering free calls in the evening. From about 10:00 PM to 6:00 AM. The company doesn’t offer this service anymore and he doesn’t really use the sim card as a result. What really surprised me was to learn that he spends about 40% of his income on mobile phone credit. His other big cost is fuel. I asked what he spends on food, clothes and other things but he gets most of these things through his family.

Internet Profile: He uses the Internet once a week for about an hour. His family has a laptop (Dell) at home but the adapter is broken so they can’t use it. A new one is about 80 euro and this is too expensive to buy. Instead he makes use of his uncle’s wireless connection and laptop. He mentioned that this was also not so easy as he has to compete for Internet time with his three sisters (he has more siblings but they live elsewhere). He complained that his sisters use most of their time for social networking. He mentioned they use Facebook, Hi5 and e-mail. He explained that he only uses Facebook but can’t keep up with some of his friends. One friend in particular posts images several times a week. But more importantly, he uses his limited time to find articles for school and his research (he is currently working to finish his master’s thesis). He spends most of his time on Emerald Insight, a database for publications and research. He also uses e-mail to communicate with friends and professional contacts.


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