Three years is long a lifetime, longer in the time it takes technology to change, but short in institutional time. Three years ago, in 2013, Laura Walker McDonald released a video that asked the question, Why is it so hard to do something new in Internet and communications technologies for global development? At that time, McDonald’s last name was Hudson, and the Social Impact Lab, which she heads, was developing Frontline SMS. Now, she has married, FrontlineSMS has spun off into its own software development non-profit, but the question remains: Why is it so hard to do something new in ICT4D? Change on that front is happening in institutional time.
“A lot of this is rooted in our insistence that technology is an innovation in and of itself. In a decades-old field, that just isn’t true anymore” – Laura Walker McDonald
“I think though that the field more broadly is still struggling with many of the same issues – is still failing to move beyond pilots, extend access and inspiration for these projects beyond a few people in each agency, and to really scale,” McDonald says. “I think a lot of this is rooted in our insistence that technology is an innovation in and of itself. In a decades-old field, that just isn’t true anymore – and we need to professionalize, share best practice principles and make them more mainstream.”
The details about specific technologies have changed in the last three years, but the six-minute video remains relevant.
“We need to professionalize, share best practice principles and make them more mainstream,” – Laura Walker McDonald
“SIMLab continues to address the issues I raise in the video,” McDonald says. For example, they developed a Context Assessment Framework to help technology designers consider the environment in which their projects will be implemented. It is open for comments now. SIMLab is also working with Engine Room to improve their Tool Selection Assistant. And the lab has turned its attention to the issues of risk and protection inherent in technology projects.
So, with a boost from organizations like SIMLab, institutions are changing. These are McDonald’s and SIMLab’s reflections on the difficulty of that change, with tips on how to introduce new tools into global development work. And they are just as meaningful now as they were three years ago.