After presenting at the 17th international conference on current issues of sustainable development, I wanted to continue sharing my thoughts and reflections on ICT4D and mobile technologies in development. I posted at the beginning of the year, “The Allure of Mobile Technologies in Development: Reflections on Sustainable Development and #mtech” where I shared a visualization (based on personal experience during my time in Zambia) on the application of mobile technologies in remote survey, data collection, and communication. 

At the end of that post, I mentioned that I was continuing my research on mobile technologies and their implementation in development. Specifically, I wanted to expand my understanding of the dangers posed by utilizing and implementing these technologies in support of vulnerable populations. Data, and particularly personally identifiable data, often collected alongside geographic (GPS) data can pose a very real physical threat to community members and advocates who might threaten existing power structures. Further, the rush to embrace the ease of data collection and transmission might endanger the privacy, self-determination, and security of individuals and communities with long lasting impacts. A key factor to remember about our ever increasingly connected world, is that once data is collected and transmitted, it can never be truly eliminated. The life-cycle of data is not only longer than most organizations, but also of some governments and international regulations designed to protect individuals.

Design which considers these threats is essential, and to better understand that, I’ve started researching data management architecture, encryption, anonymity and pseudo-anonymity. This has taken me in a variety of directions, from brushing off my Python skills and improving them, to refreshing old projects using QGIS and it’s capabilities to not only analyze and interpret, but to share and visualize data. In this journey I’m also exploring best practices from development organizations which are implementing and addressing these issues in the field. Toolkit’s are being published consistently. Just a few months ago, SAVE – Secure Access in Volatile Environments – which is a three year research program focused on providing effective and accountable humanitarian aid in insecure contexts published their toolkit, “Technologies for monitoring in insecure environments.”

Although it’s designed for humanitarian interventions, and focused particularly on volatile and insecure environments, it covers a significant portion of my concerns. including mobile phones used for monitoring and communications, digital entry and survey, remote sensing, location and geographic data, alternative communications strategies (radio etc) and online portals. 

Key Considerations:

Although I have a  lot more to research and discover, it seems that there are four major considerations to keep in mind.

  1. Design and implement with caution!
    • Take your time to do the background research, contextualize your project with localized information – who are your key informants, who disseminates information, and what are the relative positionalities of key stakeholders?
    • At every step of your design, assume that the system and data will be compromised at some point – how can you protect your constitents?
  2. Address challenges from a variety of perspectives:
    • Make sure you consider gender structures, including physical access to technologies, decision making trees, and independence of data entry.Literacy can be a major challenge – remember that text based solutions may limit your reach, especially in consideration of the most vulnerable populations.
  3. Ensure that your cost-benefit analysis includes risks:
    • There are many situations where a technological solution compounds harm rather than offers benefits.Innovation is exciting, but dangerous – do not test/experiment with your product on extremely vulnerable populations, especially when the validity and veracity of their informed consent is questionable
  • It’s essential to remember:
    • Data collected cannot be adequately protected, and breach is inevitable, the design must include protocols to limit the damage and danger to participants when breach occurs.If you’re designing a product, address its longevity – can you guarantee implementation? For how long? What happens when your funding runs out? What are the assumptions regarding infrastructure and inter-operability? What are the associated costs and who will bear them?

I’m looking forward to continuing to delve deeper into this subject, to learn more about data security and privacy, and the current industry standards for ICT4D and #mtech in development contexts. But first, back to my Master’s thesis!