What is ICT4D (ICT for Development)? It’s usually defined as the application of technology in third world countries, not as technology. In other words, a technology platform or tool is not ICT4D, though it is used by ICT4D practitioners to do their work.

Ugandan hut

Around this time last year I found myself at a big event in Qatar for ICT4D academics. It was my first real brush with this community, and I had a hard time defining what it was. After all, they had big, long academic-sounding titles on all their papers and I had to do an internal academic-to-layman’s translation on most of the discussions.

That was, of course, due to the academic focus and they were buried in studies on how technology was being used to overcome poverty or help alleviate inefficiencies in the developing world. That I get. What I don’t get is why certain technologies are pigeonholed as “ICT4D tools“. Technology is agnostic and can be applied by anyone at anytime for numerous uses.

Due to Ushahidi’s roots (African born) and many of the initial uses of Ushahidi, we’ve been embraced by the ICT4D community. This is great, there is no doubt that they benefit from the tool, and that we benefit from their using it. However, we should take a minute to differentiate between purpose and use though.

For instance, labeling Ushahidi as ICT4D makes as much sense as saying the same for Mozilla. We’re a non-profit tech company, not an NGO, and this software platform isn’t just for the third world or just for non-profits.

Digging a little deeper, would people say the same of non-profit Mozilla (initially backed by grants)? How about Drupal? After all, it’s a free and open source platform (like Ushahidi) and used by a lot of NGOs and non-profits operating in developing countries? No, I doubt we would label either of them as “ICT4D apps”, though many would claim that they’re both great platforms for use in ICT4D.

That’s how we at Ushahidi think of our platform. Yes, it’s built to perform in areas where technology work in developing countries is needed, but that’s not the only industry that it’s good for. It’s a tool that is just as useful for organizations like the Washington Post and others.

Successful non-profit technology organizations are everywhere, as noted above. They’re generally funded by donations and grants in order to carry out their purpose. This doesn’t lessen their value, they are just as much a part of the technology ecosystem as their for-profit peers, though they have different mandates (ie, profit vs impact). In fact, there’s a good case to be made that non-profit organizations (and FoSS) keep their for-profit peers honest. Case-in-point: note how Firefox was able to break us out of the Internet Explorer lock-in.

Andrea Bohnstedt (who I know and is a friend) makes a good point on this in her recent article talking about the upcoming Tech4Africa conference (which I’ll be speaking at):

“Is it then still African technology? Or just technology that works in Africa, and elsewhere, too?”

The whole article is about how the ICT4D community gets more global attention for their projects than the for-profit tech community in Africa does with their tools, platforms and successes. That may well be true, or it may well be true only in the conferences that Andrea is aware of, I don’t know since I haven’t compared speakers on all of them. What I do know is that we should differentiate between the organizations behind platforms and the community that uses them, as we would in the US and Europe.

[Image via Clint Rogers Online]