Geometry of Information Flow

The term "disadvantaged communities" is not an abstract term. Some sections of communities can clearly be identified by this term. They include, among others:

  • Small Farmers and those practising subsistence agriculture
  • People unable to afford basic health care costs
  • Communities deprived of exercising political rights
  • Children unable to get basic education
  • Poor people without employment
  • People lacking opportunities to benefit from surrounding economic growth and development

The percentage of people who can be identified as "disadvantaged" are a significant proportion of the total population in developing countries. And if the ICT for Development projects are to provide benefits to these "disadvantaged communities" (and as they rightfully should), then project designs have to be more focused on how to best reach these communities. Studying and influencing "Geometry of Information Flows" becomes an important parameter for such project designs.

 

What do we mean by Geometry of Information Flows?

Geometry of Information Flows is a detailed human-centric picture of information flows in a society. It focuses on "Who are the people" getting connected and are benefiting when there is an increase in information access and flow.

 

The aim is to understand the distribution of "information" and "information flows" in the society, instead of focusing solely on enhanced communication. Some of the questions the study of geometry of information flows should answer are:

  • Which new constituencies/ target groups have been brought under the ICT networks?
  • Has any relevant content started to flow to communities newly brought under the ICT networks?
  • Does information flow to the disadvantaged communities increase, when there is a total increase in information access and flow?

 

Why is the study of Geometry of Information Flows important?

 

The study of the geometry of flows is important because the aim is to use ICT for development purposes--- those that bring real, significant changes in the lives of disadvantaged communities rather than simple embedding of ICT in the society.

 

And the development outcomes will  be very different (To whom they will accrue? What kinds of benefits will be accrued? How soon they will accrue?) depending on how ICT projects are conceived and in what ways they change the access and flow of information in the society.

 

The impact of increasing the communication frequency between two already connected people/institutions using ICT is not the same as opening up a communication channel between two people/institutions where none existed (eventhough in both the cases there is an increase in information access and flow).  And then there is a positive externality or a network effect: as more unconnected people get connected, the number of communication channels increase geometrically since each new person who enters the network can possibly communicate with others in the network and the existing network members can communicate with the "new entrant".

 

When the "new entrant" to the network are "disadvantaged communities" or "institutions working for betterment of these disadvantaged communities", and the information that starts to flow is relevant to these communities and opens opportunities for their growth and development, then the impact is almost revolutionary.

 

But creating a pro-disadvantaged community information access and flows requires targeted and innovative application of ICT models. They are rarely the automatic outcomes of an ICT project. It is important for Government, NGOs and UN organizations to understand this, because if they do not, then there is a greater possibility that disadvantaged communities may remain marginalized or bypassed by ICT interventions than benefit from then. To conclude, what is required is a planned and determined intervention to ensure ICT for development projects are centred around disadvantaged communities and there specific needs.

 

 

Shaping Geometry of Information Flows for the benefit of disadvantaged communities: Implications for ICT for Development Projects

 

It is clear that there can be no one approach to designing ICT for Development projects that can benefit the disadvantaged communities. Instead a guidelines exist: answers to a series of questions should first be found out and based on them a project design can be created. The table below explains the suggested guidelines to approach ICT for Development projects. Examples have been taken in context of ICT for Agriculture Development and E-governance projects.

 

 

Guidelines for Shaping Geometry of Infomation Flows Questions to be Asked Possible Answers Impact on Project Design
Who are our Target groups that we want to reach out to, through ICT for Development projects?   Here we  identify the disadvantaged target group and differentiate them from broader groups? Which are the groups that are difficult to reach? Which groups will not automatically benefit from the project? Which groups really need to benefit directly from the project  

For ICT for Agriculture Development Projects

Small farmers with less than 1 acre of landFarmers who have land away from roads and markets

Farmers farming in ecologically fragile areas Newly turned farmers, young and women farmers (for instance in HIV/Affected villages)

Farmers lacking credit, tools to enhance land productivity 

For E-Governance Projects

People living in rural areas

People who are illiterate and cannot read documents.

Rural people who are dependent on government schemes and projects for their subsistence.

NGOs/ Champions working for political empowerment of people Marginalized groups: those migrating seasonally 

It is important to understand the difference between direct benefits and trickle-down benefits. Often the design of projects are such that they deliver only trickle-down benefits to disadvantaged communities. Direct benefits usually accrue to communities who are comparatively better-off and are not the intended beneficiaries of the project   
What are the key information needs of the disadvantaged community? Here we try to identify information which ICT projects should produce or source, and then deliver? Is there any useful information which exists but does not flow to these  people? Is there any information which exists but is denied to these people? Is there any information which can be generated and will open up opportunities for these people?   

For ICT for Agriculture Development Projects

Information on identifying and dealing crop pests and livestock diseases

Technical inputs on how to carry contour bunding, land-leveling, water harvesting activities, composting to increase productivity

Information on government and NGO subsidies and schemes on seeds, fertilizers, horticulture and minimum support price

Information on new crop varieties, irrigation frequency, setting up farm-based enterprises

Information on market prices of the crops, availability of credit, agriculture fairs, soil-testing labs and training programmes

For E-Governance Projects

Information on how to deal with the government (which government department and who is the responsible officer to whom the query should be addressed)

Information on government schemes, employment opportunities, budgets and implementation guidelines

Information on government forms and application processes

Several projects focus only on providing very general information which diverse communities may find useful, or simply digitizing the information available in print format

The focus should also be on providing information specifically needed by targeted communities. This could also mean simplifying existing information, exploring new sources of information, or channeling information from existing sources to these targeted communities or providing more updated information  

What are the existing channels by which information reaches to the disadvantaged community? Here we recognise that disadvantaged communities are not living in complete information isolation at the start of the project. Instead there are  existing information sources and channels from where these people get information? From where do disadvantaged communities currently receive information?? Are the existing information sources and channels trusted by these people??Do these information source and channels provide objective, comprehensive and updated information 

For ICT for Agriculture Development Projects

Through other farmers, progressive farmers, money lenders, teachers, public phone operator, postman and health workers

Through government officials, agriculture extensionists, agriculture fairs, agricultural universities and NGOs. Through radios, televisions, folk songs and newspapers 

For E-Governance Projects

Through radios, televisions, and newspapers

Through government officials, NGOs, teachers, postman, banks, public phone operators

Through private agents, urban relatives, village leaders

We should understand these existing channels which have been embedded and accepted for a long time, and where favourable build upon or enlist support of these channels in design of the project. This could imply bring existing information sources and channels (which are trusted by and are useful to the disadvantaged communities) under ICT networks. Connecting the existing information providers (Agriculture extensionists, NGOs, local radio stations) to wider information networks so that they can provide updated and useful information to the disadvantaged communities This will also be more acceptable and sustainable project design 
What is the weakest link in the chain of information flows: from source to the disadvantaged communities?   Here we try to understand the existing bottlenecks to information flows to the disadvantaged communities and then aim at innovative use of ICT to remove these bottlenecks?Where does the information useful for disadvantaged communities gets lost, weakened or stifled? Why do these bottlenecks exist. Is it for a intentional or unintentional 

For ICT for Agriculture Development Projects

Information may be available at local agricultural centres or in markets but these are not easily accessible by farmers

High levels of illiteracy prevents farmers to benefit from available information

Agriculture extensionists are knowledgeable but do not visit farmlands away from roads or in remote areas

Agriculture extensionists and local agricultural centres do not have updated knowledege of new crop varieties, pest control and government schemes and subsidies 

For E-Governance Projects:

Government officials  may be restricting information access  and flow

Lack of information sharing culture

Government information may only be available online and thus not accessible to all

Lack of resources or expertise to make information available digitally

Lack of access to radios, TVs, and newspapers to stay informed of governmental information

ICT projects should not always focus on creating a new information channel from information source to information recipient. Instead the focus should be on loosening the bottlenecks to communications or creating parallel information channels that bypass the botteneck section of the existing information channel. This could be done by updating the knowledge of key people along the existing information channel or providing multiple information channels at some stages. For instance digitizing critical information and making it available through NGOs, public phone operators, and schools 

 

 

Only after following the above guidelines, can we design an ICT for Development project which shapes the geometry of information flow in the society in favour of disadvantaged communities, and thereby justify the project itself.

 

 

Guiding Principles of Designing ICT for Development Projects

 

To sum up the discussion on geometry of information flow, the guiding principles are:

  • Focus on disadvantaged communities, who otherwise will be excluded
  • Provide that information or service which otherwise will not be provided
  • Focus on utilizing and where possible building upon what is existing rather than thrusting a new intervention
  • Create an outcome which in absence of ICT will not be produced efficiently or timely

If the above guiding principles are followed, then it is more likely that ICT for Development project will:

  • Be accepted and used by the disadvantaged community
  • Sustain itself and leverage symbiotic participation from other agents in the society

Last but not the least, one can never overestimate the 2 reasons why ICT for Development projects can fail even with the best of intentions and innovations. These are:

 

i. Lack of information sharing culture among people and institutions. For instance, when people and institutions, including media, NGOs, government officials are more inclined to restricting information flows rather than enhancing it.

 

ii. General inapathy of the people and institutions to act upon information available to them. For instance when the acceptance of corrupt practices or criminalization of politics is so deeply embedded in the society that people and institution fail to act against corrupt practices and criminal scandals unearthed through e-Governance.