Talking about ICT4D: a typology

There's an interesting discussion going on within the civic-tech community about the lack of a common language for discussing the hugely diverse ways in which citizens are using technology to foster social change. In the ICT4D sector a similar problem exists; given the great proliferation of ICT4D initiatives, we lack a shared language to discuss why we value some ICT4D more than others.


In the civic-tech field some progress has been made towards solving this problem. The Knight Foundation has created this cool visual categorisation of civic-tech initiatives organised by function (i.e. 'civic crowdfunding' or 'open government data') and in a recent blog-post MySociety director Tom Steinburg produced this diagram categorising civic-tech organisations based on their core purpose.


In the field of ICT4D we have developed a common language to describe sectoral categories like 'eLearning' and 'eHealth', and each of those categories, such as 'eAgriculture', has its own sub-categories, like 'market-price-info' and 'agri-extension' or 'animal husbandry'. Yet however granular these functional distinctions become this form of categorisation does nothing to help us discuss the development impact of one initiative when compared to another.


Personally I would find it really useful to have a common language to categorise ICT4D initiatives by their development method and intent as, for me, the means and ends of development initiatives are key to how highly I value them. I've sketched this table as a way to locate and compare the method and intent of any ICT4D initiative.



Method & Intent










eGov Portal South Africa









Esoko eAgriculture Communication


Constituency Watch











We can chart the intent of ICT4D initiatives in the vertical columns using three categories appropriated from Ineke Buskens work on gender and ICT: conformist, reformist and transformist:


'Conformist ICT4D' intends to use tech to increase the efficiency of existing social arrangements without upsetting the status-quo. The Conformist column might contain the eGovernment portals of national governments as well as all of the initiatives in the right-hand column of Tom's 'Civic Power' diagram above?

'Reformist ICT4D' intends to improve the situation of disadvantaged groups, but aims to do so without challenging the (structural) root-causes of that disadvantage. The Reformist column might include the excellent Constituency Watch from Zambia and all of the civic-tech from all three of the other columns in Tom's diagram?

'Transformist ICT4D' intends to use tech not only to address disadvantage directly, but critically to also challenge and change the structural root-causes of (under)development and social (in)justice. Transformist ICT4D might include organisations like Twaweza or the use of social media in the so-called Arab-Spring?


Using the horizontal rows we can locate ICT4D initiatives according to the methods they rely upon (which reflects their underlying theory of change). N.B. I am still struggling with naming these categories - so any advice is much appreciated.


'Technology-focused ICT4D' in the first row can be used to locate supply-side, top-down initiatives like One Laptop Per Child or eGovernment portals.

'Communication-focused' initiatives in the second row could locate communications and info-sharing platforms such as the Esoko eAgriculture platform.

'People-centred ICT4D' in the final row might be used to locate initiatives that involve the 'intended beneficiaries' in dialogue throughout the entreprise to build their capacity and intent to self-determine their own development - as described in a previous post. The work of AkiraChix or Twaweza might be examples that fit best here?


Like any system that tries to fit complex social reality into tidy little boxes mine is far from perfect. My guess is that many initiatives will straddle more than one box and that others will migrate from one box to another over its lifetime. But then my intention is not to design perfect categories or to over-simplify the complexities of technology's role in development. My much more modest hope is to produce a visual aid to help us to better reflect upon, and communicate about, the ways in which people use technology to effect social change.

Please tell me if any part of it works for you, advise me how to improve it, or propose alternatives.



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