Successful VU symposium puts ICT4D in perspective

On 16 May 2014, the symposium “Perspectives on ICT for Development” (ICT4D) was held at VU University Amsterdam. The event featured international speakers from different backgrounds, who were asked to present their perspective on the principles, practice and scientific background of ICTs for Developing countries.

Tim Unwin discusses ICT4D
Tim Unwin discusses ICT4D

The symposium was a great success, with over 100 participants that came from all over the world, bringing their expertise to the discussion floor. During breaks, these participants were asked to share their background and thoughts on a number of ICT4D issues by sticking colored markers on three poster boards. The results are shown in the three pictures below. During the lively discussions the different perspectives were highlighted. Discussions were kickstarted by asking audience members from different disciplines to comment on a speaker’s viewpoint. Students were asking practitioners, regreening experts discussed knowledge sharing with computer scientists etcetera. This resulted in many multidisciplinary discussions throughout the day.

The board shows the location of origin of the participants. There are five color post-its indicating the background (orange = computer scientist, pink = social scientists, blue =ict4d practitioners, green=development practitioners and purple = other). The results show a wide geographical spread of participants.
The board shows the location of origin of the participants. There are five color post-its indicating the background (orange = computer scientist, pink = social scientists, blue =ict4d practitioners, green=development practitioners and purple = other). The results show a wide geographical spread of participants.
Board 2: "Succesful ICT4D needs more more/better …Money, Technology, Research, Evaluation, User involvement, Other". Here it seems that Computer Scientists think more User Involvement is needed, whereas practitioners see the value of more technology.
Board 2: “Succesful ICT4D needs more more/better …Money, Technology, Research, Evaluation, User involvement, Other”. Here it seems that Computer Scientists think more User Involvement is needed, whereas practitioners see the value of more technology.
Board 3: Finally, participants were asked to mark their agreement with the statement "Every ICT4D project needs a computer scientist".  Surprisingly (or not) it seemed that most agreed, although some practitioners (and computer scientists) disagree.
Board 3: Finally, participants were asked to mark their agreement with the statement “Every ICT4D project needs a computer scientist”. Surprisingly (or not) it seemed that most agreed, although some practitioners (and computer scientists) disagree.

The entire event was broadcast live on the Web, with viewers from as far away as Liberia and Nigeria. The entire symposium is archived online on youtube.

The first speaker was Stefan Schlobach, [watch on youtube], assistant professor of Artificial Intelligence at VU Amsterdam, and coordinator of the Master Course on ICT4D at VU’s Computer Science Department. He highlighted the Computer Science perspective of ICT4D, identifying a number of interesting research challenges from CS subdisciplines such as Human-Computer Interaction, Knowledge Representation and Information Retrieval.

Next up was Mirjam de Bruijn [watch on youtube] , professor of contemporary history and anthropology of West and Central Africa, at the African Studies Centre, Faculty of Arts, Leiden University. Her talk “Mobile Africa Revisited” presented a number of of how the introduction of ICTs (specifically mobile phones) changes the lives of people in developing countries. Her research shows the need to consider the profound transformative effects that ICTs can have but also its limitations.

Professor Saa Dittoh from the University for Development Studies in Tamale, Ghana and Wendelien Tuyp from the VU next talked about the role of communication and knowledge sharing for regreening efforts in Africa [watch on youtube]. They provided insight in grand-scale agricultural issues and how local innovative farmers are making a difference.

After the lunch, mr. Amadou Tangara from Sahel Eco (Mali) and Stéphane Boyera of SBC4D consultancy held a duo-presentation on Mobile and Voice Technologies For Social And Economic Development [watch on youtube]. Their talk highlighted the potential of mobile and voice technologies for information sharing and Mr. Tangara presented a number of the voice systems resulting from the VOICES project.

The penultimate speaker was Tim Unwin [watch on youtube]. He is professor of geography at Royal Holloway, University of London and UNESCO Chair in ICT4D is also the editor of the book “ICT4D” (Cambridge University Press, 2009) which was used in the ICT4D VU course. Prof. Unwin presented a very inspiring, high-level and highly skeptical look on the merits of ICT for development, focusing on the question whether the practice of ICT4D is actually helping the most marginalised communities rather than widening the gap. He cautioned for careless optimism that often surrounds technological advances and urged the audience to rethink their focus and approach.

The closing speech was given by VU University’s own prof. Hans Akkermans[watch on youtube] who also discussed the scientific backbone of ICT4D practice. In his talk he discussed the role of the (computer) scientific method and computer scientists themselves in ICT4D asking “what the sheep can do for the goats” and vice-versa. He posited that ICT4D presents “extreme” research challenges for computer scientists, referring back to the first speaker’s talk as well.

The wonderful symposium was sponsored by VU Computer Science, the Network Institute and VU international Office.

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ICT4D Symposium LiveStream and trailer

Registrations for friday’s symposium  “Perspectives on ICT4D”  are coming in nicely. FOr those who will not be able to attend, the event will be live-streamed at from 10AM CET . We even have a trailer for this:


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Symposium “Perspectives on ICT4D” 16 May 2014 at VU Amsterdam

On 16 May 2014, The Network Institute, Computer Science Department and International Office of VU Amsterdam organize a symposium on ICT4D, the quickly growing field of practice and study how Information and Communication Technologies influence and may contribute to social and economic development in the (developing) world.

An international list of speakers will highlight recent issues, trends and debates regarding ICT4D, from a wide range of experiences, angles, and scientific disciplines. The Symposium thus aims to elucidate key questions surrounding ICT4D, including: What are successful or promising contemporary approaches to ICT4D? What is the role of ICT in the broader context of development? What has science and academic research to offer here? What is the contribution and role of different scientific disciplines, such as computer science and others?

More information and (FREE) registration can be found at Bruno van Nieuwkerk)

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W4RA promo video

This awesome promo video was made by Leeuw van Moerkerken and features yours truly. If only it were so easy..

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DownScale 2013 workshop

DOWNSCALE 2013, the 2nd international workshop on downscaling the Semantic Web was held on 19-9-2013 in Geneva, Switzerland and was co-located with the Open Knowledge Conference 2013. The workshop seeks to provide first steps in exploring appropriate requirements, technologies, processes and applications for the deployment of Semantic Web technologies in constrained scenarios, taking into consideration local contexts. For instance, making Semantic Web platforms usable under limited computing power and limited access to Internet, with context-specific interfaces.

Downscale group picture
Downscale group picture

The workshop accepted three full papers after peer-review and featured five invited abstracts. in his keynote speech, Stephane Boyera of SBC4D gave a very nice overview of the potential use of Semantic Web for Social & Economic Development. The accepted papers and abstracts can be found in the  downscale2013 proceedings, which will also appear as part of the OKCon 2013 Open Book.


We broadcast the whole workshop live on the web, and you can actually watch the whole thing (or fragments) via the embedded videos below.

After the presentations, we had fruitful discussions about the main aspects of ‘downscaling’. The consensus seemed to be that Downscaling involved the investigation and usage of Semantic Web technologies and Linked Data principles to allow for data, information and knowledge sharing in circumstances where ‘mainstream’ SW and LD is not feasible or simply does not work. These circumstances can be because of cultural, technical or physical limitations or because of natural or artificial limitations.


The figure  illustrates a first attempt to come to a common architecture. It includes three aspects that need to be considered when thinking about data sharing in exceptional circumstances:

  1. Hardware/ Infrastructure. This aspect includes issues with connectivity, low resource hardware, unavailability, etc.
  2.  Interfaces. This concerns the design and development of appropriate interfaces with respect to illiteracy of users or their specific usage. Building human-usable interfaces is a more general issue for Linked data.
  3. Pragmatic semantics. Developing LD solutions that consider which information is relevant in which (cultural) circumstances is crucial to its success. This might include filtering of information etc.

The right side of the picture illustrates the downscaling stack.

Continue reading

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African farmers in E-Data & Research magazine

The October edition of the KNAW’s E-Data and Research magazine features an article submitted by Christophe Gueret, Stefan Schlobach and myself on the need for facilitating data sharing in developing regions. Our submission was rewritten into a nice interview-like article, which you can find on page 8 (and copied below). The article is in Dutch.

For more information, visit


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VOICES video

As the VOICES project is ending, we wanted to wrap up our results in the form of a nice video. The result shows the three systems (RadioMarche, Foroba Blon and Tabale) that have been deployed and tested in Mali, Africa. The video was shot by people from the project and edited by Pepijn Borgwat from Synergique and myself. There is an English and a French version, both are embedded below.

[vimeo w=500&h=281] [vimeo w=500&h=281]

The Web Of Voices (english) and Le Web Par La Voix (francais) from Synergique



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New Scientist article about the VOICES project

This week's cover of New Scientist In this week’s New Scientist, an article written by Hal Hodson about our VOICES project appears. It highlights some of the key concepts and results from the project that focusses on providing voice-based access to information in developing areas. The article is partly based on our Web Science 2013 article. Great to see so much interest in our work!

A new voice-based web system could help, making it easier for illiterate people in Mali and other West African nations to use the internet. The project, sponsored by the European Commission, is called Voices and it has already been used to build an information system for farmers and as a platform for citizen journalism.

Read the article at New Scientist’s site here or you can always get the actual paper version.

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ICT 4 Development course final presentations

[crosspost from]

This friday, a brand new course at the VU University Amsterdam came to a satisfying close. The ICT 4 Development course (ICT4D) was offered to VUA Computer Science students for the first  year and I feel it was a success. The course, which was a collaboration between the Computer Science department and the Center for International Cooperation of the same university, aimed to teach students how one should go about designing and deploying ICT projects in developing areas.

Student group presenting their XO deployment planTo this end, the students learned about the importance of considering local socio-economic contexts but also got to experience two technologies often used for development projects. The students received a crash course in the Sugar operating system for the XO laptop from the One Laptop Per Child project and were presented with a tutorial on VoiceXML for developing voice-based applications. Students formed groups and chose either one of these technologies to solve a real-world problen in its development context.

The course ended today with student group presentations. Three groups presented an XO deployment. One of these included an agricultural program in Namibia that involves teaching children about growing local food next to their schools. The XO laptop can assist this education by providing tips for growing the crops. Two other presentations focused on XO deployments in neighbouring countries Iran and Iraq and included mockups and prototypes for XO programs (activities) that assist children both inside and outside school. There is even a good chance that the program in Iraq will actually be deployed and one of the teachers (who happened to be one of the student’s mother) was present at the presentation.

student group presenting their VoiceXML moduleThe fourth group developed an additional voice module for the RadioMarché system currently deployed in Mali, allowing local farmers to call in with their mobile phones when they want to sell produce. A voice menu enables them to tell the system how much of a specific product they have to offer and how much money they want in return.

All in all, this trip around the world showed how much the students have learned. We hope some of the projects will actually lead to real deployments and are looking forward to teaching the course again next year.

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Open Tea at CIS-VU

Open Tea at CISToday, the fourth floor of the VU metropolitan building was the scene of the Open Tea, a series of events organised by the Open for Change network. Open for Change organises such an event, open to everyone interested in Open Development a couple of times a year somewhere in the Netherlands.

After meeting members at the OKFest in Helsinki, we proposed to hold an Open Tea event at VU University. Specifically, the Centre for International Cooperation (CIS-VU) was kind enough to host the event.

We got to talk about the API2LOD for Development data. API2LOD is a tool that is under development by Christophe Guéret and myself that allows the creation of a wrapper that exposes any data from any API into five-star linked data. Our first two datasets are related to development: the data from the knowledge base of the Institute for Development Studies (IDS) and data from the International Aid Transparancy Initiative (IATI). Through our efforts, we hope to bring more data on development to the Web of Linked Data.

The second VU talk was about the efforts of the W4RA team to bring the Web to people in rural developent areas using voice services. In particular RadioMarché and Foroba Blon.

Pelle Aardema and Rolf Kleef then gave us an update on the status of Open for Change and plans for the future. I am sure that VU Amsterdam’s  Network Institute and CIS-VU can benefit greatly from continuing this collaboration and we hope that we can add our knowledge and experience to the network.

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