If they’re speaking Italian…

If it’s Thursday, this must be Rome. And this conference must be the Web2 for Development conference, hosted at the FAO in Rome. My impressions of Rome thus far come exclusively from what I can see of the city from the roof of the FAO complex. According to a friend at lunch, this building is where Mussolini planned his colonization of Africa – there’s more than a few bad jokes about whether FAO is continuing that work.

One of my pet peeves is speakers who show up only for their session at a conference, parachuting in and giving a talk without understanding the tone of a meeting, the speeches that have come before, the context for their words. Today, I’m that jerk. Given the vastness of the topic – how does the world of web 2.0 intersect with the world of international development – I’m left guessing at how to pitch the remarks.

The talk went well, I think, judging from good questions after the session and throughout the day. Ismael Peña-López, who blogs brilliantly on ICT4D at ICTlogy has good notes on the talk, and Tobias from Kabissa has reflections on my suggestion that interactive voice response systems should be a serious priority for international development. You can check out the slides here if you’d like.

I got to catch less of the rest of the conference than I had hoped – I did several interviews, and missed a couple of talks. But some of the highlights from what I caught:

– Thomas Metz from the International Rice Research Institute, who’s led implementation of two major web2.0 projects for his group, observes that there’s a potential culture clash between the behaviors web 2.0 encourages and the hierarchies that tend to characterize bureacratic organizations and research centers. In organizations where every public utterance needs to be scrutinized by a PR department, it’s really hard to encourage open collaboration via a tool like a wiki – Metz regrets that one of his projects was built in a closed, password-protected environment, but it was the only way to make everyone comfortable with the process.

– Kwame Ahiabenu from the International Institute for ICT in Journalism (PenPlusBytes) in Accra, Ghana, makes a persuasive case for the importance of basic tools in online education. His team offers free online trainings for journalists on how to incorporate IT into their journalistic practice and better use IT tools for reporting. The courses are offered via email, and while they encourage the use of fairly complex online tools, they’re accessible to anyone who can participate in the email lists, which helps explain their popularity with users throughout Africa, and as far away as Bangladesh and Australia.

Two overall impressions:

– There’s a great deal of enthusiasm for the tools of web 2.0, but I worry that people are embracing tools because they’re worried about falling behind.

– Those of us who have been working in ICT for development for a while may – or perhaps should – be starting to feel like it’s “put up or shut up” time for these tools. We need to get beyond discussions of how these tools might benefit people and get closer towards ensuring they do benefit people.

More reflections when I’m not so sleep deprived, I suspect.

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4 Responses to If they’re speaking Italian…

  1. Pingback: web2fordev conference impressions (2) : crisscrossed blog

  2. Pingback: Global Voices Online » Bloggers' Notes From Web2forDev Conference

  3. BRE says:

    Ethan, I’m surprised to learn that you were in attendance at this conference and only learned about that fact via Nedesanjo’s post at GVO today. Don’t feel like a jerk who just parachuted in to the conference to deliver a boring presentation as I am sure that your inputs were appreciated by many there.

    I discovered news about this conference only last month by accident when I came across Zambian journalist Brenda Zulu’s post about the Digital Citizen Indaba down in South Africa. Here’s the link to that post by Brenda:
    http://blog.web2fordev.net/2007/09/17/emergence-of-digital-citizens-in-africa-still-elitist/

    One thing that I noticed in September while reviewing the Web2forDev website, blog, and wiki is that there were major government sponsors and supporters (i.e. USFAO, the EC/EU, Germany’s GTZ)but apparently there were no major Web 2.0 technology companies listed as sponsors or exhibitors for this conference. Does this mean that the Web 2.0 software industry was not informed about the event, not invited to present or exhibit, or not interested?

  4. Ethan says:

    BRE, I think there might have been some resistance to having web2.0 companies – or companies as a whole – as sponsors to the conference. It might have been percieved that those sponsors were controlling the conference agenda.

    That said, a representative from Microsoft spoke on the Friday of the conference, and there didn’t seem to be much objection. Perhaps UN simply didn’t think about bringing commercial sponsors to the table…

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