The Data Revolution Will Fail Without A Praxis Revolution

By Richard Heeks

Pose the following to data-revolution-for-development activists: “Show me an initiative of yours that has led to scaled, sustained development outcomes”.

If – as likely – they struggle, there’s a simple reason.  We have not yet connected the data revolution to a praxis revolution for development.  The data revolution takes advantage of technical changes to deliver new volume, speed, and variety of data.  The praxis revolution makes changes to development processes and structures in order to turn that data into development outcomes.

Perhaps data activists never took, or fell asleep during, Information Systems 101.  Because the very first session of that course teaches you the information value chain.  You’ll find variants of the example below in Chapter 1 of most information systems textbooks.

New Info Value Chain

It explains that data per se is worthless.  Value – and development results – only derive from information used in decisions that are implemented as actions.  To make that happen you also need the intelligence to process the data into information; the imperative that motivates you to run the whole chain through; and the soft capabilities and hard resources to access data and take action[1].

It is – relatively – easy to deliver the new data and to attack the ‘access’ issue by lowering skill and technological barriers for development decision makers, for example via good data analytic and visualisation techniques.  It is much more difficult to address the praxis components of the chain.  That’s not just a question of providing information-, decision-, and action-related skills and other resources for individuals.  It will typically require:

– new, more evidence-based decision-making processes

– new, more agile decision-making structures

– new institutional values and incentives that orient towards these new decision-making modes.

At present, that does not seem to be happening.  If we create a quasi-heatmap of the focus for some key data-revolution-for-development (DReD) sources[2], then we see that almost all the focus lies at the source of the value chain or before (prioritisation, digitisation, standardisation, etc of data).  There is a very little thought given to the development impact of data.  And the “wings” of intelligence and imperative, and the core of praxis (information-decision-action) are missing.

Heatmap Info Value Chain

“Heatmap” of Key Data-Revolution-for-Development Sources

Of course that’s partly understandable: there’s a clue in the term data revolution; in the remit set for organisations like Global Pulse; and in the technical profiles of most of those involved.

And the limited incursion of techies into praxis is partly welcome.  As Evgeny Morozov has noted, the techie prescription for praxis is algorithimic regulation – a steady incursion of automation into the downstream stages of the value chain which assumes digital decisions and actions are some apolitical and rational optimum, which denies the importance of politics and thus neuters political debate, and which diverts attention from the causes of society’s ills to their effects with the attitude: “there’s an app for that”.

So, at present, we face two future problematic streams. One in which a great deal of money is wasted on DReD initiatives that make no impact.  One in which a technocentric view of praxis prevails.

Both require the same solution.  First, an explicit recognition of information value chains in the design and implementation of all DReD projects.  Second, a more multidisciplinary approach to these initiatives which incorporates participants capable of both debating and delivering the praxis revolution: those with information systems, organisation development and political economy skills are probably more relevant than decision scientists – to paraphrase Morozov, we’ve got quite enough Kahnemans and could do with a few more Machiavellis.


[1] Developed from Heeks & Kanashiro (2009) with a modification courtesy of Omar Malik, University of Nottingham, UK.

[2] Analysis of the content of:;; and  A fuller and more robust analysis will require more sources and co-coding of content.


This blog was originally posted at: on August 14th 2014.

Restructuring ICT4D and WSIS Beyond 2015

By Richard Heeks

Around the time of the MDGs, ICT4D became the focus for a critical mass of activity; a “sidestreaming” approach that saw specialist ICT4D units arise in a number of international and national organisations.  Following the 2005 World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), this was largely mainstreamed with specialist units being disbanded or shrinking, and ICT4D expertise seen as diffused into the main development sectors.  There is a logic to mainstreaming – if done right – in ensuring integration of ICTs into a broad range of development goals.

But there are also many dangers of just mainstreaming, as I have previously summarised: you lose the focus for learning about ICT4D; you hide or downplay technological innovation which can be a source of motivation and hope, and a lever for change; you lose sight of the ICT sector and digital economy roles in development; you silo ICT into individual development sectors and thus miss the technology’s cross-cutting, integrative capabilities; and there is no “Development 2.0” or other vision for ICTs as a force for transformative change.

So alongside mainstreaming, there needs to be some sidestreaming: retaining and supporting specialist ICT4D units within … the UN system overall; individual UN organisations; international development agencies; national development agencies; national governments; international NGOs; etc.  But ICT4D seems to spend more time making arguments for mainstreaming than for sidestreaming: in a recent analysis of WSIS+10 documentation, mainstreaming was found to be mentioned on a fairly regular basis but the need for sidestreaming – very much present if one cared to draw it out – was only implicit.

The case for specialist concentrations of expertise will require evidence of the past benefits of, and continuing future necessity for, sidestreamed structures at all levels within development.  That should associate the value of sidestreaming just identified – learning, motivation, hope, change, ICT-based livelihoods, integration, transformation, etc – not just with the positive impacts of ICT4D but also the negative: as development becomes ever-more digital, we will require a focused effort to address ICT’s dark side.

As noted, this applies at various levels but the structuring at the level of the UN system mirrors that one would find at the level of individual countries and organisations.  Essentially you have a technology-focused structure – the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) in the case of the UN; equivalent to a Ministry of ICT at national level or the IT department at organisational level.  Its future is never in doubt and it remains the bastion of sidestreaming.  But these structures have a problem: they are full of engineers with a techno-centric worldview who find it difficult to understand development language and concepts.

We can characterise the issue in terms of the ICT4D value chain.  Technical structures are good at dealing with the technical components of ‘readiness’, and the technical deliverables of ‘availability’.  But they are not so good at dealing with the non-technical elements of both stages, nor with the issues of ‘uptake’ and ‘impact’.  That would be a problem in itself but it is exacerbated because, over time and as ICT diffuses ever-further into international development, there is a shift in focus from just being concerned about readiness and availability to being equally – if not more – concerned with uptake and impact.

The solution here is that, over time, one places less emphasis on technical personnel and technology-dominated structures, and greater emphasis on ICT4D hybrids: socio-technical people and structures who combine an understanding of informatics (data, information, ICTs, information systems) with an equal understanding of development.  In theory, the UN system has this via the UN Group on the Information Society, which was set up in 2006 in the wake of WSIS 2005 to draw together those with ICT4D interests and responsibilities from across the UN system.  However, the extent to which UNGIS members are actually hybrids is unclear, and more generally, UNGIS seems to have limited power and reach in part due to its lack of independent resources.

So what of the future for ICT4D structures in the UN system?  One could argue for a hybridisation of the ITU: a broadening of its scope to turn it from a technical into a socio-technical organisation that can cover all parts of the ICT4D value chain.  But that could be self-defeating in terms of politics and impact: it could create an ICT4D silo that was isolated from development; all sidestream and no mainstream.  And it would also be impractical given the focus and interests of ITU’s membership.  Far better for ITU to stick to the readiness and availability issues that it does best – infrastructure, standards, access, bridging the digital divide – and instead to strengthen UNGIS with its own clear and independent mandate, funding, and secretariat.  It would also make sense to draw other and emergent UN actors into UNGIS, such as Global Pulse.

This would create an appropriate ICT4D structure within the UN system (see figure below) with ITU providing the broad foundation of ICT expertise, and UNGIS providing the hybrid spearhead that connects out to all of development.

ICT4D UN Structure

 Structuring ICT4D Within the UN System


This would also ensure one further essential aspect of ICT4D’s future within the UN system, which is the continuation of WSIS beyond 2015.

[This blog entry is a modified excerpt from the working paper: “ICT4D 2016: New Priorities for ICT4D Policy, Practice and WSIS in a Post-2015 World”.]


This post was originally published at: on June 9 2014

A Development 2.0 Research Agenda

by Richard Heeks

A key theme in the post-2015 development agenda is transformation: a belief that the incremental developmental changes achieved to date will no longer be sufficient in the remainder of the 21st century; and an aspiration for a step-change in approach.

Analysis reported earlier argues development informatics research – studying ICT4D policy and practice – should give a higher priority to researching the relation between ICTs and the transformation of development.  Such research already has a terminology – Development 2.0; understood as the ICT-enabled transformation of development.

But what would the Development 2.0 research agenda consist of?

Defining that research agenda has been difficult because defining Development 2.0 has been difficult.  And defining Development 2.0 has been difficult because defining “transformation of development” has been difficult.

First, there is the threshold problem – when is a change sufficiently large to be classified as “transformative” as opposed to just “incremental”?  Second, there is the direction problem – transformation of what?  Of context (e.g. structures)? Of inputs (e.g. goals, visions, aspirations)?  Of processes (e.g. business models, partnerships)?  Of outputs (e.g. inclusion, sustainability)?

But uncertainty of this type can provide the basis for research.  We can use this, plus a few sources that do engage with Development 2.0 as the intersection of ICTs, transformation and development (Thompson 2008[1], Heeks 2010[2], Hanna 2011[3], Thompson 2013[4], Hanna 2014[5]), to give some outline shape to a Development 2.0 research agenda:

1. Definition: what does Development 2.0 mean?  This could start with content analysis of what little has been said and written about Development 2.0; looking for definition in terms of the extent and content of transformation of development.  Interpretive work on a broader range of stakeholder views could also be provided.

2. Conceptualisation: how should we understand Development 2.0?  Related to definition, this might attack the issue in a more deductive manner by seeking to conceptualise Development 2.0 through particular theoretical lenses drawn from development or informatics studies or other disciplines.

3. Political Economy: who drives Development 2.0?  Who are the main stakeholders arguing for ICT-based transformation of development?  Why are they putting forward these arguments?  Who benefits from this discourse?

4. Ecosystem: who and what makes up a Development 2.0 ecosystem?  A Development 2.0 ecosystem is that combination of organisations (government, private sector, NGO/community, etc); institutions (policies, culture, etc), technologies (standards, infrastructure, architecture, applications, etc), and other resources (money, skills, etc) which allows ICTs to have a transformational effect at anything from district to regional to national to international level.

5. Business Model: what are the new ICT-based business models that provide for a transformative developmental impact?  In many ways, the Development 2.0 business model is the organisational equivalent of the higher-level ecosystem; covering organisational strategy, structure, process and value chain from suppliers to clients.  Despite the ‘business’ language, Development 2.0 models can be identified in public, private and NGO sectors (Heeks 2010).

6. Facilitation: what processes and capacities are needed to facilitate emergence and successful implementation of Development 2.0?  This can be answered for both broader ecosystems and narrower business models.  It can encompass a focus on structures, on processes, and on the agency of individuals or groups.

7. Impact: what impact does Development 2.0 have?  This could be answered in terms of any economic, social, political or environmental understanding of development.  So, for example, using lenses of growth, capabilities, inclusion, or sustainability.

The agenda here is still quite general – feel free to suggest inclusions, exclusions, modifications, specifications – but at least it represents a starting point for us to follow.



[1] Thompson, M. (2008) ICT and development studies: towards development 2.0Journal of International Development, 20(6), 821-835

[2] Heeks, R.B. (2010) Development 2.0: Transformative ICT-Enabled Development Models and Impacts, Development Informatics Short Paper no.11, Centre for Development Informatics, University of Manchester, UK

[3] Hanna, N. (2011) e-Transformation: Enabling New Development Strategies, Springer, New York

[4] Thompson, M. (2013) Development 2.0 and beyondICT4D Seminar Series, Oxford Internet Institute, 27 Feb

[5] Hanna, N. (2014) An E-Transformation Research Agenda, personal communication with author, 26 Mar


This post was originally published at: on April 25 2014