Friday, March 07, 2014

Using ICT with older people - a workshop with HelpAge International

Help Age International (HelpAge) has been working with older people across the world for over 30 years. It’s far from being the sexiest end of development, so there’s little money and less attention from many major donors and Foundations. That perception doesn’t come from insider knowledge but is a supposition based on the way they’ve built their programme, focused on local level activities supporting, advocating, campaigning, mostly voluntary. The small offices are as full of creative, committed, wise people as you’d expect of long-lived NGOs. So it was a privilege to help facilitate a fascinating exchange with HelpAge staff in a session on the use of ICT to support their programmes. As well as the people in London, we had on Skype people from international offices, including Tanzania, Pakistan, South Africa, the Occupied Palestinian Territories and a South Asian regional programme manager.

First, a facilitator’s note, especially for those working in ICT4D: don’t forget the obvious, which is that many people come to conversations about using ICT in programmes suspicious, often on the basis of experience, about whether or not good development practice will be trumped by talk of tech-led programmes or a belief that programmes and people’s lives can be transformed by new-tech. So it’s important to have assumptions and challenges out on the table at the beginning, to get as quickly as possible to a creative conversation about how to engage in the new context constantly being created by the march of ICTs. Some that could usefully have been stated at the beginning:
  • ICT4D isn’t (shouldn’t be) technology led: technology is a core enabler
  • New developments must be programme led, which means country and/or regional offices, in decentralised organisations
  • Don’t make assumptions without some data – do we know about uses of ICT by segments such as older people? 
  • Don’t simply focus on the obvious constraints (connectivity, cost etc.) that don’t take into account the existing spread of ICT like mobiles, even in the context of shared ownership. People came up with plenty of examples of engaged use by older people
  • Don’t use digital as the topic header, use ICT, otherwise the conversation is all about mobiles – important enough in itself – but ignores older ICTs like radio
  • Context is all important in determining what might be useful, based on what is already happening as well as the goals and capacity of the people involved
I gave a brief presentation about trends, drawn from four sources:
The presentation was intended partly as a collection of useful links but for an audience relatively new to the field, and with very specific sectional interests, more abstraction would have helped. I separated out two areas that I think need in depth investigation – the use of mobiles and trends grouped around Open….. and Crowd…..

The digital dimension

Part of the interest for me was comparing our conversation with those I've had in Oxfam GB over the years. In 2002 nobody was much interested in ICT4D, even as we showed how many international partners were starting to use computers. Our work in Oxfam in 07/08 was part of the the development of a Digital Vision. Having seen how much ICT4D and digital activity was already happening, and recognising the strategic implications of what were then the new Web 2.0 trends, OGB set up a series of work streams. The Regional Director for South East Asia, where a lot of ICT4D innovation was happening, took on leadership for OGB. The wheel came full circle in 2012, when an ICT4D coordinator was appointed.  

Before and during the HelpAge workshop a list was developed of current projects using ICT. Without a lot of effort, ten were identified, some historical but many live, many using mobile phones but others integrating radio and video. I think I am right that nobody had seen that list collated before, which is as it was in Oxfam GB when we did surveys in 2002 and again in 2008: there is a lot of innovation within the on-the-ground programmes, most of which is only known about only by a few, directly involved people. It was the same in the University of the Arts, London, when we explored what was going on across the University as part of work to develop a Digital Vision. Lots of innovation, little visibility and less money. One of the College Directors coined the term, digital dimension, arguing that the digital impacted, and could benefit, all of the creative and admin processes within the University. It's a useful concept for organisations like HelpAge  it's not so much a question of where ICT could be useful, but rather starting from the perspective that there is a potential digital or ICT tool or service that could be used in support of all programme - or organisational - aims.

Participants drew a useful distinction between aiming to build from and develop usage of ICTs by older people and ICT use by the organisations. We agreed that, while it’s important for organisations to get good at integrating ICT, which can be a basis for sharing that knowledge and capacity with others, that can also represent barriers to those less well connected or experienced. One of the major issues for older people in many OECD countries, for example, is precisely that ICT based-services and communication is becoming the default, meaning people need to gain control of the tools and channels in order to access services like pensions. That has, in turn, given extra impetus to digital inclusion programmes in countries like the UK. Digital access as a right has traction in such countries but is unlikely to be a priority with older people in most of the places where HelpAge works, was the general consensus.

The bottom line for HelpAge  and other similar organisations, is that this is - will be - an evolutionary process, exploring and adapting ICT tools as and when they fit, and generally staying well back from the bleeding edge of innovation. It will be enough to focus on simply being more efficient - focusing on the Information and Technology nexus, as in the GOAL Ireland project presented at the INTRAC workshop - and recognising that any kind of communication process or project is likely to be able to be access ICT that supports  collaboration, enables more effective communication, builds and strengthens networks and links into existing organisational communication.