Participatory methodologies and participatory technologies: resonances, opportunities and misunderstandings

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Many members of the development and technical communities seem to share a common vocabulary when it comes to the values and priorities that information and communication technologies (ICTs) need to serve. Many of us talk about participation, supporting communities and relief organizations in responding effectively to crises, improving lives of the poor and marginalized with solutions adapted to their needs and priorities, and the possibilities presented by the democratisation of information. We use the same words, but do we mean the same things?

Satellite image (with building extractions) of Mathare. Image courtesy of

In the last five years we have seen the worlds of international development and open source software increasingly converge and, occasionally, collide. Open source communities like Ushahidi and OpenStreetMap are challenging established norms in the field of humanitarian assistance, for some, for the better, for others to the detriment of well-established humanitarian communication standards and protocols. Few would deny, however, that the application of open source solutions, principles and processes to address global and local challenges creates a great number of opportunities for learning.

For someone working at the interface of development, ICTs and open source, these developments are fascinating. My perspective is influenced by the fact that I am based in IDS, an organisation with a long tradition in alternative modes of development which place people at the centre of socio-economic transformation. My team, the Vulnerability and Poverty Reduction research team, seeks to advance an empirically based understanding of poverty and vulnerability through the study of movements and communities as they struggle to improve their lives and livelihoods. The ideas and ideals of human development, community and participation lie at the heart of what we do as we try to translate research into practice to inform policy and use our work with communities to generate new insights and questions.

These values resonate strongly with those of the open source movement, where transparency, bottom-up collaboration and the free flow of information are seen as key in supporting access and empowerment. Is the resonance between the ideas of the development community and the technical community valid or misleading? Here are some unguarded thoughts on the issue which are based in my experience working with technologists and development practitioners.

A. Product and process

In open source software development, individuals contribute to the creation of a shared resource for their own benefit, but also to make the world a better place and, in some cases, also to make money (in the cases of Sun Microsystems and IBM lots of money, and in other cases enough to get by and fuel their passion). Among other things, open source offers a new way to organize learning by ensuring that the lessons captured in every cycle of innovation are incorporated in the next in the form of an improved resource, be it a piece of software, an open data repository, or an encyclopaedia like Wikipedia (commons-based peer production).

Open source software, and other complex intellectual outputs created through the labour of volunteers working over the Internet, is ever-evolving work in progress. It is meant to be continuously improved upon and adapted. What’s more, this process of learning is, in principle, transparent. You can see how a piece of software has evolved from one version to the next by seeing the changes in its source code, its blueprint. You can also understand how these changes have been decided upon by following related discussions in programmer mailing lists. Push the “Discussion” tab in Wikipedia in any article and you can follow the debates between different contributors, about what should be included, excluded or expressed differently.

Community mapping in the Kibera slum. Image courtesy of

The first open source projects addressed the needs of the technical community: system administrators, network administrators and generally groups with high levels of technical expertise. These were users that open source software programmers knew a lot about. In the contexts that we are talking about programmers are required to address the needs of a rather different and varied set of users. Under such circumstances, the ideal scenario goes something like this:  programmers work with users and expert informants to identify and translate needs into products and services, refining their understanding with every new cycle of innovation. They choose the solutions that make the most sense in terms of what is already available to people (electricity, connectivity and other media), their skills and capacities, taking into account the different constraints that they operate under. They become immersed in other people’s realities and come out the other side with appropriate solutions that reflect this experience.

The reality, however, is not so simple. We all have ideas about what tools and resources can be of more value and technologies come with vested interests, both commercial and ideological. Needs may also be difficult to express and prioritize, particularly when we are dealing with users who are not familiar with the pros and cons of different solutions and who might not feel in a position to express their views. This is especially true for the poor, who are not used to having their voices heard. The need for speed, of getting something out there that gives a concrete form to imaginings, which allows global publics to contribute to it, is a compelling driver for commons-based production. Open source is a process, but one that emphasizes the product, of getting things done (“release early, release often”).

These priorities and rhythms of work make the process of engaging others, and poor communities in particular, especially challenging. I was involved in a research project with the Map Kibera initiative in Kibera, Nairobi, which examines how mapping and grassroots media can support marginalised communities to improve their lives. Part of the project was an experiment in learning; testing to see what happens when we bring together social scientists, technologists and development practitioners to challenge and learn from one another. One strand of this collaboration yielded some fascinating insights. Our colleague Sammy Musyoki, a participatory methodologies expert and facilitator, worked with GroundTruth, the organisation behind Map Kibera, to see how they could improve our approach to engaging the community in the process of understanding whether and how these tools can be of value to them.

Sammy’s analysis suggests that the open source rhythms of work may clash with the more long-drawn out process of participatory development and action research where practitioners are expected to carefully craft and implement a strategy for engaging with communities, that takes into account the particularities of context and local power dynamics. This is a culture that defines itself in terms of reflexivity and adaptability of methods and goals, where action researchers are expected to think about the unanticipated consequences of their projects and its wider implications.  Can the two approaches be combined?

 B. The politics of access and action

For the more technologically determined, the links between access and action are straightforward: as long as the right tools are available, people will use them to achieve their goals. Some technologists, therefore, consider their role in the development process to be fulfilled with provision. This idea is deeply rooted in the history of ICTs for development, where the benefits of improved communication are seen to flow as result of investments in infrastructure and policies geared to enable access. They are also firmly rooted in the open source idea of self-agency: the notion that as long as people are motivated enough, they will be able to use the tools effectively.

A key finding from the Map Kibera project, however, that confirms previous lessons, is that the value of these technologies is not evident to the poor or their leaders, at least from the start. There is often a dissonance between the initial assumptions made by technologists with regard to how the tools and the information that they generate can be used to support positive change and the realities of people of the ground. In Map Kibera, access to the digital map of Kibera created through the project was constrained by limited access to computers and the Internet. Turning information into action proved to be elusive. Although the project had managed to create a thriving community of contributors, no mean feat itself, the wider benefits to the community were slow to materialise.

For the youth participating in the project and for GroundTruth, this meant rethinking the timeframe for achieving results, which in turn raised the issue of governance and sustainability: how the resources created through the project should be managed, how decisions should be made, how the project could be made financially viable. Making an information commons project sustainable in a place like Kibera, where people struggle to make ends meet day by day, also meant reevaluating the meaning of volunteer participation, a value that lies at the heart of crowdsourcing and open source.

There are good reasons for this questioning and for reflection. Studies on citizenship and accountability indicate that making information more accessible does not necessarily make it more democratic in its effects. In some cases, it can accentuate existing divisions and power imbalances. For example, a study on the digitisation of land titles in India shows that those who benefited more were the large players, rich farmers and agro-businesses, that used the centralised land records to snatch land away from poor farmers. My colleagues from the Citizenship, Participation and Accountability Development Research Centre argue that awareness of rights, knowledge of legal and institutional procedures, disposition towards action, organising skills and the thickness of civic networks are key factors for effective civic engagement. Consider how many of these attributes and prerequisites are within the grasp of the poor and the marginalised.

C. Old and new agendas and practices

People more firmly rooted in the development world ask what’s next. What comes after tools are created and resources have been made available, or at least appear to be so? The answers, when working with marginalised communities in conflict and fragile states, are far from evident and need to be thought through in relation to the question of what drives provision in the first place.

For a large part of the development community, information and communication technologies are linked to political issues and struggles. They are linked in the sense that they can undermine or reinforce existing inequalities and power dynamics. For some, this means that technologies should be political in character, that they are valuable only if they contribute to existing agendas. At the same time, within the ‘ICT for development’ community, we are hearing arguments against ICT interventions that operate, and are judged, on the basis of strictly defined and measurable goals. The use of ICT in development contexts should, according to this line of thinking, be defined more broadly, in terms of how they contribute to peoples’ efforts to live the lives that they value, which may not be easily defined in advance.

What are the implications of this for technologists aiming to support positive social transformation, and for initiatives like Global Pulse that seek to seed bottom-up innovation? Where should the lines be drawn between impartiality and advocacy, predetermined goals and emergent innovation and how can ethical considerations weigh in practice?

The opportunities and challenges of an information commons also raise important issues for development practitioners and researchers. Practitioner communities have incorporated ICTs in their work for a long time. In many cases methodologies have been developed to help us think through the complications emerging from the use of ICTs in vulnerable and politically contested settings. Participatory GIS and participatory video are two such examples. The information commons movement extends this toolkit but also introduces processes for collaboration and participation that bring together different communities, weaving connections between the local and the global in new and unexpected ways. Open source information crowdsourcing tools organize participation, assigning people different roles, but they are also the product of collaboration through which needs are interpreted and prioritised.

If researchers and development practitioners are to contribute constructively to discussions on how these technologies can best serve vulnerable communities, they need to develop their understanding of how these technologies work not just as tools but as processes, of where the points of control and barriers lie at different levels of participation.

The possibilities afforded by the next generation of ICTs have created a great sense of optimism among technical and development communities. Behind the promise of innovative practices and methodologies built on the basis of the democratization of information lie some difficult questions. Different communities will disagree not only on the answers to these questions but also on what type of questions we should be asking in the first place. Finding common ground involves confronting the assumptions that lie at the heart of our motives and practices beyond superficial resonances whilst acknowledging that we can learn a lot from each other.

What do you think about the way the way technologists and development practitioners perceive the potential of open source, citizen mapping and citizen media? How can we support greater engagement and lateral thinking between the two communities?

Evangelia Berdou is a Research Fellow in Knowledge, Information and Communication and Social Change at the Institute of Development Studies (IDS).

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