Why [email protected] is vital to Kenya by Kentaro Toyama

By Jessica Colaço
  Published 10 Mar 2011
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"Many congratulations on the launch of the iHub’s research arm! It’s an honor to guest blog for its launch," - Kentaro Toyama
Last December, during a snowy week in London, three researchers presented a call to arms masked as an academic paper at the International Conference on Information and Communication Technologies and Development (ICTD2010). Shikoh Gitau, Paul Plantinga, and Kathleen Diga tallied the work of African researchers in ICT-for-development and noted their “almost negligible representation in formal academic publications.” Much of their analysis applies to other research areas, as well, and even beyond the ivory tower. Their paper wasn’t just a cold academic exercise – as they each rose to speak, it was clear that it was a lament. Partly in response, Shikoh and co-conspirators Jessica Colaço and Erik Hersman are taking action. With [email protected], they’re building a platform to foster more ICT researchers in Africa – a necessary condition for Africa to innovate more and to gain visibility on the international stage. As Gitau put it to me, [email protected] is “grad school lite, where you learn how to choose and tackle real life problems without the benefit of a degree.” In my blog persona as the ICT4D Jester, I bash certain kinds of ICT programs in developing countries as clueless non-solutions to imaginary problems dreamt up by rich people. But, this is not one of those programs! Even though [email protected] is about ICT, and it is happening in a developing country, there is absolutely nothing to bash here. First, this is an effort that builds on the iHub’s mission to build up Kenya’s potential as a technology producer. It’s one thing to be a consumer of technology, but it’s another thing entirely to be a producer of technology. In the former, maybe you could find the nearest data-entry job on your mobile phone; in the latter, maybe you could be the next Bill Gates. Any idiot with some cash can buy a fancy new gadget, but it takes passion, perseverance, a supportive community, and some luck to build one. To the extent that the [email protected] is about nurturing those qualities, there’s nothing more important to global development. Second, the [email protected] is led by people from Africa. The most effective growth happens from within, as people pursue a deeply felt aspiration. So, I’m particularly glad that this was an initiative of Africans, by Africans, for Africans. If outsiders choose to fund it in the future, I hope they will do so because they believe in the mission and trust the people involved, not because they want to push it in some externally imposed direction. Third, because of the two points above, even if the group runs a few ICT4D projects that the Jester might otherwise have mocked, it will still be worthwhile, because any learning that comes from them will stay with Africa. This is not to say that good research methodologies shouldn’t be put to practice (it’s very possible to be rich and clueless while being from a developing country). Rather, it’s that even if a project were to go poorly, the critical lessons won’t fly away to another continent; they will be learned within a community that can incorporate them into later work and propagate them to future generations. So, I love the idea of the [email protected]! For future members, I have a few recommendations based on my own experience with computer science and ICT-for-development research. These are recommendations, not formulas, because there is no formula for good research. Research requires a wise balance of opposing temperaments, and below are three balancing acts I’m still learning. Be arrogant and be humble. Research is an act of subversion and cockiness. To do research means to say to everyone who has come before, “I can do it better than you.” Some of those people are teachers, CEOs, ministers, and Nobel Prize winners, but a good researcher still finds something that no one else knew before. Of course, finding that thing requires climbing onto the shoulders of the giants who came before, and that requires humility. No one knows it all, but if you respect what others have done enough to learn from them, and if you’re confident enough to add your own creative spark, you’re on your way to good research and to innovation. Next, plan and improvise. The least appreciated tip to good programming is that it helps to plan out projects on paper, before you set a finger on the keyboard. Although it’s tempting to rush to code, a little time spent thinking through architectures and algorithms can save headaches later. The importance of planning is even greater for research. Thinking through ideas and methodological strategies before gathering data or building prototypes is critical. Of course, things never go as planned, so it’s important to remain flexible. Unexpected problems are sure to arise, and you’ll have to adapt and re-plan. In fact, it’s probably not research at all, if the entire solution is known up front. Finally, follow your instincts and seek out good mentors. Actually, these recommendations aren’t contradictory at all, if you find truly good mentors. Good mentors will help you find and follow your internal compass. They will try to understand your aspirations and to help you achieve them. They will encourage, inspire, facilitate, or instruct as necessary. Occasionally, they may discourage you from directions that they believe are unfruitful, but they won’t try to replace your goals with theirs or solve problems for you. And, if they try to, consider alternate mentors! Along these lines, let me also do my part: I’d be delighted to volunteer as a mentor for members who seek research mentorship. There’s nothing more satisfying than being an uncle to an energetic new venture, and I suspect that other researchers around the world will join me as [email protected] mentors. I imagine in a few years, as the [email protected] grows both in its membership and research output, it will become a role model organization for the rest of the continent. Similar groups will start in other cities, in other countries, all with the aim to grow Africa’s capacity for research and innovation. I look forward to those days, but for today, let me congratulate everyone once again, and wish you a raucous launch party! I have just one question… How do you pronounce [email protected]?
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