Fulbright Research Proposal

Here is a shortened copy of the proposal I wrote for the Fulbright grant. It describes the project I will be working on while in Malawi

Overcoming the lack of access to appropriately implemented technologies in the developing world is fundamental to the problem of realizing social development. By increasing productivity and diversifying the workforce, the proper use of technology lays a vital foundation for public health, democracy and economic development. This is certainly true for the proliferation of information and communication technology (ICT). Studies by the Digital Opportunity Task Force, the United Nations Development Program, the World Bank's Information Development Fund and Harvard eReadiness Project all prove that the expansion of ICT connectivity can augment social development. Building community telecenters, enhancing rural commerce via ICT-based microcredit lending, launching web-based e-commerce, using the internet to teach public health and land management in rural areas, and using email to relay commodity prices: these are among the many ICT strategies that can enable faster progress. Increasing access to technology and crossing the digital divide is not an option; it is an absolute necessity if the poorest nations are not to fall even farther behind.

When I came to the University of Arizona in 1999, I was intrigued by a project now known as the Broadband for Development Initiative (BDI). BDI is an effort of the University of Arizona and Mzuzu University (in Malawi) to augment economic development in Northern Malawi via the use of ICTs. As I worked on the project, my curiosity grew into an intense desire to work in Malawi. This past summer I was fortunate to experience the country and its diverse culture, a place where I have been dreaming about working for years.

I arrived in Malawi at an exciting time for the BDI project. After three years of negotiations, Mzuzu University and three other national universities had acquired VSAT satellite systems that would finally provide affordable and reliable broadband Internet access to their campuses. For two weeks I traveled throughout Malawi and participated in discussions about the new system with intellectual leaders, Mzuzu University administrators and faculty. Nearly everyone in Mzuzu expressed excitement over the coming technology. Those that I spoke with also expressed an urgent need for research to determine culturally compatible methods of integrating broadband access into northern Malawian society in order to provide the greatest potential for economic development.

This project aims to create a comprehensive report to guide Internet for development efforts in the Mzuzu region of Malawi. My research will adopt a unique and proven method of creating sustainable Internet based development projects used by Dr. Barron Orr at the University of Arizona known as “stakeholder-driven development”. The outcome of the process will be a report that provides Mzuzu University administrators with recommendations of specific ICT for development projects that would be sustainable and most beneficial in the Mzuzu community.

In stakeholder-driven development, those that are meant to benefit from Internet applications are involved in their creation from the beginning. The first step is to assess stakeholder needs through participatory rapid appraisal techniques that will provide a full ethnographic assessment of both the individual user and community needs, information and connectivity gaps. This phase of the project, which will combine focus group and key respondent interviews and a quantitative survey instrument, will last for four months. I will interview business owners, local leaders, University staff and townspeople in order to become familiar with the needs and goals of the Mzuzu community. By the end of four months I hope to have an accurate picture of the community's most pressing needs and aspirations, including a short list of “lead users” or early adopters who will participate in the applications development phase. Based on the results of the needs assessment, I will narrow the scope of the project by selecting one or two specific development needs and target populations that proper application of Internet technology could help address.

The next step of the “stakeholder driven” development is to create prototype applications in collaboration with colleagues and students at Mzuzu University that can be tested and critiqued by the lead users identified in the needs assessment. I plan to devote months five and six to creating the prototype systems. Prototype systems will be created by leveraging the knowledge and experience of the “best practice” projects and adapting them to meet the needs of the Malawian target population. The prototype systems will be simple staged demos of what a full-featured system would entail. Each prototype will address a specific community development need as determined in the needs assessment phase of the project. Some possible projects include: enhancing field work activities (natural resource management, public health, agricultural extension) by making web-based information products mobile through hand held Personal Digital Assistants, helping University professors integrate the Internet into their classes, or working with the local hospital to improve record keeping infrastructure.

In the third and final phase of the research, lead users (and later the broader base of stakeholders) will be invited to a series of guided workshops for testing of the prototypes. Their opinions and experiences, difficulties and suggestions will be meticulously recorded. Their feedback will be used to identify and prioritize ICT for development projects best suited for the region. Based on the ethnographic research of Phase 1 and the systems research of Phase II, I will compile the stakeholder recommendations along with the corresponding prototype systems specifications into a actionable report for University administrators by the end of month ten.