Technological Amplification in International Development

Friday, February 12, 2016: 3:00 PM-4:30 PM
Wilson A (Marriott Wardman Park)
Kentaro Toyama, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI
Can mobile phones be used to improve rural education in the developing world? How do you design user interfaces for an illiterate migrant worker in India? What value is digital technology to a farmer earning $1 a day Ethiopia? These kinds of questions are increasingly being asked by a growing global community of technologists, academics, non-profit workers, and policy makers. They range from village-level efforts to boost income with smartphones to large-scale projects like Facebook's, that hopes to bring connectivity to the billions of people not currently online.

But while there are many examples of impactful small-scale projects, and many large projects where the outcomes are unclear or mixed, what is extremely rare are technology projects that have meaningful socio-economic impact on a large scale. Sometime in the last year, the number of mobile phone accounts exceeded the population of the planet, yet whether these digital devices are helping or hurting the fight against global poverty and inequality remains an open question. Even in the United States, arguably the world's most technologically advanced country, four decades of digital innovation have done little to decrease poverty or curtail skyrocketing inequality. 

This presentation discusses several technology-for-development projects and proposes a technological "Law of Amplification" that explains their impact. Whether it’s laptops in rural Indian education or mobile phone services for Ugandan healthcare, the idea that technology amplifies underlying human intent and capacity is remarkably consistent in predicting outcomes. It’s also a powerful guide for good application of technology: It counsels caution, even avoidance, where social institutions are in disarray; and it recommends working with strong organizations for maximum impact.