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Pakistan’s First-Ever ICTD Conference Explores Solutions to Pressing Development Needs

More than 200 researchers from leading universities across the globe attended the four-day event that featured 18 paper presentations, 16 open sessions as well as various interactive sessions
by TR Pakistan

More than 200 researchers and academics from leading universities across the globe attended the 9th edition of the Information and Communication Technologies for Development (ICTD) 2017 in Lahore from November 16 to 19.

The international conference was held in Pakistan for the first time.

In his presiding address, Information Technology University (ITU) vice chancellor Dr. Umar Saif briefed the gathering about some major achievements of the Punjab Information Technology Board (PITB). He said the board had digitized the data of 50,000 schools and five million farmers in Punjab province. “It has been made available to the ICTD community for collaborative efforts at finding solutions for pressing development problems in agriculture, poverty alleviation and rural development,” he said.

Read more: How Pakistan Turned Around Its Vaccination Program Using Technology

In her keynote address, Dr. Sania Nishtar stressed on the need for deployment of ICT solutions in the public health sector. She said artificial intelligence could undertake many tasks better than humans and could be used in areas where there was a shortage of health workers. In pharmaceuticals, she said serialization of medicine with QR code could help combat the problem of counterfeit drugs.

Experts say timely planning is key to good research

The first day of the conference featured open sessions on various key issues in ICTD. Dozens of researchers presented their papers on the remaining days.

In an open session on “Developing Research Capacity in ICTD”, a team of experts from Örebro University; University of Colorado, Boulder; and Hochschule für Technik und Wirtschaft, Berlin, offered advice to budding researchers on how to get papers published and look for funding opportunities.

Dr. Kentaro Toyama, a professor at the University of Michigan and one of the co-founders of the ICTD conference, stressed on the importance of planning and said that the process of writing a good paper started way before the research phase. He said it was important for researchers to meet reviewers in person. “No one is going to read your paper and comment on it if they haven’t met you. The earlier you ask researchers for help, the more willing they will be to go over the paper and comment on it,” he said.

Toyama suggested that researchers should form reading circles with their colleagues and offer to read one another’s papers. “It is much easier to comment on someone else’s paper than your own and you could get good feedback this way,” he said.

Responding to a question, he said even one to two good papers a year was far better than producing 10 papers of mediocre quality.

Dr. Carleen Maitland, the program committee co-chair of ICTD, said researchers must not just care about getting their papers published. She said it was equally important if one’s paper was being cited by other relevant researchers.

At this point, an audience member gave the example of a Lahore-based researcher who was focusing solely writing literature reviews and then getting them published to increase the number of citations. In reply, Maitland said, “It’s a good way to increase citations but it won’t advance your career.”

At an open session on “Empathy in Designing Technologies”, Sacha St-Onge Ahmad from Information Technology University (ITU) gave the example of development practitioner and inventor Amy B. Smith who had carried out a lot of interventions in low-income countries to improve the quality of life there. Smith visited a village where access to clean water wasn’t available so the women of the village had to walk for two hours every day to collect clean water. Smith and her team got a water pump installed in the village. Returning to the the village after three years, Smith found out that the women were not happy about her intervention at all. Those two hours of walking had been their only ‘time for freedom’ and with the installation of the water pump, that opportunity had been taken away from them.

Researchers were advised to look at the context and consider societal factors before carrying out any interventions. A speaker at the session said that no researcher could predict everything but it was still good to be hypersensitive to cultural and social norms.

Exploring tech-savvy methods for data generation

As many as 18 papers were presented during the conference. In “Can Human Development be Measured with Satellite Imagery?” Joshua Blumenstock and his colleagues from the University of California-Berkeley tested technologically-savvy data generation methods that could be used to monitor large-scale development projects funded by multilateral agencies.

“Surveys and census provide timely and reliable data but they are costly and, in the case of census, cannot be undertaken frequently,” Blumenstock said during the presentation.

He said he and his colleagues had used satellite imagery and artificial neural networks to generate large-scale data on development indicators.

The team applied this technique to generate data for selected regions in two countries in Africa, one in the Caribbean and one in South East Asia. To ascertain the accuracy of their data, Blumenstock said the team run linear regression analysis comparing their estimates with average values derived from demographic and health surveys done in the four countries. The comparison suggested that wealth indicators could be estimated quite accurately using satellite imagery and neural networks, he said. Estimates for some other development indicators were not as accurate as those for household wealth.

Read more: ITU Scientometrics Lab Director Wins Global Award

Interactive sessions enable knowledge exchange

Besides open sessions and paper presentations, the conference also featured interactive sessions where researchers demonstrated their projects to participants and responded to questions. The projects also featured ICT solutions for pressing concerns in agriculture, healthcare, public safety, and finance sectors.

In agriculture, there were projects that used interactive voice response (IVR) technology to disseminate timely and reliable information to farmers. An automated helpline designed by Waleed Riaz and Haris Durrani from Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) solicits weather information from Meteorological Department and irrigation data from provincial department concerned as well as expert advice on use of fertilisers and pesticides. Farmers can call on the helpline anytime during the day and get updated information in the form of automated messages in Urdu language.

The researchers told MIT Technology Review Pakistan that the system could automatically alert farmers about emergency weather conditions through the short messaging service (SMS) available in all cell phones. They said they had opted for the helpline and SMS because these featured could be availed in all types of cellphones.

A project by a group of students from ITU made use of smartphone applications to disseminate weather and information of farmers. One of the researchers said that a survey conducted in target areas revealed that three fourth of the farmers owned smartphones. “We decided to opt for the smartphone application because it will allow us to add more relevant features at later stages,” he said.

Another project on display by a team from ITU used global positioning system (GPS) and global system for mobile communication (GSM) technologies to prevent crimes like sexual assault. The team has designed an armband that can transfer the user’s location data to law enforcers and relatives in real-time. “In case of an emergency, they can send alerts through cell phones to law enforcers and relatives. The latter can use location data to respond without any delay,” said a team member. He said they had also designed software applications to raise awareness about sexual assault among young adults.

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