October 2008 Archives

My Communities of Interest

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As someone who started out long ago with an interest in academic philosophy, I've been interested in academic work that actually makes it to the real world in some form. Philosophy is certainly not considered the most practically applicable major and I eventually lost interest because I wasn't sure that we were talking to anyone but ourselves (as academic philosophers). Thus I eventually found myself in IST, a place that was looking at real-world issues and solutions. And there is a wide range of issues being studied in IST. Two areas of practical importance that interest me right now are the application of technology to humanitarian issues and the area of information policy in general. And two of communities that reflect that are ISCRAM and TPRC.

Most of my research so far within IST has been focused on the issues of the not-for-profit communities and how they use technology to improve their effectiveness. This includes local organizations as well as international organizations, whose missions might include anything from delivering meals to the homebound in the US to providing relief supplies in an international crisis area after a major earthquake. The most interesting community that I have found that is related to this work is the International Community on Information Systems for Crisis Response and Management (ISCRAM ). This community includes academics from a range of information-related areas, as well as people that actually work as practitioners in the field. Areas of interest include a range of issues related to the use of ICTs for humanitarian relief and disaster assistance. ISCRAM started in 2004 with a conference in Brussels and 400 members, and have alternated between the US and Europe, with the 2008 event taking place in China. The next is scheduled for May 2009 in Göteborg, Sweden. Several IST faculty have participated, including Carleen Maitland, Andrea Tapia, Jack Carroll and Rosalie Ocker.

While I can't say that I am actively focusing on it lately, I think policy really matters for the future of technology. We ignore technology policy issues at our own peril. Thus, another conference that I am interested in is Telecommunications Policy Research Conference (TPRC). The conference covers a range of policy issues, including the legal, social and economic consequences of policies that affect the use of IT and ICTs. This includes topics like Fair Use and copyright issues to policies that inhibit municipal Municipal WiFi projects, as well as a wide range of other issues. TPRC started in 1972 and the last conference was just held at The National Center for Technology & Law, George Mason University School of Law, Arlington, VA in September, 2008. Carleen Maitland, Andrea Tapia and John Bagby are regular participants from IST.

Oct 15th is Blog Action Day!

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I just came across this over my morning coffee so I can't say I've processed it all yet, but it looks like an interesting follow up to my last post on if/how the Web can support social change. The theme this year is poverty and the idea is that a wide range of bloggers will unite to focus on a single theme which needs more attention and awareness. My favorite so far is 88 Ways You Can DO Somthing About Poverty Right Now. Check it all out here. Then write a blog post on poverty, I guess.


Save a life for $10!

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If you've never seen the Colbert Report then you are missing out on the really funny part of the sad state of American politics. But there are also some really smart, interesting guests on the show - it's not just all for laughs. One such recent guest was Rick Reilly from the web site Nothing But Nets. For $10 they will send one malaria net to a family who needs it in Africa. And malaria nets save lives.

I first got interested in malaria nets when I took a class with Dr Carleen Maitland where we studied global issues like poverty, trade and the impact of China's economic growth. Turns out that malaria nets really work to save lives, but the US (and other's) foreign aid budgets aren't high enough to provide them for all who could benefit. At the time it was frustrating to feel like there was little that I could do about the situation outside of voting for who I thought was the most likely to address these issues. Now I can do something directly.

But this does raise questions for me about the ultimate value of such efforts on the web. I assume this organization is legitimate and that my money will indeed provide a net for someone  who will benefit from having it. Presumably, if enough people go to this site, their awareness of the issue of malaria will be raised and they will buy at least one net and eventually we will collectively make a dent in the issue. All good. But would this actually work for other issues? Certainly, the web is a great source of news and information - especially if you want to escape the questionable content of mainstream media news sources. But how do you get people to a site to read about an issue they might not be aware of and then get them to take action, even a small action like donating $10? I guess you still need to make sure you get the word out on television.

 I hear there are many groups on social networking sites like Facebook that are focused on issues like hunger or poverty. Do they make any difference? Do they actually do anything? Or are they just a way to associate our digital identities with something that makes us feel good? It would be great to think that there are large networks of individuals who could be efficiently mobilized to address an issue like poverty using the tools made available on the web. And maybe it is already happening and I am just out of the loop. Certainly there has been a lot of discussion about how effective the Obama Campaign has been at mobilizing voters using the Web. Maybe I'll be more optimistic about the power of the Web to create positive change after he wins in November. ;-)

A fellow advisee, Louis-Marie

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A fellow advisee of mine under Dr Maitland, Louis-Marie is a third year PhD student in the College of IST. He is comes from Cameroon, where he worked both for the United Nations and the University of Dschang (here's a link if you can read French). Though he has not yet chosen an exact dissertation topic, his interests are in the area of deploying ICT for humanitarian/NGO work and he has had five publications in areas related to human rights and humanitarian relief, and coordination. He has attended a few conferences like TPRC and ISCRAM, and his goal conferences include ICT for Development and ICT Africa. Louis-Marie has already spent some time in academia so his long term goal is again working for the United Nations after earning his PhD. He currently lives in State College with his wife and daughter.


In many ways, my own interests are very similar to Louis-Marie's and I would not mind doing much of the same kind of academic work. I'm interested in how ICTs can support humanitarian work and how ICTs can support development and poverty reduction. He is just a little bit older than me and certainly has more interesting experience to draw upon for that kind of work. In comparison, I feel like an idealistic American (who has travelled little outside of the US) with some techno-utopian goals. And at times I am unsure whether it is the local or the global that is more interesting to address; it seems that if we could fix deliberative democracy at the local level (at least in the US), we might do much better as a nation addressing all the very important international issues that seem largely ignored in my country. My long term goal has been an academic career, but his goal of working with the UN certainly has its appeal. I have wondered at times whether academia is the best place to have an effect on global issues like poverty. It is certainly an area where we need to do something better than what we are currently doing. I just hope that ICT and IT can really have the kind of impact that can make a difference in those areas.

My Advisor (better late than never)

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My advisor is Dr. Carleen Maitland and she is one of the faculty that epitomizes what is so different about IST when compared to purely technology-oriented schools. On the ITP triangle that we like to talk about in IST, she seems strongly the Information and People sides. Her doctoral work was in Institutional Economics at Delft University of Technology. I've known her long enough that I should be able to explain what exactly that is, but I'll save my readers a long, rambling attempt. I'll just say it is related to the academic area that I would consider Macroeconomics, but is more interested in the role of human institutions than in many of the broad generalizations you find in much of economics. (There is a Wikipedia post here, but I can't vouch for its veracity.) She earned a Master's degree from Stanford in California and a Bachelor's degree from Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts.She spend some time in the Peace Corps (very cool!) and shecurrently lives in State College with her husband and daughter.


Dr. Maitland's work here at IST has been focused on international telecommunications policy (cell/wireless issues in particular, information and technology issues for humanitarian organizations (often referred to as NGOs) () and issues of inter-organizational coordination issues (like supply chain management). Some of the classes she has taught at IST include: Information Technology in an International Context, Globalization Trends and World Issues, and Information and the Organization. She has published work in journals like The Journal of Information Technology in Social Change (link), and Telecommunications Policy (link) and has presented at conferences like International Information Systems for Crisis Response and Management (ISCRAM)  and the International Conference on Information and Communication Technologies and Development (ICTD).

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This page is an archive of entries from October 2008 listed from newest to oldest.

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