Computing for Good

Georgia Tech’s College of Computing has posted details of its Computing for Good (C4G). C4G is introduced thus

C4G centers on the use of computing as a platform for improving the human condition. It draws on both the self-focused and altruistic sides of students by presenting computer science as a cutting-edge technological discipline that empowers them to solve problems of personal interest as well as problems that are important to society at large.

But wasn’t this what ICT4D was supposed to do?

The range of projects conducted is impressive and each one engaging, but there’s no independent verification, no links to further details, no local voices of partners or beneficiaries. There are also concerns of sustainability and resilience of the solutions provided by students in Liberia and Ghana in particular, where details are not provided as to how the systems developed were integrated into local processes, networks and organisations so as to ensure sustained use once the students had flown back to Georgia Tech.

“They are down on the ground working on a real problem – using technology to help in global health initiatives or to heal a nation coming out of civil conflict – not sitting in a lab at Tech,” says assistant professor Michael Best in the School of International Affairs in the Ivan Allen College of Liberal Arts. “Students today want to do work where they can see its impact in real terms.”

The cynic may interpret the fact that Georgia Tech sees C4G as a way to get more students into Computer Science as the real reason behind the newly established programme of studies and practical experience. But taking it at face value, the programme’s benefit surely is in opening the eyes of generally insular College graduates in the US to experiences beyond what textbooks and classrooms at home offer, particularly for those who choose to travel outside the US and grapple with the challenges of implementing ICTs in post-conflict scenarios. The danger of this initiative however is that students maybe led to believe there are quick fixes through ICTs for deep rooted and long standing social, political, religious and other identity based conflict. Quick fixes are rarely resilient to change and endure the vicissitudes of peacemaking and peacebuilding. Quick fixes also run the risk of developing new platforms, services and products – when there already may be robust, open source and interoperable equivalents out there that can be adapted and adopted far more easily.

Reinventing the wheel can be excited for computer science students as part of their coursework, but hugely detrimental to processes and actors on the ground who use software that has no guarantee of support and training over the long term, and no assurance that the data collection can be integrated into other systems over time.