By Ana-Maria Lebada

On January 23, 2014, the Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA) hosted an event on “The Convergence of Smart Phones, Data, and Development.” The keynote speaker was Professor Vijay Modi, Director of Sustainable Engineering Lab at the School of Engineering (SEAS) and The Earth Institute, Columbia University. Modi also led the UN Millennium Project efforts on the role of energy and energy services in reaching the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

“ICTs tools by themselves are like the icing without a cake, all sugar and short term pleasure: people can deliver without ICTs but ICTs cannot deliver without people. You need to first understand and define the problem clearly and address well-defined gaps. Only then you can focus on the tools,” said Modi.

He started his presentation by giving a few examples from the energy, agricultural and health sectors on the advantages of using smart phones for development: timely data; a degree of information granularity that couldn’t be provided by the statistics offices; and a higher degree of comfort in the process of data gathering (replacing heavy paper registers with smart phones; having the data automatically synced by the device, thus reducing the work in the office, etc.).

Modi identified a few questions that should be answered before developing a new ICT tool: Does it save time? Are the resources now being disturbed more equitably? Does monitoring help governance?

He noted that, in many cases, it is not only about a single app but about an entire system, ICTs being necessary for assessing, iterating design, managing finances, and monitoring. He highlighted the importance of building tools that “build into” other systems, products or services that can be used by governments, large services providers, NGOs, or at the community-level.

Modi further stressed the need for government engagement and support, which are essential for government “buy in” and further use of the ICT systems. “You should bear in mind that the government is not a monolithic and that the entire system is hosted and maintained by a couple of people locally,” he advised. The long-term success, he added, depends on the ICT systems getting to be embedded in ministries, rather than being used only as conditional grant schemes.

Modi reemphasized the importance of collaborative efforts for success by concluding: “The cultural aspect is on us. We are the ones who need to adapt to them because if they don’t like the system, they will not use it.”


Ana-Maria Lebada works as a consultant for SDSN and as Thematic Expert on UN’s Post-2015 Development Agenda for the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD).