Open ICT for Development

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= This wiki is an attempt to collaboratively build the theoretical and empirical understanding of Openness and its applicability to the field of human development, and ICT4D in general.


Founding document at


What Is Open ICT4D?

"Open ICT4D is the use of new ICTs to engage in “open” processes to achieve development gains.

More specifically, open ICT4D is a way of organizing social activities for development benefits that favour:

1. Universal over restricted access to communication tools and information. For example, access to the telecommunications infrastructure through a mobile phone, or access to an online content such as MIT’s Open CourseWare (OCW) or government information.

2. Universal over restricted participation in informal and formal groups/institutions. For example, the use of SMS to mobilize political protests, or new e-government implementations that provide increased transparency and new accountability arrangements.

3. Collaborative over centralized production of information, cultural content, and physical goods. For example, collaborative production of school textbooks, co-creation of government services, mesh networks.

At an abstract level, one way to understand these three components of Open ICT4D is to see them as part of a continuum, where each prior component is a pre-requisite for the following one. Access (and its associated infrastructure and skills) is a pre-requisite for participation that in turn is a pre-requisite for collaborative production (See Figure 1 below). For these reasons, generally speaking, as we move from access to participation to collaboration, the complexity of the enabling pre-requisites required for the activity is increased. Indeed, it may be that for true “open” collaboration new institutional forms will be necessary. A good example that is discussed more below is the range of e-government activities that moves from simple presentation of information on a Web-site, to more interactive e-services, and eventually to participatory e-services (see Table 2 for a list of activities from more closed to more open). This final move is considered transformative because it requires major back-end changes to the public sector bureaucracy that is not built to handle truly participatory or collaborative activities.

Recall that we view Open ICT4D as an hypothesis. This is not an argument that ICTs will lead to increased openness and will lead to positive development outcomes.

Rather, it is an hypothesis that:

- There are many processes that can be made more open through the use of ICTs and that doing so will generate development outcomes that are:

  • Incrementally better: i.e., in a more efficient (e.g., faster, cheaper) and/or effective manner (e.g., better leveraging of local knowledge, contextually-appropriate innovations, more local buy-in through transparency and participation), and/or
  • Novel/Transformational: i.e., in a manner that without an open ICT approach is impossible (e.g., novel innovations, new forms of participation, mobilization, or organization).

There is a corollary to this hypothesis: different activities will function optimally (directly or indirectly generating social value) with greater or lesser degrees of openness.

Consequently, as ICTs spread and these social platforms become more prevalent, the central research question is: how, in what contexts, and to what extent does the opening up, through ICTs, of information, communication, participation and collaboration lead to more positive social outcomes?" (


" What Open ICT4D Is Not

We do not include in the definition of openness the concepts of property (proprietary and non-proprietary), public goods or the commons. An alternative approach to defining openness would be one that focused on directly these issues. Benkler, for example, takes this focus with his notion of “commons-based development” (Benkler, 2006). Benkler is concerned with when, how and why commons-based (non-market or state-based) management and production using ICTs might be good for development. However, we have opted not to follow this path for the following two reasons:

  • It is controversial: Sometimes (but certainly not always) the arguments for openness can take on (or be perceived as taking on) a more ideological position – for example, as a direct challenge of the notion of property rights in many domains. Rather than taking this position a priori, we are looking to establish an empirically informed position regarding the benefits of open processes for ICT4D and what legal-institutional arrangements are best for achieving developmental outcomes.

  • It is an overly narrow definition: Our focus is on understanding when, why, and how ICT4D processes have increased value when employing open processes that may come from market, state or commons-based methods. Given the different nature of the goods we are dealing with (technologies and content) different combinations of property regimes are probably required in diverse contexts to maximise developmental benefit – and to limit the discussion to those that are commons-based development would thus limit the range of potential applications that we consider.

This is not to say that these concepts are not important to understanding the role of openness. Indeed, our understanding is that the nature of property rights regimes used to manage resources plays a crucial role in determining openness. It is not, however, openness itself. This is because, as discussed above, openness of some good (content, decision-making or production process) will generally depend upon a variety of different property regimes operating concurrently. For example, content may be freely available while running on proprietary software over an open wireless spectrum. Thus, we are agnostic as to organizational and proprietary regimens through which content or technology should be produced and managed, be it through a market, state or commons-based property regime. For example, a well-functioning and sustainable production and management scheme that is mostly proprietary but provides relatively open content is arguably preferable to a non-sustainable system that is commons-based.

Furthermore, openness also is not about competitive or liberalised markets or trade regimes, or open competition (Wunsch-Vincent, Reynolds & Wyckoff, 2007). To reiterate: the existing configuration of property regimes and organizational forms that produce, disseminate and maintain certain goods are essential components of the social environment that determine the relative openness of a particular good. Indeed, it was through the market liberalisation and increased competition in the telecommunications sector that access to the Internet has been opened up to a broader public. However, such a situation provides the platform upon which more openness is made possible, but is not itself openness." (

More Information

See also: What is Openness?