‘Bridging the digital divide’ was the topic of a recent collaborative research planning workshop organised by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) in the UK. A range of British academics and practitioners from computer science, social sciences and economics came together to share experiences, discuss research priorities and develop new projects to be funded by the EPSRC.
A main focus of the brainstorming was how to address sustainability issues in ICT design and delivery by fostering greater participation and ownership and by developing, at the same time, financially sustainable solutions. A team from Sheffield Hallam University, Cambridge University, the Overseas Development Institute and Saral Services (an Indian NGO) decided to focus on service delivery in Indian Cooperatives, as an excellent way to engage with a large beneficiary base, and as this is an area where ICTs offer enormous opportunities for local development.
Key interests of the research team are participatory software design (e.g. paper prototyping, agile methods), Human-Computer Interaction (HCI), micro-enterprise business analysis and business development, rural development and collaborative methods. To bring this range of interests and priorities together, the team will be working over the next three years to look at how participatory rural appraisal can be used with participatory software design methods to develop appropriate (and appropriated!) ICT solutions in cooperatives. At the same time, we will be investigating enhanced business models using the opportunities afforded by ICTs.
The main goal of all these will be to improve cooperative service delivery in India by leveraging ICTs to enhance impact on underserved communities. Although the focus will initially be on microfinance, one aim will be to develop concepts for a flexible platform for multiple services that can be adapted to the unique combinations of different business strands we find in many cooperatives.