A first-hand look at the complexity of technology for development

Students in professor Guy Grossman’s Penn Global Seminar traveled to Uganda in March, an experience one student says ‘entirely changed’ her thinking about the value of mobile phones and other digital innovations in Africa.

Safari truck with group looking at elephant
Students combined fun with their course work, including this game drive through Murchison Falls National Park. (Photo: Brian Rutto)

Ugandan cassava farmers struggle with crop disease, but many of them live far away from the scientists who could help them diagnose whether the spots on their plants’ leaves are simply sun spots or something more troubling. 

Enter a project that makes a lot of sense on paper: Ask the farmers to take photographs of their crops with their phones and then upload them to a central database. With enough pictures and the right algorithm, at some point the diagnosis can happen without a human ever having to look at an individual photo. 

But that’s not what happened in practice, and students in Guy Grossman’s Information and Communications Technology for Development course got to see both sides of the project on a spring-break trip to Uganda. The class is a Penn Global Seminar, which combines course work with a short trip abroad.

“They had the chance to meet the researchers who are developing the platform and also were able to engage with the farmers and see the contrast between how things are intended to work and how things don’t necessarily work,” Grossman says. “It really let them see some of the challenges.”

What happened in real life? The farmers sent photos during the program’s pilot phase, when they were paid. When the money dried out, Grossman says, the farmers didn’t see the value in sending picture after picture when nothing was wrong. They had other things to do and sending pictures of cassava leaves takes time away from those other tasks. 

“For the students, it was such a revealing moment. They know you don’t get that from just reading a report,” Grossman says. “They had a bit of a dose of realism of what is possible and what is not possible and a better sense of why things work and why things may not work.”

That sense was a lot of what Grossman, an associate professor of political science who has done extensive research in Africa, wanted the students to get out of the class. The timing of the Uganda trip, roughly halfway through the course, was ideal, because it’s given students a more critical perspective for the second half of the semester. 

After spending class time ahead of the trip studying the health, agriculture, financial services, and education sectors in countries such as Uganda, students had a strong sense of the many ways communication technologies might show promise. On the trip, they saw the realities, especially the way the spotty power-grid and travel difficulties can be major hurdles. 

“Moving forward, their class time is enriched by the fact that they’re able to visualize what we are talking about,” Grossman says. “Before you go, it’s difficult to understand why mobile technologies might not help improve services the way researchers, non-profit organizations, and government agencies intended. But then you get there and you see the difficulty of loading money into your phone to be able to make calls, it’s actually rather expensive. Lots of places don’t have electricity, so you can’t charge your phone on regular basis.” 

That message resonated with the students. 

“I definitely think about technology and development much more critically now,” says Kearstyn Cook, a senior philosophy, politics, and economics major from Watsontown, Pennsylvania. “The topic involves more than simply funneling money toward countries that may need it.” 

Gretchen Bednarz, a senior majoring in international relations from Yardley, Pennsylvania, agreed. 

“Our trip and site visits entirely changed how I think about technology and development. Because we had the chance to see what implementation looks like, whenever I read about technology now and consider how it works, I more readily think about actual challenges, like lack of internet connection, privacy issues stemming from shared cellphone usage, culturally and structurally aligned incentives to use the technology, and gender roles,” she says. “I also realized how complex so many development issues are, and that sustainable and real solutions come from the collaboration of local people and organizations who recognize and understand the nuances of what needs to be addressed.” 

Students and U.S. workers
Students met with U.N. staff who are working on using data to improve development projects. (Photo: Brian Rutto)

The students also spent time with United Nations Global Pulse staffers, who are trying to harness data to make improvements in development projects, and they visited a business incubator to meet with Ugandan entrepreneurs. Grossman says the students were struck by the different priorities. The U.N. program had to focus on what projects had received external funding, which weren’t necessarily what the locals would say should be the top priorities.  

That dovetailed with what he says was another key goal of the trip, to expose the students to as many Ugandans as possible, to dispel the thinking that the country needs Westerners to solve its problems. 

“I wanted them to understand that we can study things because we are interested, but we’re not the fixers; they don’t need us for that. They are smart enough, and they know their problems well,” he says. “I think that is an important perspective. A lot of people who would come into a class like this, they want to study Africa because they want to help ‘fix’ Africa. 

“They may be able to help, but they’re not the only ones who can, and they certainly should not be driving the process.”

After five days in Kampala and the surrounding areas, students got a chance to have some fun, visiting Murchison Falls National Park for a chance to see some of the African wildlife. Bednarz and Cook, who were both on their first trip to Uganda, say the journey was incredible, both from an intellectual and personal perspective. 

The students in the class grew close on the trip, staying up late to learn about one another and talk about life. That took the experience to another level, Bednarz says. 

“We learned so much about each other on a human level in a way that is hard to do in the classroom.”