The Role of Academic Research in Mobiles for Social Change or How Do We Bridge the Gap?

Posted by HeatherCole-Lewis on May 04, 2009

Midway through last week’s Mobile Tech 4 Social Change BarCamp in Washington DC, my fellow public health student, Ada Kwan, and I were inspired to propose a session on the role of academic research in the current mobile movement – a topic of many of our personal conversations. 

Among the participants were representatives from academia (including but not limited to public health, computer science, information technology, and political science), industry, NGOs, funding agencies, and government.  The session sparked very constructive dialogue that I would like to share.   

As the session unfolded, the complexity of this idea quickly became evident.  The original question—what is the role of academic research in mobiles for social change— opened the floodgates for more difficult questions:

  • In what way can the efforts of academia be most immediately useful? 
  • Should academics focus on developing more apps or focus on framework and theory development? 
  • Should their focus be more on monitoring and evaluation? 
  • Should outcomes be based on social capital or more concrete benefits such as economic or health outcomes?
  • Who exactly do we mean by academia and researchers? 

Related to these fundamental questions where those that related to process.  For example:

  • Is the traditional peer-review journal method too slow for mobiles for social change?  Mobile technology is being utilized in the field rapidly-how can the successes and failures in the field be integrated into the evidence based research so that research findings are useful? 
  • Likewise, how can the findings of evidence-based research be woven into practice in the field, and scaled up to create larger programs? 
  • Will uses for mobile technology continue to develop without academic critique, until a few years down the line when people push mobile technology to the side and dismiss it as a failure because there are no standardized tools for measurement, or laws for human protection, etc?    

Academic research is driven largely by available funding. As funders change their priorities, focusing on mobile health, for example, it will be easier for academics to conduct more research on mobiles. But will that be too late?

As you can imagine, we came up with more questions than answers in an hour.  Below are a few of the key take-away points. Most can be categorized under two headings:

Partnerships and Collaboration: Place those feedback loops in appropriate places!

  • Researchers need to work with practitioners to understand the way that mobiles are being used in specific populations. Those involved with application research and development can determine which tools are most useful to create.  Other researchers can identify ways to enhance evidence-based techniques and programs for change, previously developed for those populations, using mobiles.  
  • Academics must communicate and collaborate with researchers in other fields, so as not to reinvent the wheel.
  • There may be a need to create methodologies, frameworks, measurement tools, etc that are specific to ICT4D.  Currently each field (health, economics, computer science, etc), is approaching the same issue independently based on existing methods in their respective disciplines.  Perhaps it would be easier to foster trans-disciplinary collaboration using this shared approach.
  • Mobile tools should be created on open-source platforms so that others can adapt and enhance applications.
  • There should be a push for three-pronged relationships – private-public-academic partnerships, if you will to develop sustainability and more efficient feedback loops.  As practitioners with academics are developing applications and programs, industry is providing feedback from real world situations, and funders can be assured that the money invested is backed by sound methodologies and rapid prototyping.
  • Researchers can create structured methods for monitoring and evaluation that can be utilized by practitioners in the field for setting targets and developing a plan to reach them in order to report concrete outcomes.  This practice-based information can inform the evidence base, increase chances for scalability, and allow the best programs better chances for funding.

Information Transparency: Sharing is Caring!

  • Traditional methods of dissemination for research findings, such as peer-reviewed journals, can be coupled with other methods like policy briefs, sharing with news media sources and community activists, etc.  This will allow faster feedback and allow information to reach different audiences.  
  • Supplying consumers with information on the benefit of mobiles will allow them to demand these services from their healthcare providers, for example.  Informed consumers can also pressure lawmakers and funding bodies to take notice of the mobile technology for social change movement.
  • Conferences and presentations will help disseminate information more quickly.  Researchers can present at conferences in their field as well as others to encourage information sharing across disciplines.   Mash-up meetings such as Mobile Tech 4 Change Camps are also crucial for building collaborations and sharing ideas and information.
  • People are interested in learning from the experiences of others.  Peer-reviewed scientific journals often have publication bias, where only those studies with significant findings are published.  A good solution is to share the successes and failures of projects using resources like                                                                        

As a public health student, I see great potential for the role that academia can play in this movement.  Although one hour was not enough time to fully answer the original question, the wealth of information and ideas that flowed during the session showed the value of bringing people from different fields together in one place to tackle the issue.  The beauty of the mobile technology for social change movement is that its very nature demands the input and cross-talk of several different disciplines.  If we continue to work together, we can make the communication channels flow more easily among academia, industry, NGOs, funding agencies, and government like we saw at the Camp. Thanks for providing the space for this dialogue.

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