Reviving digital white elephants to benefit the public good

In the March 2023 IITPSA newsletter our MD Josine Overdevest recommends to focus on the digital transformation a project brings to a community to benefit the public good in a sustainable way. You can read the original here, we also publish it below:

In my contribution to the January newsletter I spoke about the herd of elephants I encountered in a game reserve over the December holidays. Today I’d like to highlight another, much bigger, herd of elephants that can be found dispersed all over the country. I’m talking about white elephants, the unused or dysfunctional devices, computer centres and digital platforms that can be found in community centres and schools in rural areas and townships everywhere.

Many of these have been generously donated by IT organisations to contribute to bridging the ever-widening Digital Divide. These contributions are a good example of what Principles 1.1. and 3.1 of our Code of Ethics call on computing professionals, especially those in a leadership position, to do: ‘to contribute to society and to human well-being’. Providing access to technology in disadvantaged areas benefits the public good because it allows community members, teachers and learners to learn the skills to be better equipped to participate in our rapidly evolving digital society. And that in turn contributes to broader societal goals, like reducing poverty and promoting economic growth.

Unfortunately, many of these donations, despite the best intentions, don’t achieve the objectives that donors and beneficiaries present at festive press launches. When you’d visit the community centre or school a year or so later, chances are you’ll find the devices gathering dust, malfunctioning, missing or locked away, unused, for safekeeping. The reasons are diverse, but mostly result from a lack of understanding by the donors what the actual needs of and the conditions in the community are. Beneficiaries also don’t always realise what is needed to make the donation work and achieve the objectives. I can imagine that seeing a well-intended digital project for the public good turn into a white elephant discourages donors from further investments. A failed computer centre widens rather than bridges the Digital Divide.

Often a change in perspective could hugely increase the chances for success. When we change the focus from the actual computer centre to the digital transformation that the project brings to the community, we can apply the same approach as we would do to digital transformation in a professional environment. Allocating a (bigger) part of the budget to a proper audit of the current situation and a joint implementation plan that includes resources for change management, training and support achieves better outcomes.

I’m convinced that with this approach we can avoid future white elephants, and possibly revive some existing ones, and truly benefit the public good in a sustainable way.

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