Researching ICTs in Melanesia

Research Fellow Tait Brimacombe on her recent discoveries in the world of ICTs in development…

Last week I was fortunate to attend a two-day workshop run by SSGM, ANU. The workshop ICTs in Melanesia: Building a Research Community brought together a small interdisciplinary group of researchers with an interest in digital research methods, and theoretical perspectives on information communication technologies (ICTs) in Melanesia. Over the two days we heard from researchers presenting preliminary research findings, proposals for future research, and speculative research projects.

At an international level, the last five years has seen an increase in the range of research being undertaken on ICTs in a developing country context. Events such as the ‘Arab Spring’ (2011) have prompted a range of commentary on the role of mobile phones and internet technologies in social movements and collective action. Similarly, natural disasters such as the Haiti earthquake (2010) have prompted discussion of the role these technologies can play in humanitarian disaster response. Indeed, The World Bank’s 2016 World Development Report will be devoted to ‘the internet for development’ in recognition of the its potential impact on economic growth, socio-economic opportunities and service delivery.

In a Pacific context, recent advances in telecommunications infrastructure have seen rapid increases in the uptake and use of ICTs such as mobile phones and the internet – a ‘Pacific ICT revolution’. It was clear from this workshop that ICTs are an emerging area of research for Pacific-focussed scholars in a variety of disciplines, offering opportunities for a range of research projects. Heather Horst and Bob Foster’s ARC project explores the moral and cultural economy of mobile phones in PNG and Fiji, particularly the relationship between consumers, companies and state agents. Amanda Watson presented preliminary research on the experiences of using mobile phones to anonymously report corruption in PNG, through the Phones Against Corruption Project. Researchers at SSGM have conducted research on the potential for ICTs to be used for citizen-generated election monitoring in Melanesia, particularly around recent elections in the Solomon Islands and Fiji; as well as emerging research on the use of social media platforms during the 2014 PNG constitutional crisis.

In addition to offering new research themes, ICTs are also changing the way in which research is being conducted, offering a range of new opportunities for data collection, including:

  • Mobile phone interviews (either person-to-person, or via Interactive Voice Response technology);
  • Mobile phone surveys;
  • Remote data collection via SMS surveys;
  • Use of smartphone applications for data collection; and
  • Data mining on social media platform.

This more remote and technologically-mediated data collection is challenging conventional understandings of ‘fieldwork’ and ‘being-there’, particularly in an anthropological context, and re-defining discourses of authentic research.

Despite the range of research being conducted in this space, there are some consistent themes emerging. It is clear that the use and application of ICTs cannot be explored in a vacuum, with socio-cultural context, and cultural communication nuances, shaping the use (or alternatively misuse) of such technology. While there is an understanding preference for exploring these technologies alongside exceptional events such as protest or disaster, there is also a need to explore the more mundane, everyday uses of ICTs and their integration into people’s social worlds in order to fully understand these dynamics. Similarly, it is beneficial to look at ICTs as part of a broader information and communication ecology, exploring how platforms such as social media interact with more traditional mainstream media through content sharing and citizen journalism.

It is clear that in a Pacific context, despite increasing rates of ICT access and use, the penetration of these technologies are still limited. Questions remain regarding the distribution of these technologies between urban and rural communities, within households; and between men and women. Particularly with internet-mediated platforms such as social media, there are questions still to answer around who is actually participating, and whether this participation is restricted to urban elites. However, the range of research being undertaken in this space, and the establishment of a community of interested researchers is the first step necessary to begin answering some of these questions.

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