Sustainability Science Program Working Paper No. 2013-02

Sustainability Science Program Working Paper No. 2013-02

The Role of Information and Communications Technology (ICT) in Helping Decision-Makers Meet Food, Energy and Water (FEW) Needs

Sharmila Murthy, Laura Pereira, Alicia Harley, Daniel Shemie, Eunjee Lee, Patricia Guardabassi, Chao Zhang, and Scott Moore

This report outlines the key themes that emerged at a one-day inter-disciplinary workshop held at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government on Saturday, May 18, 2013, which focused on the question:

What role can the data generated through Information and Communications Technology (ICT) play in aiding decision-making to meet current and future food, energy and water (FEW) needs in the wake of climate change?

The goal of this workshop was to help define an inter-disciplinary, scholarly research agenda to help address this critical question. Its scope was purposefully broad and reflected an attempt to bridge divides across academic disciplines and to foster conversation between technologists, policymakers and academics. The workshop was focused on exploring the current and potential uses of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) in the food, energy and water (FEW) sectors and also drawing lessons from the use of ICT in the broader field of development. However, it emerged that the use of ICT for development (“ICTD”) was still evolving and that many of the challenges to the effective deployment of ICT for FEW had parallels in other sectors.

Our hypothesis was that useful technologies already exist, but critical policy barriers prevent their effective use and deployment. Accordingly, the starting premise of the workshop was that while ICT is not a silver bullet, it has the potential to: (i) improve decision-making on complex problems at all scales, and (ii) link data across multiple levels for more thorough analysis. However, despite the original focus on the FEW nexus, the actual discussion focused much more broadly on the role ICT has already played in development. Participants shared experiences from a wide range of development sectors, including health, post-conflict, gender and sanitation, in addition to food, energy, water and climate change. Section II of this report provides further background on the scope and goals of the workshop.

Five key areas emerged from the workshop. These include

  • the role ICT can play in linking global governance with local knowledge and preferences,
  • the ethical dilemmas that have arisen in the ICTD context,
  • how ICTD can inform policy-making across different scales, and
  • the importance of context in employing ICT tools.

Key research questions for further study also emerged from the workshop. These fell under six broad themes of

  • addressing local needs and preferences effectively,
  • the kind of decision support tools ICT can provide to policymakers,
  • how “small infrastructure” (mobiles) relies on “large infrastructure” (communication towers),
  • the appropriateness of the market for selecting ICT tools,
  • why more data have not necessarily led to more effective decision-making, and
  • important questions about privacy and data misuse.

Overall the workshop was judged a great success by all and we hope that it has established fertile ground for future trans-disciplinary research to be conducted in this important space.

Keywords: Information and Communications Technology (ICT), Development (ICT4D), Food-Energy-Water Security, Policy

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See Appendix A of the report for the list of workshop participants.

See Appendix A of the report for the list of workshop participants.