Since 1989, with support from the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the National Research Council (NRC) through its Office of International Affairs (OIA) has reviewed and identified ways to strengthen the state of planning, design, and management of scientific and technical information (STI) services in selected African countries. The program has studied many aspects of STI activities, including database access and management, library development, scientific publishing and communication, and the role information technologies play in supporting these. The OIA program has concentrated on the role information and communication services play in decreasing scientific isolation and in improving the effectiveness of scientific research.
In 1989, an OIA-sponsored meeting in Nairobi identified the information and communication technologies that held the most potential for the African scientific and research community.1 Looking at information and communication both as inputs to and results of the scientific process, the workshop participants identified CD-ROM, desktop publishing, and electronic networking as key information technologies for African scientists. In addition, they identified the collection, management and dissemination of local information resources as an area of both great need and potential in Africa.
Since that workshop, OIA's Advisory Panel on Planning for STI Systems in sub-Saharan Africa has provided advice to the managers of the diverse STI projects that the Corporation and others are supporting in Africa. The panel found that
some of these projects are models for the further development of STI services in their communities and that the project managers are in a unique position to contribute to their own country's national STI planning efforts.
They could play this important role, however, only if they first analyzed their own projects and looked closely at the experience and knowledge they had gained. The panel recommended to Carnegie that it draw on its knowledge of STI projects in Africa to produce a volume of case studies that would:
- focus on the lessons learned in designing and implementing STI projects;
- examine the impacts these projects have had;
- identify gaps in our information base;
- share innovative and cost-effective ways to market new products and services and ways to measure the impact of these on the users; and
- share information on proposal formulation, evaluation methods, and information marketing.
The Editorial and Selection Processes
To collect the case studies, the Advisory Panel appointed an editorial subcommittee to design and manage the process in an efficient manner and to formally select the authors to be invited. This subcommittee met in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia in April 1995. The subcommittee decided that the projects selected for inclusion in the case study volume should demonstrate the use of the key information technologies and services that had been identified as most critical in the 1989 Nairobi Conference.
The subcommittee then debated the criteria to be used in the final selection of case study authors. They decided that each project selected for inclusion in the case study volume must:
- Be catalytic—it should promote STI beyond the original parameters of the project and have an effect beyond what might have been expected;
- Demonstrate the use of local resources and not be totally dependent on external funding;
- Be relatively small in terms of the amount of external funding available to it;
- Have demonstrable results; that is, the project must be beyond the planning stages and be offering services to users; and
- Highlight the personal commitment and leadership of an STI pioneer.
After identifying many projects that fit these criteria, the subcommittee looked for gender and geographical balance and selected projects to represent as many countries in sub-Saharan Africa as possible. Following much debate, the subcommittee reached a consensus and nominated 18 projects to be included in the case study volume. (One nomination was later withdrawn after the subcommittee determined that it did not meet the criteria; and one nominee did not accept the invitation.)
The panel chairman wrote to the nominees and invited them to draft personal and informal accounts of their specific projects. The authors received an outline that detailed the common elements that they were to include in their accounts. Those authors who committed to writing a case study then participated in one of three writing workshops that took place in July and August 1995 in Harare, Nairobi, and Accra. Authors came to these workshops with all the background materials they needed to write their chapters. In a collegial atmosphere, far from the pressures of their offices, they worked hard to produce first drafts of their studies. These drafts were reviewed by the subcommittee and the authors have had the opportunity to submit revised versions of their case studies.
The title of this volume, Bridge Builders: African Experiences with Information and Communication Technology, is meant to describe the active role these authors have played in introducing new information technologies into their institutions. Their personal accounts will illustrate the steps they are taking to bridge the gap between the ''information haves" and the "information have-nots" and to build bridges between their countries and the worldwide movements related to the global information infrastructure (GII). Step-by-step they are contributing in a major way to the development of Africa's information culture.
The Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Scene in Africa
The pace and complexity of modern research have greatly increased the information and communication needs of researchers, scientists, engineers, and their institutions. Research and development relies heavily on the ability to gather reliable data; have access to widely dispersed data and information; collaborate on projects; hold discussions and conferences; and disseminate the results. Information and communication technologies can help the scientist at each step of his or her research endeavor.
Taken together, this collection of case studies reflects a changing ICT scene in Africa. In 1989, the Nairobi workshop participants were concerned about which information technologies would be most suited to their situations. By 1995, project managers had proven just how successful the introduction of ICT could be in order to support science and research.
The problems are a long way from being solved. In some areas, the paucity of software written in local languages hinders adoption of information technologies. In other areas, basic information-processing tools are still in short supply. Computer equipment is expensive and hard to maintain. Consumables, such as paper, ink, toner, and other necessities of the computer age, almost always have to be imported and are thus terribly expensive. Regular contact among colleagues or experts in the field is still difficult. Many times, it is just as difficult to communicate with scientists within a country as it is to communicate with scientists abroad. African scientists and engineers still face isolation because of poor or expensive communication channels and
because of a chronic shortage of funds, particularly hard currency, for purchasing books, periodicals, and subscriptions to international sources of information.
In 1989, the Advisory Panel sensed that policy-makers and donors were not well focused on these problems. Now, six years later, project managers, government ministers, donors, and scientists seem more prepared to recognize that developments in the fields of information and communications services and technologies offer vast opportunities to make real progress. The pace at which the price of communications and information systems has fallen has undermined the previously rigid link between a nation's wealth and its information richness. Through the efforts of individuals such as the ones featured in this volume, more and more people recognize that informatics (the merger of communication and information technologies) plays a fundamental role in the development of a science culture and the building of a scientific infrastructure in developing countries.
There have been several highly-visible initiatives since the 1989 meeting in Nairobi. In March 1994, Vice President Gore of the United States advanced the concept of a Global Information Infrastructure (GII) in a speech to the International Telecommunications Union's World Telecommunication Development Conference in Buenos Aires, Argentina. He proposed that the GII be composed of local, national, and regional networks. As a "network of networks," the GII should facilitate the global sharing of information, interconnection and communication—creating a global information marketplace.
The prominent support of the GII, or the information superhighway, has served to focus unprecedented attention (and much hype) on the importance of information and communication technologies. In the last few years, Africa has taken several important steps to be a part of the GII.
First, in April 1995, the Economic Commission of Africa (ECA) hosted the African Regional Symposium on Telematics for Development. Shortly after that, the Conference of African Ministers responsible for Economic and Social Development and Planning passed a resolution entitled Building Africa's Information Highway, which called for the establishment of a high-level working group on information technologies and communications in Africa made up of African technical experts.
Under the leadership of the Pan African Development Information System (PADIS), this group has met twice. It is studying the economic and social and the scientific and technological implications of the information highway for Africa. It will advise the Executive Secretary of the ECA and African governments on policies and strategies that will assist in confronting and taking full advantage of this global phenomenon. In May 1996, there will be meeting of the ECA Conference of Ministers in Addis Ababa at which the high-level working group will issue a paper called "An African Information and Communication Initiative to Accelerate SocioEconomic Development."
In addition, the South African government is organizing a Ministerial Conference on the Information Society and Developing Countries, also in May 1996. This meeting, which is inspired by the 1995 G-7 meeting on the same topic, might further advance the international consensus on the fundamental principles underlying the development of the Global Information Infrastructure.
Finally, of special interest to Africa, is the authorization of the Leland Initiative, or the Africa Global Information Infrastructure Gateway Project. This is a $ 15 million cross-cutting project managed by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). Its primary purpose is to disseminate the benefits of the Internet and other GII technologies to people in 20 countries in sub-Saharan Africa in which USAID works. Those countries closest to attaining connectivity will receive benefits from the initial phases of the project.
So, while the promises of the information age may be something less than the media attention would have us believe, there is no question that people are paying increased attention to the potential of information and communication technologies in support of science and development.
Lessons Learned in the Case Studies
The sixteen case study authors whose stories appear in this volume represent important stepping stones in the development of Africa's information highway. In many ways, they are pioneers—introducing new technologies before they have achieved widespread acceptance. They have paved the way for others because they have proven that, with enough perseverance and personal energy, the technologies can work and can improve information services to the scientific community. Nothing is more basic to scientific institutions than the tools needed to conduct research, engage in discussions with other scientists, and publish the results of research in a form accessible to all. The case studies include descriptions of how ICT can help support and build capacity for all of these functions.
The first three studies, written by John Newa, Regina Shakakata, and Helga Patrikios, describe the introduction of CD-ROM into university libraries. At the 1989 Nairobi conference, the participants expressed great excitement over the potential of this technology. Since then, CD-ROM has achieved widespread recognition as a highly cost-effective and locally viable medium for accessing international databases. It also has potential for delivering full text documents to areas where the source documents are hard to obtain. Its qualities of speed, power, and, above all, user-friendliness in information retrieval, and its value as a training medium for online searching are detailed in these three studies.
Here are some of the lessons learned by these case study authors:
- High-level support of the projects has been critical to their success. Such support often allows for the provision of local funding and helps to publicize the service.
- The selection of the right vendors, not only for the equipment but for the databases, is extremely important. The products vary in content, user friendliness, and search capability and some are more suited to the equipment found in Africa than others.
- Planners must face and meet the costs associated with maintaining the equipment and subscribing to the databases. The one-time provision of set-up costs is not sufficient.
- CD-ROM projects can have side benefits. Two of the case studies discuss the authors' roles in supplying records for the African Index Medicus Project (described on pages 45–46).
- Document delivery is still a problem. Many CD-ROM databases help researchers identify articles that they cannot obtain locally. Detailed abstracts are very helpful, as are full text CD-ROMs containing, perhaps, documents in the public domain.
The next four studies are written by Xavier Carelse, Albina Kasango, Agnes Katama, and Alex Tindimubona. Desktop publishing (or DTP) is the product of technological advances in personal computing, print graphics, and computer-generated typography. DTP can be used to design and produce anything that can be printed: newspapers, books, posters, catalogs, journals, articles, or annual reports.
Each of these case studies emphasizes a slightly different aspect of publishing. Xavier Carelse discusses the equipment needed and lays out a logical progression for upgrades; Albina Kasango talks about training and personal commitment; Agnes Katama discusses the steps taken to create a sustainable DTP unit and gives some creative examples of internship, or attachment, programs; and Alex Tindimubona discusses peer review systems and other aspects of a high-quality, scientific press.
Some of the lessons learned by the desktop publishing authors include:
- Training of the DTP operator took unexpected time and resources.
- It is important to select equipment that is compatible with what the institution is using. Buying the most popular or the easiest-to-use equipment is not always the best course.
- DTP takes more than the basic computer: peripherals such as scanners, printers, and photocopiers are also essential.
- DTP should not be confused with simple typesetting or design on a computer. A DTP operation should be organized as much like a professional press as possible. Project managers need to pay attention to deadlines, peer review, organization, and cost recovery.
The GII—and its system of interconnected network—has dramatic implications for broadening the knowledge base in most scientific fields. It is becoming more important than ever for African scientists to be electronically connected to colleagues, information, and literature in order to keep up with advances in their field, exchange ideas and information, and communicate the results of their research. Easier communication and more readily available channels for information exchange create new opportunities for international cooperation. Scientists can: collaborate more easily; develop problem-solving models; tap the information resources of other scientists and institutions; and discuss important issues without the need for expensive or time-consuming travel. Systems operators and scientists can also benefit from remote systems in order to share software and gain access to computing resources. Indeed, access to networks and digital libraries may well be as important to economic and social well-being in the Information Age as access to trade routes and natural resources was in the Agricultural and Industrial Ages.2
Building and sustaining electronic networks in Africa has been challenging but, as the next five case study authors prove, it is possible. Lishan Adam, Moussa Fall, Charles Musisi, Paulos Nyirenda, and Neil Robinson describe their efforts to bring electronic networks and, eventually, the Internet to their institutions or countries.
The lessons they have learned include:
- Training is the main aspect of infrastructure development and should not be under-played.
- Building local networks first helps develop a user base that will be willing to sustain international connections and more sophisticated applications.
- Good network management, which includes marketing, accounting, and statistical analysis, is important, no matter how small the network.
- Network start-up takes considerable time and energy. Often users are unsure of the technology and require extra support in order to get started.
- Certain hardware is more suitable to poor telecommunication lines and harsh environmental conditions than others. It pays to study what has worked well for others.
- Software written in local languages helps users adapt faster to computer-based communications.
- The transition from subsidized to fee-based email services can be difficult and controversial; while subsidies might be critical in introducing networking technologies, they can contribute to a climate in which users demand free information services.
Collection, Management, and Dissemination of Local Information Resources
The final four case study authors focus less on a specific technology and more on developing local information resources and services for a specific group of people. Ermias Dagne describes how a group of scientists interested in natural products research has formed its own network in order to convene professional meetings, sponsor special training opportunities, and publish journals and conference proceedings. Stella Monageng discusses her activities in creating and managing a specialized database for Botswana's socioeconomic development information. James Muttunga writes about his efforts to introduce computer technology and information management systems at the Kenyan Medical Research Institute. John Villars describes a national information network that his institution has developed for Ghana.
The lessons learned by these four authors are broad-ranging but include:
- Too little attention is paid to collecting locally-produced information. What is available is often not distributed to those who could use it most.
- Funding for these types of projects is extremely difficult to come by and virtually impossible if support for the project does not come from the highest levels of the institution.
- Equipment purchase, maintenance, and repair can be difficult. It is hard to get reliable and unbiased information about technology resources.
- Training must be an essential component of the project.
- If the project is to be implemented in phases, then it is best to install equipment first in those units that have an existing and specific need for automation; otherwise, the equipment may go unused and this will cause frustration all around.
- Network programs thrive on a give-and-take basis. All members must be willing to shoulder some of the burden.
Information and communication technologies over the past few years have changed the way in which we work and communicate with each other and these case studies demonstrate in a very personal way just how much has changed in the way science is learned, communicated, and disseminated. These changes are so vast that the authors demonstrate that they, and the scientists and researchers they
serve, need to learn an entirely new set of skills related to the current ways of conducting, writing about, and disseminating scientific research to policy makers and the public.
These case study authors have made very specific and measurable contributions to their institutions. They have also made contributions that are less obvious. They are, for example, contributing to information literacy, or the ability to access, evaluate, and use information from a variety of sources. They are teaching the scientists and researchers they serve to use computers and other information technologies competently, to work with others productively, and to access and use information resources. The authors also address how important it is for them to promote policy changes within their institutions and countries that favor the gathering and sharing of information.
These case studies provide valuable insights into project management and design. While they might describe very specific situations, the experience of these authors should prove helpful to anyone implementing projects in these areas:
- national STI network building;
- electronic network development;
- library collection or services development;
- document delivery schemes;
- cooperative database development;
- standardization efforts;
- marketing of information services;
- implementing cost-recovery schemes;
- operating STI projects on a sustainable basis;
- training programs for information technologies and services;
- introduction or application of information technologies;
- collection and description of locally-produced information; or
- scientific communication or publishing.
By examining the lessons learned by these authors and the impacts their projects have had, policy makers will see how important it is to become engaged in the effort to give equitable information access to all Africans. In addition, governments, foundations, development assistance agencies, and other members of the donor community can look at these lessons to develop a new generation of projects that are based on a firm and educated comprehension of what is already in place. Finally, project managers in Africa can use these case studies to learn how to implement necessary linkages among their institutions so that national STI networks can be developed. Many others who have been reluctant to begin projects in this field should be inspired to follow these leaders and to design activities that will help multiply the positive impact of information and communication technologies for everyone.
Peters, Paul Evan (1995) Networked intellectual property: brain-ache of the decade. Educom Review 30 (3).