Please note: This archive was last updated in 2005.

RHO archives : Topics : Information and Communication Tech.

Overview/Lessons Learned


The technologies

Information and communication technologies (ICTs) are used to produce, store, process, disseminate, and exchange information. The term encompasses a wide range of technologies including the "older" ICTs: radio, press, television, film, walkie-talkies, and telephones; and the "newer" ICTs: email, CD-ROMs, websites, computers, mobile phones, palm pilots, digital video cameras, and cell phones (DOT Force 2003; Curtain 2003; Chetley 2001).

The innovative use of the new computer-based ICTs in reproductive health programs has increased dramatically in the last decade. Email has facilitated the unprecedented collection and exchange of information; infrastructure investment has improved electronic accessibility in many regions; website development has resulted in an explosion of online publishing by many organizations; reproductive health curricula, on CD-ROMs and websites, have greatly enhanced health worker training programs; and satellite technology has expanded the potential of radio broadcasting. The development of "open source" software for knowledge sharing within organizations and communities of practice promotes peer review, shared use of data and statistics, and the capture, distillation, synthesis, and dissemination of lessons learned. Older ICTs are being used in new ways: telephone hotlines are becoming an increasingly important tool to provide sensitive information and counseling to individuals; print newsletters are also published on the web and disseminated by email. HIV prevention programs that target youth through TV, radio, and websites reach millions of youth simultaneously and provide channels for social action.

However, significant financial, political, cultural, and technological obstacles affect the establishment of sustainable programs in low-resource settings. Economic analysis suggests that countries with low per capita income have limited capacity to adopt advanced forms of ICT. Despite the potential long-term cost-savings of ICTs, affordability is a significant barrier to adoption at every step of ICT introduction and use. Other barriers range from the short lifespan of computers, unreliable electricity, and lack of appreciation of ICTs benefits to broader social issues such as the inclusion of women in project planning; the cultural and linguistic relevance of information for the intended audience, and a serious shortage of ICT-related knowledge and skills.

Although ICTs are not a panacea, they are powerful tools that can greatly enhance communication and have revolutionized the data-to-information-to-knowledge process. Reproductive health professionals need to align their goals and resources carefully before they incorporate ICTs into their programs because of the initial investments in time and moneyand the social and technological limits for sustainability. For a list of ICT applications that can benefit reproductive health activities (including examples), see Table 1.

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Lessons learned

  • Projects based on thorough assessments of information needs and technological capacity are most likely to be cost-effective and have significant impact on users.
    Planning steps for projects with an ICT component need to include careful consideration of the context of the project: the information needs of users, the ICT capacityboth country capacity and ITC literacy, available resources, and existing systems.
  • Appropriate selection of technologies increases access for the user and enhances the potential for knowledge-sharing.
    It is important to assess which technology is the most cost-effective and appropriate to achieve specific objectives with a specific group in a specific place. For example, the careful selection of walkie-talkies has allowed traditional birth attendants who do not write to efficiently refer some women to health units for delivery. This project led to a reduction in the maternal mortality rate. Radio is another technology where literacy is not a prerequisite to participation.
  • Cooperative partnerships help ensure the viability of ICT programs.
    Successful programs have partnered with nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), especially those in the South; other international agencies; and the private sector. ICT projects are usually a multi-disciplinary effort. Depending on the project, consider including health care workers, publishers, broadcasters, librarians, health information professionals, and technical experts.
  • Gender issues need proactive consideration in the planning, budgeting, training, and development of ICT projects.
    Project design should take gender differences into account. The impact of gender relations on access to and use of technology is reflected in usage patterns in existing ITC projects. The inclusion of women in the life cycle of the project and an integrated gender perspective will help reveal barriers, ensure relevant content, and encourage equitable access.
  • To ensure sustainability, especially with computer technologies, invest in technology maintenance and expect to update hardware and software.
    The average life cycle of computers is three to five years. Older computers often do not have enough memory for CD-ROMs. Viruses, power fluctuations and outages, and lack of proper data backup are common in the developing world. Internet connectivity can be a continuous and costly challenge. Hardware and software purchases strain available resources, leading to the use of inferior or improvised equipment and unlicensed software.
  • Staff need ongoing ICT-related training.
    Where it is possible, programs should plan to train and use local technical capacity, making a special effort to include women. Project turnover in some projects is about 35 percent, so training must be ongoing. In some settings, improving literacy and encouraging an information-seeking attitude will help create a learning culture.
  • Projects must be planned with realistic time frames.
    ICT-readiness assessments, along with more traditional methods such as participatory assessments and focus groups, can help identify any project constraints.

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