I’ve been attending, last three days, IST-Africa 2011, in Gaborone, Botswana. This is a series of events that runs since few years all over the sub-Saharan Africa, and I attended most of its instances since 2006. It is funded by the European Union, and is a kind of EU-Africa summit on ICT. There is always a part on political issues such as EU-Africa cooperation and related subjects, but it is mostly a research conference, with lots of paper on ICT for Development. It covers all topics from infrastructure to content, from cloud computing to local innovation.
I was there mostly to present the EU funded VOICES project that we are driving (see the slides of my presentation).
Globally, I’ve mixed feelings. The technical program is fair, lots of potentially interesting papers and topics. Unfortunately, it seems that lots of authors are sending papers for publication but are not able to come. Therefore, among the 10 sessions I attended, only one had all its announced speakers, and one had none of them! Usually one to two speakers (i.e. 25% to 50% !) were missing. That’s a shame, and while it is not organizers’ fault here, they surely have to adopt a strategy against this issue. The second problem I’ve is with the formal session, with officials from the host country. Over the 2.5 days, more than half a day (the full first morning + the last 2-3h of the third day) is dedicated to these formal sessions that are so boring. I couldn’t find one person who enjoyed those sessions, and this has been a recurrent complaint in all the instances of this event i attended.
That said, there are also very positive points. First of all, it is very good to learn about EU programs that exist to develop cooperation in research, sciences and IST. The EU funding calls are so huge, that it is usually quite hard to figure out where are opportunities for ICT for development activities. So it is very useful for people like us who are looking for funding for research in this domain. Then the attendance is impressive. It is a relatively small conference (300-400 people I would say), but a big majority of attendants, i would say 70-80%, are coming from Africa. Researchers and practionners from the entire continent are attending. Not only this is great for networking, but it is also very positive for the future. 5 years ago, I would say that the ratio was the opposite. That means that new capacities are now built locally, and that local researchers and practionners are now able to cooperate at the international level. I was impressed to meet people from small countries such as e.g. Malawi, Rwanda, Namibia, and there are here to present their work in various field. Not only this is very encouraging, but that also means that interventions in these countries can largely relies now on local capacities. So that’s a very good point!
Finally, the settings leveraged networking. Having all the attendants in one place for 4 days is definitely great of networking. Obviously you work from breakfast till after dinner, but like for all conferences, the most interesting discussions are happening outside the sessions.
So all in one, as I said at the beginning, i’ve mixed feeling. With few improvements, this could be a great conference. We definitely need more good conferences the ICT for Development domain.
Aside the conference, I had unfortunately no time to discover Botswana. I stayed only three days, and we could have been in NYC, Paris or Buenos Aires, I would have almsot not noticed it. That said, from the plane, and from the airport to the hotel road, it seems that Botswana is a beautiful country. Surprisingly very very green, close to the same feeling i had when i discovered the first time Uganda. It seems also that Botswana is a relatively well developed country, based on the quality of infrastructure (road, shops etc), the type of cars, etc. I hope i will have a chance in the near future to come back and discover the wonderful Okavango Delta.