ICT4D, or "Information and Communication Technologies for Development" is the name for the multidisciplinary academic approach involving the application of high tech to address international development problems. Kentaro Toyama - who leads Microsoft Research's Technology for Emerging Markets (TEM) group in India - just forwarded around some pointers to a series of papers that appeared in IEEE's Computer June 2008 edition. These articles combine to serve as a great primer on the subject.
You can read an overview paper on ICT4D that Kentaro co-authored here, along with instructions on how to access the rest of the papers here. We are going to try to get permissions to host the papers on the UP website, so stay tuned.
Included in the papers is one the TEM team wrote with Rajesh Veeraraghavan from Berkeley. It provides an overview of some of the projects the lab is doing, including Digital Green (which it describes as "Farmer Idol"), and presents a model for the 5 stages of design that ICT4D projects seem to experience:
Kentaro always hammers us back in Redmond on the need to get out into the communities where these projects are being deployed in order to truly understand how the solution is (or is not) being used. Oftentimes what you think you are working on isn't the real problem that needs to be solved. The paper describes how the team evolved this model from experience in projects involving "textless" UI, micro enterprises, microfinance, social enterprises, and agriculture extension.
Another paper from Richard Heeks at the University of Manchester describes "ICT4D 2.0", a concept that reflects the importance of sustainability and relevance in getting these projects to succeed. These are lessons learned from over a decade's experience with these types of projects. In Heeks' view, ICT4D 1.0 involves primarily PC and landline- based solutions (usually rural telecenters) that encounter environmental issues (rodents gnaw cables, dust clogs machines) or relevance issues (if I live in a remote village, exactly who am I sending an email to?) He thinks a more accessible platform for these types of projects are low cost cell phones using SMS and messaging, community radio, and even community participatory video (like what is used in Project Green.)
Within the UP Group, we are strong believers in the importance of simple cell phones as a platform for these types of scenarios and have multiple projects underway in this space.
In other papers, Gary Marsden from the University of Cape Town discusses pragmatic design approaches for these low cost, "Phone First" applications that involve the creative application of Bluetooth, SMS, and phone UI. A team from the Technology and Infrastructure for Emerging Regions (TIER) group at UC Berkeley describes the sustainability issues they encountered in designing and deploying a series of remote eye care clinics in India.
If you want to learn more about ICT4D, these Computer papers are a great starting point.