The Continuing Need for Infomediaries in Digital Development

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When we advocate for investments in new digital development solutions, we often make the case for them to be dead simple to use, expecting our constituents to be able to adopt and utilize them effectively by themselves.
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However, this assumption has four flaws that often lead to failure:
1. Basic Literacy: In many countries, the majority of adults cannot read even simple text messages. There is no way they are able to read your fancy app pages, especially your consent forms.
2. Digital Literacy: Mobile phones may seem simple for youth, yet adults can find them bewildering. You may need to train constituents on how to use a phone, less you actually impoverish them through mobile phone ownership.
3. Intrinsic Motivation:  Kentaro Toyama makes a great point in his book, Geek Heresy, with the “Law of Amplification,” that says technology’s primary effect is to amplify human forces. If your farmer doesn’t want to adopt new ideas to improve his farm, you will not succeed.
4. Trust: Would you change years of socially reinforced practice based on what a fancy app says? Probably not. So don’t expect constituents to abandon their activities based on what some random apps tells them.
All four of these issues can be overcome by engaging infomediaries – trusted agents that can help constituents understand and incorporate new tools into their existing decisions and expectations. Infomediaries can help read texts, can decipher fancy phone menus, engage teachers with the technology, and build trust between your tool and their lives.
The use of intermediaries in agriculture, education, and health is widespread – we call them extension agents, librarians, teachers, and community health workers. Yes, they are often woefully understaffed, underpaid, and undersupported, and yet they are key to our success.
Might it be time to fully recognize their role in every ICT4D intervention we try?