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Wits Internet Research Seminar

Convened by the Wits Network Society Lab and Wits LINK Centre to bring together faculty and students engaged in Internet Studies

On 22 July 2016 in the Drum Room at Wits University Corner in Braamfontein, Indra de Lanerolle of the Wits Network Society Lab in the Journalism and Media Programme, and Luci Abrahams, Director of the Wits LINK Centre in the School of Literature, Language and Media (SLLM), convened the first meeting of what it is hoped will become a regular open seminar, primarily for Wits researchers, to share current and recent research related to the Internet. 

Internet Studies is a broad multi-disciplinary field. In a brief review of current research at Wits, we have found relevant work being conducted across the University, from the Business School to Electrical Engineering. Some of this work concerns infrastructure, regulation and policy. Other work concerns effects of the Internet on productivity or on disruption of existing industries. Some is focused on the role of new technologies in development, in politics, and in society. We also have the new Wits Tshimologong Digital Innovation Precinct launching later this year, which is an important University initiative aimed at encouraging tech innovation and collaboration between University researchers and students and the private, public and civil society sectors in Johannesburg. 
We think that there may be significant value in bringing researchers together -- both academic staff and graduate students -- a few times a year to share and discuss our work. 
For this first meeting, the topics had a common theme: the role and effects of new technologies in African social and economic development. Iginio Gagliardone, a member of a team at the Oxford Internet Institute looking at the potential uses of big data for development,  has recently joined the Wits Media Studies Department. He led a discussion on "big data and development". Indra de Lanerolle presented recent research on how civil society organisations in South Africa and Kenya choose digital technologies. 
Big data for development: Which data? Whose development? -- Iginio Gagliardone, Media Studies
As access to digital technologies increases and people living at the margins also become connected, the amount of data available to understand human behavior and design more effective and targeted social policies also grows. Many institutions, including the UN High Level Panel on the Post-2015 Development Agenda, have highlighted the potential of big data for development, but behind the apparent promise and hype, it is yet not clear which kind of data could be the most useful, how it should be acquired, and who should process it. To date, most “digital born data” remains in the hands of private actors and, despite some pioneering collaborations, few attempts have been made to experiment using them for the public good.
Sometimes it is about the tech: Choosing or building mobile and Internet technologies in governance and development -- Indra de Lanerolle, Network Society Lab, Journalism and Media Programme
ICT for Development (ICTD) is a field that is more than three decades old. A common theme in the ICTD literature points to a gap between the possible (and positive) effects and impacts of Internet based and related technologies on development and the (poor) results of attempts to do so. In looking for answers as to why this gap exists, much research has focused on the social contexts into which new technologies are introduced. This focus can be summarised in the common trope that "it's not about the tech." Its an appealing idea that speaks to the need to put people first and to consider their agency. Our study - conducted in Kenya and South Africa - takes a contrarian approach and focuses on the specific technology choices made by organisations. We suggest that the way in which these technologies are chosen and tested may provide an important part of the answer as to why so many introductions of new technologies have failed to live up to their promise.