Professor Receives Grant for Research on Technology in Developing Countries

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An assistant professor at the UC Berkeley School of Information is receiving a grant from the National Science Foundation for her research on the use of digital technologies in marginalized populations of countries such as Ghana and Uganda.

The foundation awarded $444,871 to School of Information assistant professor Jenna Burrell Sept. 26 to fund travel costs to the countries, housing and tuition and stipends for two graduate students who work under Burrell, who is the principal investigator of the study.

Burrell and three collaborators on the project - two of which are the graduate students funded by the award and one a professor from Furman University - travel to separate regions of the world to conduct field work on the use of technology such as cell phones and the Internet in China, Kenya, Ghana and Uganda.

According to Burrell, each member of the study chose their own research site. Burrell and Janet Kwami, assistant professor of communication studies at Furman University, conduct research in Ghana, and UC Berkeley School of Information graduate student Bob Bell focuses on Kenya.

"I wanted to get good coverage of the continent," Burrell said.

Bell, who is in his third year as a graduate student on campus, focuses on the recent emergence of software development, data processing and financial data.

He said he visits firms and interviews workers in Kenya to understand the way people in his area of study interact with and are affected by digital tools. Bell said the research is very immersive.

"This type of research goes into the world, into the firm, within the communities," he said.

According to Burrell, the research is ethnographic - conducted through observations and interviews - as opposed to analyzing data or statistics. Kwami said this form of study will allow policy makers to formulate more informed technology policy better.

"Our research looks at it from the perspective of the people themselves," she said.

Kwami said through this research she has found most Ghanaians do not use their phones in the way that Americans primarily do to socialize, but instead use them for organizing their social network, travel, exchanging money and acquiring information for farming practices.

According to Burrell, citizens of the U.S. and the United Kingdom incorrectly perceive how Africans or Chinese use technology. She added that she hopes her research will change these views.

"Western perception of Africa is still so skewed by the image we have of the 'dark continent' as a place defined by what it supposedly does not have ... the assumption is that modern and digital technology is one more thing the West will have to donate," she said.

Burrell is also currently writing a book, set to be published sometime next year, about her research on Internet cafes in Ghana, which numbered somewhere between 500 and 1,000 in 2004.


Contact Katie Bender at [email protected]

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