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From Development 2.0 to Development Squared: what skills for the aid sector of the future?

It was O’Reilly’s seminal article on “What is web2.0?” that inspired my first Development 2.0 article and the subsequent Development 2.0 manifesto.

So it was with great interest that I read O’Reilly’s follow-up thinkpiece in preparation to the upcoming Web2 summit. The paper tries to anticipate what will be next in the evolution of the web (the era he dubs “Web Squared”). Once again, there are lots of interesting implications to be drawn for the development sector

To summarize, the key tenet of the Web Squared era is: “the web is now the world”. Thanks to the increased ability to process ever growing amounts of digital data that have a relationship to real world objects (the world’s “information shadow”), the web is “in a collision course with the physical world”: our cameras, and microphones are becoming “the eyes and ears of the web”, our GPS its sense of location and our sensors its sense of position. The web is a baby that is growing up and becoming increasingly sophisticated in its understanding of the various inputs provided by humans: as a result “we are all its collective parents”.

Interestingly, it is O’Reilly himself who now calls for applications of Web Squared to solve real-world problems: from energy to health care. So, here’s an initial attempt at looking through the crystal ball and anticipate what a Development Squared world might look like:

  • The “information shadow” of development projects (and professionals) will increase exponentially, opening up a whole new world of opportunities. So far, due to connectivity and infrastructure issues, the “information shadow” of development projects has been somewhat limited. Go to development agency websites and most digital information about projects is confined to unfrequently updated databases with structured metadata that are helpful for archiving purposes, but do not allow for meaningful heuristics. With mobile phones, digital cameras and other low-cost and small size devices becoming increasingly ubiquitous, the amount of information that will be possible to collect about projects in real time is much greater – and much more sophisticated. Sensors attached to real world objects (from energy meters to cabs) will allow users to accumulate data at a rate unthinkable before and help inform better policy-making (see an example applied to energy efficiency here). New technologies (from speech recognition to biometrics) will allow for the conversion of data into the right format for effective use (as argued in this report). Augmented reality and the internet of things are just around the corner for development workers. And, speaking of people: now that the information shadow of staff in development agencies is much greater (just think about the information you can gather from one’s twitter, tripit, flickr and delicious accounts combined!), entirely new ways to collaborate and connect will emerge that will hopefully relegate the silos that plagued the development 1.0 world to history.

  • The ability to process high quantities of data and identify and visualize patterns in unstructured data is going to be a key skill of the Development Squared sector. Just like university students, specialized workers in development agencies will need to learn how to “climb an Everest of digital data” (as the NYT recently put it). Development agencies will increasingly differentiate themselves by their ability to make sense of large datasets for field work, advocacy and policy making. In case they don’t have the resources to do this in house, crowdsourcing will be the answer if they are to remain relevant, further straining the “ivory tower” legacy of the Development 1.0 world. Maps and other visualization tools will become part of the standard toolkit for advocacy and policy making, but they will need to go a step further. If Gapminder inspired us to identify the patterns in structured data, it is now time to move to the unstructured. Think about Google’s Flu Trends to anticipate diseases outbreaks or language pattern analysis to foster activism.


  • Real time response will move beyond the traditional confines of disaster management or disease outbreaks control to become a mainstream feature across development operations: from donors having real-time access to aid recipients, to on-demand microvolunteering. This also entails that NGOs and aid organizations will need to develop the tools and skills to quickly sift through large amounts of user-contributed data and validate it against official resources (think about user contributed accounts of an election or pictures from a disaster zone). The folks at Crowdflower seem to have already found a solution for this, providing jobs to Kenyan refugees in the process.

Admittedly, the development sector is still stuck in the transition towards the development 2.0 world. Development Squared might be still a long way to go, but the few examples provided so far are perhaps a glimpse of things to come. Just like with web2.0, business model innovation is where we can expect the major breakthroughs to happen. And it is likely that, once again, it is going to be small and agile new players that will lead the charge. At the same time, given the increased level of technological sophistication and the infrastructural needs of processing high quantities of data, it is likely that partnerships between big IT companies and development actors will become increasingly the norm. Which leaves us with the question: what can traditional players do to get ready for Development Squared? Here’s some initial suggestions:

  1. Strategically identify areas where the “information shadow” of projects needs to be increased and where real-time access to information can have a major impact
  2. Forget about developing in-house solutions. Initiate partnerships with organizations with higher IT capabilities, be it Silicon Valley powerhouses or small innovators who can quickly scale up
  3. Develop specific competencies and career paths around processing/visualising unstructured digital data and integrate them as a standard into project work
  4. Develop tools to enhance the information shadow of employees and make the most of it to encourage the breaking down of silos and foster innovation

I would love to get your views on this.


Great post Giulio. Agree on everything , and on the role of employee you coincide with Andrea Di Maio's view (which I also subscribe despite the title of the post) However I disagree on the possible impact of identify and visualize patterns in unstructured data. I think this is much less mature, it is too work intensive, and crowdsourcing works as an exception not as the rule.

You hint at it, but I do think that the key factor in this equation is to encourage development organisations jumping the leap from web 1.0 to 2.0, and managing the transition in this organisational culture. Sustainable change in development will only come through engagement and empowerment of the people themselves (and successful business models). The success of web squared will be based on whether there is a need for a change in organisational culture.

Submitted by pete cranston on
Nice post, interesting ideas...however, you say, " entirely new ways to collaborate and connect will emerge that will hopefully relegate the silos that plagued the development 1.0 world to history"... we have to dream but 1. we know it's people not technology that make, change and screw-up. Ambition and competitiveness, both individually and collectively (in the form of organisations) make and sustain silos, not data. 2. Only when the behemoths like the large agencies - NfP, state and multilaterals (ahem, including the WB) have become so porous and interconnected as to be unrecognisable will development squared seep through the cracks! pete

Interesting post! A whole new world is opening up for us. And I see 2 challenges coming up. One is to make sense of the over-information (the line between information "shadow" and "noise" is very blurry!) and I'm wondering whether this will be the task of the individual (supported by more and more sophisticated tools) or if this will done by a new profession? The other challenge is obviously the one of privacy. If more and more objects (and individuals interacting with them) create their information shadows, how do you prevent misuse of this information by governments, private-sector or any other actors? I have the feeling that we're advancing exponentially faster on the technology side than we can satisfyigly deal with these issues..

Great post (as always) Giulio! You identify several emerging trends that are likely to become mainstream very soon, and the development world will inevitably feel the impact (mostly for the better! I hope). May I however caution against building some of the in-house career paths and competencies you suggest? Why not follow the same paradigm that you suggest for IT -- go with specialized external agencies rather than spend your resources on a non-core (to your mission) capabilities? One of the great things about 2.0, or the square(d) world! is that it makes it possible once again for people to focus on the essentials of their work rather than sweating the small stuff. This perspective must be extended beyond IT.

Submitted by Susan Holleran on
Great post G. You've given us a lot of provocative ideas to consider (and dream about!). I agree with you that much of the willingness to accept ideas like crowdsourcing and data visualization as part of our normal course of work connects directly back to business model innovation ("business model innovation is where we can expect the major breakthroughs to happen.") Must admit some of the ideas mentioned are both exciting and daunting, particularly when some organizations seem to be afraid of their information shadows...

Submitted by giulio quaggiotto on
Wow! Thank you everyone for the great comments. I was particularly intrigued by the tension between building in-house capacity and changing the culture from inside (David, Georg and Pete) vs. collaborating with specialised external agencies (Prasanna). Need to put some more thinking into this - a topic certainly worth exploring. David: I used to be very pessimistic about visualisation and crowdsourcing, but recent examples I came across both here at the Bank (see and and outside (e.g. and have made me somewhat more hopeful. Johannes: totally agree on privacy (and, incidentally, the other intersting issue of managing multiple identities). As for overload, i think that this is where developing tools to identify and make sense of patterns is a whole new industry waiting to service the development sector. Pete: "Only when the behemoths .. have become so porous and interconnected as to be unrecognisable will development squared seep through the cracks!". Amen to that! Cheers, Giulio

Submitted by Paul on
Interesting post. Just as not all wisdom resides within the walls of organized development agencies (including the World Bank), not everything outside is 'wise'. To take full advantage of technology-enabled 'wisdom' (knowledge and information are far less interesting from a results perspective), we will have to get the culture of collaboration right, starting with ourselves. As long as the Bank is a knowledge archipeligo, without incentives for true interdisciplinarity, we will never be able to draw on the new tools and new collaborations they make possible. And as long as remote data using handheld devices is priced at predatory rates, it's hard to imagine taking full advantage of them. Yes, the future is coming, but there are some hurdles ahead: a truly collaborative culture, with far less secrecy (viz, 'committees' looking at the Matrix) is a first step.

Great inspiring post as usual! Yes indeed these changes are quite promising, particular that former high technology now get potentially in the hands of almost every citizen. What will that mean for example for monitoring and evaluation? Check Ushahidi latest project: Stop Stockouts! Tracking medicine stockouts in Kenya, Malawi, Uganda and Zambia. But I also want to add some critical reflections. We need better filters. Unfortunately this is yet widely missing and I do not believe the semantic web will help so much. So how can we leverage the social web to get more accurate and concrete information? Because the attention span of people in the 160 character world and with many mails in the inbox is very little. More channels and more information need even more urgent some better filters.

Submitted by giulio quaggiotto on
Thanks Chris, LOVE the Ushahidi example. A perfect case of acting on development's "information shadow". And as for filters: yes, I totally agree (this reminds me about your post on social networks overload!). This is why I am so intrigued by the work of the WebEcology project, which is really taking pattern analysis to a different level. Watch out for an upcoming post referring to both "web attention" and "web intention" deficit disorder . Both potentially big issues for a sector so largely depending on attracing people's attention and persuading them to take action.

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