Better ICT Interventions with Participatory Action Research in Software Development

Software methodologies invariably originate from the West (developed nations of North America and Europe) and are tailored towards the development of products and services for urban users in their urban settings. Given the origin and the target markets, the context and cultural elements of urban developers and users are “infused” in the methodology and design.

The challenge is identifying and employing methodologies which allow development of relevant software for rural communities. The methodologies should not only encompass the technological aspects but also the complexities of the rural users, the contexts as well as addressing the needs of the target audience. As shown in projects involving target users, the acceptance and usage of technology would be greatly improved particularly if the community is involved in the process.



Participatory Action Research in Software Development

Given the inappropriate methodologies, we propose using Participatory Action Research amalgamated with a software development methodology. We believe community participation in rural projects is important, and more so in the development of technologies such as software which are to be used by indigenous communities. In this paper, the amalgamated methodology mooted is called Participatory Action Research In Software Methodology Augmentation (PRISMA).

PAR has also been used successfully in numerous rural development projects such as in IDRC and in Universiti Malaysia Sarawak’s (UNIMAS) eBario Project and its replications. As such, PAR provides the collaborative process of research and action targeted towards positive social transformation. PAR established a two-way communication, which allows the researchers to be involved with the community and vice-versa; the researchers and community are actively involved in the development activities, to seek information, ideas, and generate knowledge to guide.

In PAR projects involving ICT development, we believe there are two goals. One is of course to develop the technologies or software (technology element), while the other is to learn and understand as much as possible from the implementation or deployment (knowledge element). With sufficient evidence from replications, best practices may then be developed which would be of use to other similar projects.

Given the high costs of projects in rural areas, there is a need to maximize outputs and learnings from rural projects. Researchers also have to keep in mind, PAR is appropriate as it has a research component that seeks to engender positive change; and that participation “requires the equal and collaborative involvement of the “community of research interest”.

As shown above, PRISMA comprises two parts, a social change process (dotted circle) and software development process (solid line circle). The software development process encompass the formal and “hard (technological) aspects” which includes the formal components of software development, tools and techniques to carry out the requirements analysis, design, implementation, and testing.

More important is the “soft (humanistic) aspects” which encompass the change the community wants, the reasons they want it, as well as the roles for people inside the indistinct world of political and social systems, multiple disciplines, environments and multiple stakeholders. The soft aspects tend to be fuzzy, and will be outlined in detail.

If we fail to address these non-technical factors, the user requirements may be affected, resulting in poor system design, un-usable user interfaces, over budget and delays in the project. The overlap between the social change and the software development involves merging of processes of both the hard and soft aspects.

PRISMA is a work in progress. PRISMA augments the conventional Software Development Life Cycle employed to develop software for rural communities.

Excerpt from Participatory Action Research in Software Development: Indigenous Knowledge Management Systems Case Study by Siang-Ting Siew, Alvin W. Yeo, and Tariq Zaman.