This spring a team of students from the MPA-DP (“MDP”) program took part in an innovative, collaborative research project to survey the use of digital media in Cuba. Now they have posted their extensive findings on the Internet, drawing widespread interest.
The study, known informally as ICT4Cuba, sought to provide an overview of the use of information and communication technologies in contemporary Cuba. It examines issues of connectivity, mobile telephone penetration, and digital platforms and explored the implications of digital technology in three areas of Cuban society: arts and culture, public health, and sustainable agriculture.
Beginning in January 2016, participating students conducted two months of research and interviews in preparation for a March trip to Havana, where they carried out 10 days of field research in the Cuban capital and surrounding region. There the students surveyed more than 200 Cubans on their use of the Internet and mobile phones, and gathered new information on the state of media infrastructure and connectivity.
The project was conducted under the auspices of a research seminar on digital media infrastructure in Cuba designed and led by Anne Nelson and Debi Spindelman MPA-DP ’13. Nelson, an adjunct associate professor, is a specialist in media development and has published widely on Caribbean issues, while Spindelman is a capacity development specialist who is also the MDP program’s practice manager.
“The MDP program was the perfect home for this research, given its emphasis on practical projects that address under-served populations,” Nelson said.
The idea for the project originated following an initial research trip Nelson took to Cuba in 2013. She and Spindelman advanced the project in consultation with Mariela Machado Fantacchiotti MPA-DP ’16. Machado, a Venezuela native and telecommunications engineer, had begun to research Cuban telecommunications in the summer of 2015 after an injury thwarted her plans to conduct fieldwork in East Timor.
“We were delighted to work with someone with Mariela’s knowledge and background,” Nelson said.
Six additional MDP students were selected to join the project based on their field experience and own expertise. Four of them (Machado, Ana Carolina Diaz, Laura Lehman, and Emily Sylvia) graduated with the Class of 2016 last month, while three students (Chiara Bercu, Tricia Johnson, and Gary Verburg) will return to school this fall for their second year of study.
The student researchers spoke with more than 200 Cubans, from government officials to ordinary citizens, asking about their mobile-telephone ownership, the expense of subscriptions plans, how they access data, and more.
“We were able to offer a unique update to the official story of Cuba’s digital media, and report what is actually happening on the ground,” Nelson said.
The team members began by surveying various aspects of Cuba’s telecommunications infrastructure. They then explored the access to ICTs and the potential of digital media in the three designated areas (arts and culture, public health, and agriculture). Drawing on past work by previous students in other countries, they conducted interviews with leading figures in each field, and prepared recommendations for innovations in ICT for Development, or ICT4D, that could support each sector.
For Nelson, the findings underscored that “we need to understand the baseline of telecommunications infrastructure and behaviors before we can discuss future approaches.”
The project builds on SIPA’s growing contributions to the field of ICT4D (Information and Communications Technologies for Development). The Cuba research reinforces previous findings that, while advanced apps and Internet solutions serve areas where modern ICT infrastructure is in place, regions that lack such infrastructure can benefit from basic SMS services to deliver critical information on topics such as public health issues, weather conditions and transport.
The project also benefited, Nelson said, from a partnership with Omar Z. Robles, a prominent dance photographer who accompanied the team to explore how Instagram could broaden global awareness of Cuba's vibrant dance culture. Robles’s project photos have gone viral, appearing on Mashable, the Huffington Post, Univision, and other websites around the world. (One particular photo featured on Instagram received 114,000 likes less than 24 hours after it was first posted.)
Perhaps most impressively, the students have catalogued the extensive project findings and related materials, including links to the articles and photographs, using Columbia's Wikischolars tool.
Harold Cárdenas Lema, who is considered one of the leading independent bloggers in Cuba, was enthusiastic about the results of the research.
"Many of my friends shared the articles published by the SIPA team, and the pictures of Omar Robles were seen by many people in the island," he said. "I was really proud that I could give them some tips, because they were really professional and achieved a lot. Is not easy to catch the pulse of an island in few days, but these Columbia students did it!"
Nelson says there are many opportunities for ICT to benefit development, and observed that the communications needs of the world’s bottom billion should not be neglected in favor of first-world issues that are more visible to researchers.
For Machado, who is now working on technology for development at the New York-based NGO Engineering for Change, the project was a special one because of her passion for and expertise in ICT4D—and her involvement early on.
“This project gave us the freedom to explore and find out what is really happening in terms of ICTs in Cuba,” she said. “To be published in Foreign Affairs before even graduating, and have the opportunity to add to the conversation about such a hot topic as Cuba, has opened so many doors for me.
“The MPA-DP Program and Anne Nelson gave me the opportunity to contribute to this project from the start,” Machado added. “Students should remember they have all the doors open. With the right resources and support, they can also be a part of new initiatives and projects.”
MPA-DP Program Director Glenn Denning said that the Cuba project’s practical outputs and widespread recognition are further validation of his program’s unique approach to problem solving. MDPs, Denning argues, are uniquely qualified to undertake applied research and analyses that will enhance the impact of the digital revolution across multiple sectors.
“This is precisely what we prepare MDPs to understand and apply through their coursework and field practice,” Denning said. “We stress the importance of context, relevance, and impact of new technologies. We stress issues of scale—global, national and local. And we increasingly emphasize the need for partnerships within and across the public and private sectors, and with communities.”
Denning also said the Cuba ICT4D project is just the beginning of a deeper engagement of SIPA students and faculty with Cuba as the country opens to greater cooperation and partnership.