Envisioning the AI Future: Reflections from the 12th ICT4D Conference in Accra


As the world embraces the relentless influx of technological progress, the 12th International Conference on ICT for Development (ICT4D) organized by Catholic Relief Services in Accra, Ghana, served as a beacon of insight and inspiration. Hosted at the Alisa Hotel from the 18th to 21st of March, 2023, this gathering brought together a diverseness of minds from sectors such as education, non-profits, and tech startups, all united by a shared vision: to harness the transformative power of technology for global impact.

My journey into this transformative event was marked by a convergence of personal and professional growth. With a background in engineering and a recent incursion into software development, specifically in Python development over the past year, I found myself intrigued by the endless potential of Artificial Intelligence (AI). As a volunteer with MERL Tech, one of the conference’s main partners, I had the privilege of not only witnessing but actively contributing to the AI workshops.

Day 1: AI as a Catalyst for Social and Behavioral Change

The conference’s first workshop session led by Linda Raftree and Issabel Amazon-Brown from MERL Tech was super engaging and thought-provoking, inviting attendees to delve into the transformative potential of Generative AI (GenAI) in shaping social and behavioral change interventions. As a volunteer facilitator for MERL Tech, I guided group activities that explored the emerging applications and best practices of GenAI, paving the way for a research agenda that could inform funders and the broader Social and Behavior Change (SBC) field.

These discussions transcended mere theoretical abstractions; instead, they were collaborative explorations of GenAI’s practical implications and ethical considerations. By fostering a shared understanding of the variations between traditional predictive models and GenAI, as well as the potentials and challenges of applying GenAI within SBC contexts, we laid the foundation for informed decision-making and future innovations.

Fig 1: Discussion and Brainstorm session facilitated by Isabel from MERL Tech

Day 2: Empowering Local Communities, Enhancing Resilience

The conference’s official inauguration was marked by a ceremonial keynote address from Mrs. Ursula Owusu-Ekuful, the Honorable Minister of Communications and Digitalisation, and Mr. Jude Marie Banatte, Regional Director of Central Africa at Catholic Relief Services. Their words resonated with the core theme of the event, underscoring the pivotal role of technology in empowering local communities, enhancing resilience, and driving sustainable development.

The day’s agenda was a variation of thought-provoking moments, mixed with keynote speeches from industry experts, an engaging exhibition tour showcasing innovations accross sectors, and a closing keynote by Jennifer Overton, Regional Director of West Africa at CRS, that cast a spotlight on the future of technology in development.

Fig – Presentation of Viamo Voice Chatbot

Day 3: Striking a Balance between Progress and Environmental Sustainability

As the conference progressed, more workshops explored various discussions, one of which I attend was pivoted towards an exploration of ICT and AI’s environmental implications, from the carbon footprint of AI usage to the disposal of IT infrastructure. This critical examination underscored the importance of adopting greener ICT practices and highlighted funding opportunities for women in digital technology, with a particular emphasis on design for inclusion.

One standout session, presented by WiDEF, delved into the intricate relationship between technology and climate change mitigation, offering insights into how ICT can be leveraged as a powerful tool in addressing environmental challenges while minimizing its own ecological footprint.

Fig 3: Session on technology and it’s impact on Climate change

Day 4: Demystifying Generative AI and the No-Code Revolution

The conference’s culminating day was a testament to the versatile nature of Generative AI in the realms of development and Monitoring, Evaluation, Research, and Learning (MERL) efforts. I had the distinct honor of leading a hands-on workshop alongside Paul Jasper from Oxford Policy Management, where we explored the creation of AI assistants using no-code platforms. I used the opportunity to also share my experience as an AI Chatbot intern with WASHNote and the distinctive work we are doing, using Knowledge Graphs with LLMs for building a chatbot assitant for the IRC WASH Systems Academy

We used interactive demonstrations and a brief turorial to unveil the ease with which non-technical individuals could leverage GenAI tools like Open AI’s ChatGPT-4 model and Hugging Face’s playground and varied LLM repository. This practical approach not only demystified the process but also empowered attendees to envision and create their own AI-powered solutions.

The workshop concluded with a critical examination of AI ethics, led by Isabel from MERL Tech. This introspective discourse underscored the importance of responsible and ethical AI development, ensuring that technological progress is balanced with a rooted commitment to social good.

Fig4 : Presentation on No Code AI Chatbot development by Paul

Reflections and Revelations: A Journey of Growth and Inspiration

As I reflect upon my journey through the 12th ICT4D Conference, I am filled with a profound sense of gratitude and awe to Nicolas Dickinson my supervisor and the founder of WASHNote for connecting me to MERL Tech and also to Paul Jasper for allowing me lead on the No-Code gen AI workshop and finally to Linda and Isabel for accepting Nicolas’ request to have me participate and volunteer with them. This event was more than just a collection of insightful discussions and networking opportunities; it was a catalyst for personal growth and a deepening of my passion for exploring how AI can be leveraged to solve complex global challenges.

The interactions, learnings, and connections forged throughout the conference have not only broadened my perspective but also ignited a renewed sense of purpose. I am enthused to continue my exploration of the vast potential of AI and ICT for social good, braced with the knowledge and inspiration gained from this transformative experience.

The road ahead is paved with challenges, but the insights and connections cultivated at the 12th ICT4D Conference have equipped me with the tools and resolve to navigate this path with confidence and determination. As I venture further into the realms of technology and social impact, the lessons learned and networks forged in Accra will serve as guiding lights, reminding me of the immense potential that lies at the intersection of human ingenuity and technological advancement.

In the words of Andre Azevedo, a keynote speaker from Microsoft, “Technology is a tool, and it’s up to us to wield it with purpose and intention.” The 12th ICT4D Conference has not only reinforced this sentiment but has also empowered me to embrace the mantle of responsible innovation, shaping the future with a steadfast commitment to creating a better world for all.

NB: Attached are pictures from the conference and a presentation of my workshop session.

Presentation Deck on No Code AI Chatbot Development

Reference – Hands on with GenAI: predictions and observations from The MERL Tech Initiative and Oxford Policy Management’s ICT4D Training Day

WASH Learning Companion

We are excited to be developing and testing together with IRCWASH WASH Systems Academy, an AI Learning Companion to help onboard and support WASH professionals to learn about WASH systems and the building blocks. IRCWASH and WASHNote signed a Memorandum of Understanding at the start of 2024 to make this a reality.

It is built from two components:

  1. The Knowledge Companion, that provides a validated set of information and a model of the conceptual framework to be used.
  2. The Learning Companion, a conversational agent that can chat with users via mobile apps such as Telegram, Whatsapp, Signal or Element.

The Learning Companion document  and data repository focuses on WASH systems and their building blocks, and the conceptual framework of the WASH Systems Academy courses (IRC building blocks).

These components are easily extensible and it is possible to switch conceptual frameworks (knowledge graphs) on the fly to be able to map, for example, results from one data source to another methodology. Ultimately, these will be used to help in monitoring and evaluation and to support the development of validated public datasets.

So far, together with a small team, we’ve built a knowledge graph of the key concepts used, a document repository that can be easily cited by the learning companion and a Telegram bot. Much of our effort has been used to build up our user journeys, validate with existing users and develop a evaluation framework for both improving conversations and evaluating the outcomes of the exchanges.

We’ve also researched how to run this AI product in an affordable manner so that it can scale and achieve an impact on WASH services, which is the ultimate goal. Some of this research will be published shortly.

In the coming weeks, we will be testing with users in Rwanda and Ethiopia and we look forward to sharing our findings. As the product matures, the relevant software components will be open-sourced and shared online. More importantly, we are building with open source and out of principle also contribute back our improvements to these original open-source projects so that the bigger community online can benefit.