Information communication technologies (ICTs) have become a fundamental element in the functioning of our post-modern society. With the advent of computers and the internet, information has evolved past the pages of books, and knowledge is no longer confined to the shelves of libraries. A wealth of information is freely available in the palm of your hand at an instant.
The evolution of information has, however, brought its own sets of challenges and ethical questions – questions about ownership, privacy, the ‘digital divide’ and e-waste. Academia’s response to these questions came from the field of information ethics, which started gaining traction in the 1990s. ‘Information ethics is the field of applied ethics where we look at the impact of information and communication technologies on our everyday interaction,’ explains Rachel Fischer, research officer at the African Centre of Excellence for Information Ethics (ACEIE), which is hosted by the Department of Information Science at the University of Pretoria (UP). The field investigates what is called the ‘information lifecycle’. It focusses not only on the use of ICTs but also on how research is done, and on how information is compiled, used, distributed and disposed of.
The development of African information and knowledge societies is an important mandate of many leaders in Africa, and the need for education on the dimensions of information is an ever-present necessity. The field of information ethics is still in its infancy in Africa and not many people on the continent are aware of it. ‘We realised that there is a need for a hub in Africa because, at the 2002/2003 international conference on information ethics, only two of the attendees were from Africa and both were expats. They both resided in America. It makes no sense: how can you have an international conference, with international societies, where Africa is not represented?’ asks Fischer.
In response to the lack of African representation in the global discourse on information ethics, the African Network of Information Ethics (ANIE) was established in 2007 by a group of academics from across the world. ANIE saw that the best way to tackle Africa’s under-representation would be to get African academics to begin researching, publishing and educating key sectors and industry on information ethics.
Since its inception, ANIE has entered into partnerships with the national Department of Telecommunications and Postal Services (DTPS), UNESCO and a number of local, regional and international universities. The DTPS entered a formal agreement with the University of Pretoria in 2012 to establish the ACEIE. The Centre is the first of its kind in Africa.
The ACEIE aligned its objectives with those of UNESCO, Government and the University in order to simplify and combine their activities. The Centre’s main objectives are to act as a facilitator and conductor of research in information ethics locally and internationally, and to coordinate awareness and knowledge-enhancing activities locally and across continent.
As part of the Memorandum of Agreement (MoA) between the University and the DTPS, the ACEIE developed an information ethics curriculum framework that was supported by UNESCO. It was developed in response to the need for creating awareness amongst information communication technology (ICT) users in Africa of the risks and opportunities inherent in the use of ICT.
In 2011, the ACEIE hosted an international workshop on the design of the curriculum. The event was attended by participants from Germany, America and a number of other African countries. The idea, explained Fischer, was to create a curriculum that is unique to Africa and South Africa in particular. The result is a curriculum framework rather than a traditional curriculum. ‘Unlike an actual curriculum, which tends to be prescriptive, curriculum frameworks are flexible, creating opportunities for the development of curriculum offerings particular and appropriate to different institutions,’ states the Curriculum to teach information ethics at universities in Africa. This book is the outcome of consultative conferences and workshops with various stakeholders. The fact that the ACEIE produced a framework shows their commitment to the various contexts to which information ethics applies. The curriculum is licensed under a Creative Commons license and is freely available on the ANIE/ACEIE website.
The Centre has trained government officials, held awareness-raising workshops across Southern Africa, and recently it has engaged with the media. ‘We are interested in the media because now there are citizen journalists. They contribute towards research on world events and current local events but they do not necessarily adhere to a journalist’s code of ethics. We want to address these issues,’ said Fischer.
With funding from UNESCO, the ACEIE was able to host five awareness-raising workshops in the Southern Africa region. The workshops provided an in-depth analysis of the information ethics curriculum and provided participants with a practical decision-making toolkit so that they are safer when online.
Information ethics has been well received across the UNESCO’s Southern and Eastern Africa regions. Since Coetzee Bester, director of the Centre, did a presentation on the relevance of information ethics in Africa, the activities of the ACEIE have spread to include more African countries. Benson Lechaba, junior research officer at the ACEIE, says that the outcomes of their activities have been a pleasant surprise for them.
Some of the African countries they have visited are now also planning and hosting their own information ethics events. Fischer mentioned being invited to Uganda and Kenya. Funding is a major challenge, however, since hosting a conference is expensive. ‘People are interested in the workshops, but there might not be funding for catering, books or flight tickets. People had to narrow the scope because of the lack of finances,’ said Fischer.
Africa is a continent that is new to ICT and its ethical dimensions. In light of Africa’s goal of becoming a knowledge and information society that functions well and can compete with well-established information societies, the work being done by the Centre is laudable. They are bringing Africa closer to the world’s debate on information and information ethics. ‘We view ourselves as a hub,’ says Fischer on the role of the ACEIE, ‘a point of connection between different role-players, and we wish to facilitate that hub to strengthen its participants.’