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Key Terms used in Digital Development



AI/ML: Artificial Intelligence (AI):  Uses computers for automated decision-making that is meant to mimic human-like  intelligence. Automated decisions might be directly implemented (e.g., in robotics) or suggested to a human decision-maker (e.g., product recommendations in online shopping); the most important thing is that some decisional process is being automated. AI often incorporates Machine Learning (ML), which uses data- driven predictions to make better decisions. (USAID Digital Strategy Glossary). 

Before jumping into using AI/ML for the sake of automation or efficiency, it is important to understand the existing ecosystem and the user’s needs, to be sure that such an endeavor is  feasible, accessible and acceptable. Additionally, if you want this technology to be accessible to other individuals and organizations, it is important to think through an open innovation approach and the privacy & security mechanisms that need to be in place, depending on the data. Moreover, it is important to collaborate in order to ensure that the training data  used in the case of ML, is diverse and unbiased. 

USAID has several relevant articles that discuss AI/ML’s role in international development that can be found ​here​. 

Augmented Reality (see Virtual Reality): A technology that superimposes a computer-generated image on a user’s view of the real world, and creates a composite view.

It is an interactive experience of a real-world environment where the objects that reside in the real world are enhanced by computer-generated perceptual information, sometimes across multiple senses.


Big Data:  A term applied to datasets whose size or type is beyond the ability of traditional databases to capture, manage and process. Big data has one or more of the following characteristics: high volume, high velocity or high variety. 

Big data is often accessed from or fed into open source and/or open data tools. When using big data it is important to think about how the data can be used to inform the initiative in order to be truly data driven. 

Tableau describes “big data” and what it means for data collection and analysis today in ​this article.  

Blockchain:  Blockchain is a new way of transmitting money without the need for traditional banking networks, as well as a means to store data in a transparent and unalterable way. Blockchains are one form of distributed ledger technology. Not all distributed ledgers employ a chain of  blocks to provide a secure and valid distributed consensus. 

When thinking through the use of blockchain, it is important to consider your scalability goals, as there may be limits to the amount of transactions it can complete in a given timeframe. It may also be costly and potentially disruptive of the existing ecosystem to  implement, so it is important to familiarize yourself with the context and determine financial sustainability. Lastly, as blockchain is a method of transferring money without traditional banking, it has the potential to be more private and secure. 

USAID developed a primer on blockchain in development that can be reviewed ​here​. Read this​ interesting opinion piece from the Guardian on what blockchain is and its role in digital  development, as well as ​this article ​by McKinsey & Co. Additionally, UNICEF’s Office of  Innovation has links to several resources on blockchain and development that can be found  on their ​site​. 


Cloud: The «cloud» is a metaphor used for the Internet to describe a global network of servers were data is shared, exchanged, managed and stored.

Using the cloud to share, manage and exchange information can be a form of collaboration and follows the principle of open standards/source/data/innovation. In considering what data is avaliable and shared to different audiences, it is crucial to also think through the digital principle for privacy & security.

Review Microsoft’s description here for more information on the cloud and cloud computing.

Civic Tech:  Enhances the relationship between the people and government with software for communications, decision-making, service delivery, and political process. It includes information and communications technology supporting government with software built by community-led teams of volunteers, nonprofits, consultants, and private companies.

Review the Civic Tech Field guide from Civic Hall which includes citizen engagement tech, govtech, civic data, advocacy tech, media tech, and emerging tech in their Tech For Good catalog.

Code: In communications and information processing, code is a system of rules to convert information—such as a letter, word, sound, image, or gesture—into another form or representation, sometimes shortened or secret, for communication through a communication channel or storage in a storage medium. 

Crowd Law- Any law, policy-making or public decision-making that offers a meaningful opportunity for the public to participate in one or multiples stages of decision-making, including but not limited to the processes of problem identification, solution identification, proposal drafting, ratification, implementation or evaluation.

Read The Governance Lab’s Manifesto on Crow Law here.

Crowd-sourced: A sourcing model in which individuals or organizations obtain goods and services, including ideas and finances, from a large, relatively open and often rapidly-evolving group of internet users; it divides work between participants to achieve a cumulative result. .Advantages of using crowdsourcing may include improved costs, speed, quality, flexibility, scalability, or diversity.



Digital economy: Digital economy refers to an economy that is based on digital computing technologies, although we increasingly perceive this as conducting business through markets based on the internet and the World Wide Web.

Design Thinking: Design thinking refers to the cognitive, strategic and practical processes by which design concepts (proposals for new products, buildings, machines, etc.) are developed. Many of the key concepts and aspects of design thinking have been identified through studies, across different design domains, of design cognition and design activity in both laboratory and natural contexts. Design thinking is also associated with prescriptions for the innovation of products and services within business and social contexts.

Digital Financial Services:  The broad range of financial services accessed and delivered through digital channels, such  as payments, credit, savings, remittances and insurance. They can expand the delivery of basic financial services to the poor through innovative technologies like mobile-phone-enabled solutions, electronic money models and digital payment platforms.

In order to execute inclusive, secure digital financial services, it is important to design with the user to understand the existing ecosystem and whether there are ways to reuse and  improve existing channels for financial services. Most importantly, it is vital to consider privacy & security mechanisms, given the sensitivity of the information being shared and  transferred digitally. 

For more information on different types of digital financial services, check out the ​digital  financial services guideline​.  

Digital Gender Divide: The Digital Gender Divide is a result of barriers such as cost, network coverage, security and  harassment, trust, and technical literacy. These barriers are perpetuated by societal gender norms and result in the fact that women in developing countries are nearly 25% less likely to  be online than men, inhibiting their ability to fully connect to their world and communities.

It is crucial to consider this disparity when designing with the user, and hence important to  include women and girls in many of these conversations, which will also help projects better understand their ecosystem and be more consciously collaborative with diverse actors. Additionally, addressing privacy and security concerns may be especially crucial for limiting  this digital gender divide, considering that digitally-administered violent behaviors  disproportionately affect women, girls and sexual minorities.

To review more regarding the statistics and causes of the digital gender divide, check out  the ​OECD report​. The​ USAID Gender and Information Technology Survey Toolkit​ suggests some resources for assessing the digital gender divide of your programs. To learn more  specifically on technology-facilitated gender-based violence, check out the ​ICRW report​.  

Digital ID:  A digital identity is an online or networked identity adopted or claimed in cyberspace by an individual, organization or electronic device. 

In managing digital identities, a key area of concern is in privacy & security, particularly because identity theft is rampant online. 

For more information on what a Digital ID is, check out the definition on ​Techopedia​. To learn more about Digital ID trends, read this ​article​.  

Digital Literacy: Refers to the ability to use digital technology, communications tools, and/or networks to access, manage, integrate, evaluate, and create information in order to function in a knowledge society.

Drones: Drones are a type of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), which is an aircraft without a human pilot aboard originally developed for sensitive and complex military operations. The civilian drones used today in development work are smaller than military ones, have a much shorter  range and maximum flight time, and don’t need to be equipped with expensive and  sophisticated military electronics. 

When considering the use of drones in a space for work, it is important to understand the existing ecosystem and where and how such a technology could be useful, including if and  what regulations for drone activity are in that space. 

For more information, read the ​World Bank’s brief​ on drones in international development.  


Ecosystem Mapping:  The act of mapping out key players, contextual factors and processes in a particular system. The primary purpose of ecosystem mapping is to identify which parts of the natural system are important for the supply of ecosystem services.

Ecosystem mapping is a key activity involved when looking to understand the existing ecosystem in order to understand the people, networks, cultures, politics, infrastructure and markets involved in the initiative. For more information on strategies and approaches to ecosystem mapping, check out the online mapping tool ​here​.

EdTech:  Education technology is an ethical practice referring to both the material tools and theoretical constructs that facilitate learning with and about technology. It is the use of both physical hardware, software, and educational theories to facilitate learning and improving  performance with technology.

EdTech is a practice that must be user-focused to be successful and aware of the existing  ecosystem, including the technological capacity and potential of users and their context to  be effective. It is also an educational approach that has the potential to reach more people and enhance collaboration. 

For more information on what EdTech is, you can review the terminology ​here​. For examples of its place in development programs, the World Bank published a ​blog ​about upcoming  trends and activities in the space. Additionally, this candid ​article on EdSurge​ explains some of the challenges and drawbacks of EdTech.     

Emerging technology: Technologies whose development, practical applications, or both are still largely unrealized, such that they are figuratively emerging into prominence.

It may also refer to the continuing development of an existing technology. The term commonly refers to technologies that are currently developing, or that are expected to be available within the next five to ten years, and is usually reserved for technologies that are creating, or are expected to create, significant social or economic effects.

Encryption/Anonymization of Data:  With anonymization, the data is scrubbed of any information that may serve as an identifier of a data subject. Data encryption translates that data into another form, or code, so that only people with access to a secret key (formally called a decryption key) or password can  read it.

Both encryption and data anonymization are techniques used to address the digital  principle for privacy & security. 

The GDPR has well-outlined policies and descriptions of encryption and anonymization of  data that can be reviewed ​here.  

Extended Reality: Refers to all real-and-virtual combined environments and human-machine interactions generated by computer technology and wearables. These blend the virtual and “real” worlds and create a fully immersive experience.

This can include augmented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR), and mixed reality (MR).


Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR): The Fourth Industrial Revolution is the period of time characterized by the growing utilization of new technologies such as artificial intelligence, cloud computing, robotics, 3D printing, the Internet of Things, and advanced wireless technologies


GDPR: General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) is a regulation in European Union (EU) law on data protection and privacy for all individual citizens of the EU and the European Economic  Area (EEA). 

GDPR is a model policy addressing the digital principle of privacy & security. For more  information on the policy, check out the GDPR ​site​.  


Human Centered Design: Human-centered design (HCD) is a user-focused, creative approach to problem solving that begins with the people you’re designing for and ends with new solutions that are tailor made to suit their needs. It consists of three phases: 1) the Inspiration Phase; 2) the Ideation  Phase; and 3) the Implementation Phase.

HCD is a great method for executing the digital principles of designing with the user and understanding the existing ecosystem. It helps you put the users first and deeply familiarize  yourself with their needs and their context before implementation. Moreover, the  prototyping that occurs in the Ideation Phase allows you to determine how things need to be shifted or adjusted in order to scale it up. 

As the founders of HCD and many of its principles, has great resources and helpful toolkits for understanding HCD and its different methodologies ​here​.


ICTs:  ICTs, or information and communications technology (or technologies), is generally  accepted to mean all devices, applications and systems that combined allow people and  organizations to interact in the digital world. 

In any digital intervention, ICTs will be used in some capacity, so it is vital to consider the existing ICT ecosystem, if there are options to reuse and improve ICTs, and whether it makes  sense to use a particular ICT due to its open standards approach and ability to be scaled up. 

For more information on ICT and its related principles, review ​this short article ​on ICT technologies.  

ICT4D:  Information and Communications Technology for Development (ICT4D) is the practice of  utilizing technology to assist poor and marginalized people in developing communities.

When developing ICT4D, all the digital principles must be considered. In particular, it is  essential to design with the user and in consideration of sustainability, in order to ensure  that the technology is truly useful, acceptable, feasible and adoptable – and not contributing  to the digital divide.    

Catholic Relief Services provides a great overview of ICT4D, including programmatic  examples, which can be reviewed ​here​. They also help lead a conference on ICT4D, and ​this site ​has information on the conference as well as helpful resources and relevant news  events.  

Information Integrity:  The trustworthiness and dependability of information. More specifically, it is the accuracy, consistency and reliability of the information content, processes and systems. 

Read the National Democratic’s resource on disinformation and how to ensure the flow of accurate information here.


IoT : The internet of things (IoT) is a computing concept that describes the idea of everyday physical objects being connected to the internet and being able to identify themselves to  other devices without requiring human-to-human or human-to-computer interaction. 

For more information on IoT, including several interesting diagrams, check out​ this article​ on TechoPedia.  


Messaging Applications:  Apps that enable messaging similar in style to traditional SMS text messages but are conducted through an online platform. They began in part through social networking  platforms and have since expanded into their own applications, including WhatsApp,  Telegram, Send, Line, Viber, WeChat etc.

Using messaging apps is a great way to enhance collaboration and reach diverse users, but because private messages can also be exchanged in these apps, it is important to consider  privacy & security mechanisms when using messaging applications.

For more information on messaging apps through time, check out IPG Media Lab’s  Messaging Apps​ report.

Minimum viable product or MVP: A version of a product with just enough features to satisfy early customers and provide feedback for future product development.

Monitoring & Evaluation:  Monitoring is a system for routinely measuring and detecting project progress. Evaluations often use monitoring data to determine project areas that need further exploration, but they frequently require additional, formal data collection and analysis. Evaluations are undertaken to (a) improve the performance of existing interventions or policies, (b) assess their effects and impacts, and (c) inform decisions about future programming.

Both monitoring and evaluation are key components for ensuring a project is data driven, as they are systematic processes for data collection and analyses that can be used to explore project performance and impact questions to inform implementation.

For more information on monitoring & evaluation, check out the ​USAID glossary of evaluation terms​, and the site ​Better Evaluation​ for specific examples of different monitoring and evaluation methodologies and case studies.  


Open Data: Open data is the idea that some data should be freely available to everyone to use and republish as they wish, without restrictions from copyright, patents or other mechanisms of control. «Open data is data that anyone can access, use or share.

Open Source:  A software with source code that anyone can view, copy, modify and share in an effort to encourage open collaboration.

This principle supports the open standards/data/source/innovation principles, as well as the  focus on collaboration.

To review the definition, you can read the Open Source Initiative article ​here​. For an  interesting perspective on the utility of open source in development, check out ​this Devex article​.  


Principles for Digital Development: Nine «living guidelines» designed to help digital development practitioners integrate established best practices into technology-enabled development programs.

Privacy: When the term privacy is used today, especially in relation to information and  communication technology, it usually refers to the concept of informational privacy, meaning ‘the claim of individuals, groups or institutions to determine for themselves when, how and to what extent information about them is communicated to others’ (​Westin​).  This concept is central to the data privacy & security principle, and is often referring to how data are shared, including elements of consent and conditions of use. 

For more information on privacy vs. security vs. confidentiality, ​this site​ includes guidelines from several organizations, including HIPAA, The ​Office of the National Coordinator for  Health Information Technology​, the ​U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and the Office for Civil Rights​.  

Product Management/Product Manager: Product management is an organizational function within a company or organization dealing with new product development, planning, verification, forecasting, pricing, product launch, and marketing of a product at all stages of the product lifecycle. Product managers own the business strategy behind a product, specify its functional requirements, and generally manage the launch of features

Prototype: An early sample, model, or release of a product built to test a concept or process. It is a term used in a variety of contexts, including semantics, design, electronics, and software programming. A prototype is generally used to evaluate a new design to enhance precision by system analysts and users


Responsible Data: The duty to ensure people’s right to consent, privacy, security and ownership around the information process of collection, analysis, storage, presentation and reuse of data, while respecting the values of transparency and openness. 

Key components of responsible data are included within the principle of privacy & security. The ​Engine Room Responsible Handbook​ is a great source of information on and tools for  responsible data. 


Scale: Achieving scale can mean different things in different contexts, but it requires adoption beyond an initiatives pilot population and often necessitates securing funding or partners that take the initiative to new communities or regions. Different implementers may define scale as reaching a certain percentage of a population or a certain number of users.


Technical Working Groups (TWG):  A group of experts on a particular topic who work together on specific goals. These groups aim to improve communication and collaboration among stakeholders such as nongovernmental organizations, donors, government officials and community leaders. 

TWGs are a great way to foster collaborative development and prevent duplication by sharing information that might assist in the reuse or adaptation of existing tools for different contexts.   

The Principles for Development site has additional explanations and examples of TWGs ​here​.  


User interface Design (UI): The design of user interfaces for machines and software, such as computers, home appliances, mobile devices, and other electronic devices, with the focus on maximizing usability and the user experience.

User Experience Design (UX): User experience design is the process of manipulating user behavior through usability, usefulness, and desirability provided in the interaction with a product.


Virtual Reality (VR, see Augmented Reality): A technology that allows the user to figuratively step inside a computer-generated 3D world. Users can explore and sometimes even manipulate objects in that world.