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Posts from — April 2007

Bridging the knowledge divide

A common theme in my work, and in many of my conference talks, centres around a very simple message – appropriate technology. It’s nothing new, and as a concept has been around since the 1970′s with Fritz Schumacher’s defining book, Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered”. During my recent interview with Nokia’s “New Horizons” magazine, however, it was interesting that the conversation was entirely appropriate-technology focussed. I was expecting questions about FrontlineSMS, my work on wildlive! and my developing-country technology experience. Instead, the interview was dominated by my focus on “needs-based”, “human-centred”, “grassroots” and “appropriate” technologies. Believe me, I was more than happy to talk about these things – I don’t think enough people do.

It still surprises me – sometimes even saddens me – that we live in an era where there’s a general tendency to over-engineer solutions. Not only is this a waste of time in my view, but it’s a waste of money and effort. It also raises expectations. Believe me, there’s plenty of this going on as we speak (sorry, read). I come across this at conferences where I meet hugely technically-abled people who spend their time trying to find homes for the very latest technical gadgetry. And because of where I work, and the circles where I mix, the home they are looking for is usually in a developing country. This only serves to exaggerate the problem.

Take the recent use of my FrontlineSMS system in the Nigerian elections. FrontlineSMS is not rocket science. It’s so simple, in fact, that it slipped under most people’s radars. One comment on Slashdot discussing its use highlights this over-engineering view well:

It’s too simple. You guys don’t know what you are talking about. Doing it all with one computer and an SMS modem? You can’t future proof it that way. I want to see some mention of CORBA and SOAP. How can you have a system without middleware? Can you use dot NET? Everybody uses that these days. And what if I want to use it when I am already on the phone. Can’t it have a WAP interface as well? I want to sell a thousand copies of this thing and nobody is going to pay a million bucks for something which doesn’t use a single cutting edge technology

There is certainly no written rule that everything has to be cutting edge. Very little, in essence, is. Is Google cutting edge? There were plenty of other search engines around before they came along. All they did was see the opportunity, do it better and hit the target. Over the coming weeks I’m going to be spending a lot of time discussing mobile phone use, and web access, in developing countries. I’ll soon be presenting a paper – the same one presented at W3C in Bangalore last December – at the 16th International World Wide Web Conference in Banff, and sitting on an expert panel at the same event. And my message will be the same as it has always been.

Although it should come as no surprise that there’s a gulf between many developers and the realities of life in developing countries, there have been attempts to bring the two together. Some have worked better than others, but at least there’s a realisation that a meeting-of-minds is needed. If you want a simple, effective example as to why, take a look at the handsets being used by the majority of rural people in developing countries (see photo, taken in India this January). Then have a think about how Java, Flash Lite, WAP and smart-phone applications would go down with these users. Okay, one day these technologies will become relevant, but right now I would argue that they’re not. SMS is still the killer application, like it or not. And, on the subject of web access on mobile devices, I would also argue that we haven’t quite mastered it ourselves yet. Generally-speaking the user experience still leaves a lot to be desired.

I’m not the only person who thinks this way. Far from it. And I’m looking forward to meeting the others, and our technically-minded colleagues, in Canada next month. Time to re-open the debate…

April 27, 2007   No Comments

Preening

Santa Cruz, Sunday 15th April, 2007 (from kiwanja’s Flickr)

April 23, 2007   No Comments

Citizen journalism or citizen empowerment?

It’s been a funny old week. After last weeks Mongabay.com interview, news broke on another subject – the use of my FrontlineSMS system in the monitoring of the Nigerian elections this coming weekend. NMEM, the Nigerian NGO who are running the project, will be using volunteer observers to text in any observations (good or bad) as they go through the voting process.

There has been a lot of talk in recent months (and years) about citizen journalism – people reporting on news in their area – but what is happening now, with software such as FrontlineSMS, is more citizen empowerment. The difference here is that with empowerment they not only report on their surroundings – they are suddenly able to fully engage and influence the outcome.

NMEM, whose mission is to “encourage the Nigerian electorate to participate in the electoral process”, are a non-profit group of young professionals in Nigeria advocating for social change through good governance. NMEM had the mission, NMEM had the passion and NMEM had the commitment and vision to drive this forward. NMEM also found FrontlineSMS, and they took the software and ran with it. With the exception of several emails and the odd 3am phone call (!) they have been pretty much alone in this venture. The story is really theirs.

This is just the beginning. The future is not citizen journalism – it’s citizen empowerment…

April 20, 2007   1 Comment

VC? Not for me…

Today on the Reuters Digital Vision Program we had the opportunity to mock pitch to three Venture Capitalist (VC) firms from Silicon Valley. As my fellow Fellows honed their pitches and made final tweaks to their presentations, I was ‘absent with leave’. It’s not that I’m not grateful for the opportunity, it’s just that I don’t have a business model for what I do. I barely make enough money for myself, let alone give someone else a good return on theirs (or any return, come to that).

Instead, I’m in search of the pure social investor.

Who would this be? What would they ‘look’ like? Well, by definition, a pure social investor would see the value of kiwanja.net and realise that a solid sustainable business model, with a monetary return, is an unfair ask. They would instead want a strong social return based on a continuing service to non-profits and disenfranchised individuals and communities – grassroots organisations that need FrontlineSMS, or some crucial technical input into their project, or students and researchers wanting to understand the impact of technology in developing countries. kiwanja.net is all about bringing down barriers. Asking for money for many of these services would simply put up another.

There are many grand schemes out there, people trying to develop multi-million dollar solutions to hundred-thousand dollar problems. Subsidised or not, many seek a financial return for their investors. Schmoozing with politicians and large multinational donor organisations takes time – some projects take years to come to fruition, let alone begin to deliver, and then large percentages of the grants get siphoned off to cover a multitude of overheads. So, while people are busy working on their “big picture”, kiwanja will happily keep working on the smaller one, chipping away at the problems, and provide tools, inspiration and support for dedicated organisations and individuals out in the ‘real’ world. It’s not that this helps me sleep better at night. Quite simply, it’s where I see the greatest need.

And the greatest impact.

April 20, 2007   No Comments

Static on the radio

I’ve been thinking more and more lately about how human behaviour divides neatly into good and bad, positive and negative, constructive and destructive, helpful and unhelpful, kind or evil, and so on. But however you describe it, for every positive there is a negative. For every person fighting for something, there are people fighting against it. These struggles have existed since the dawn of human-kind, and are still very much alive today.

The problem is that things are rarely black and white. What is good for one person can turn out bad for another, so it all depends on your perspective – which side of the fence you’re on, in other words. If you’re in the ‘fine by me’ camp it’s easy to forget people in the other ‘not so good for me’ camp. When people voluntarily reach across this ‘void’ we call this charity, and the reaching hand usually does so with a fistful of hard-earned dollar bills. This might solve the problem, but then again it might not.

When people give to good causes they assume their money will be used wisely and that it will tackle the problem in the best possible, most efficient way. But for every few dollars given to solve the problem, infinitely more goes towards keeping things as they are. Maintaining the status quo is big business. Indeed, big business, governments and lobby groups are all guilty to some degree. Their job is to keep things good for their ‘fine by me’ constituents, and what happens on the other side of the fence doesn’t concern them. With this going on, are people effectively pouring their money down the drain?

Take international trade as an example. The global system is heavily weighted against the smallest, poorest and most disadvantaged nations. At World Trade Organisation (WTO) gatherings, developing nations with their four or five delegates are regularly overwhelmed by the several hundreds sent by the European Union and United States. It’s not surprising they find it hard to get their voices heard.

Meanwhile, the man and woman on the street are giving their few dollars to ‘help’ tackle world poverty, wearing their white wristbands or whatever. This might be the easiest and most convenient thing to do, but is it the most effective? Is it really doing any good? The real problem might not be poverty, but the world trade system which perpetuates it.

Fact: A one percent increase in world trade would generate an extra $70 billion in Africa, five times more than it currently receives in aid

Isn’t it time we re-thought the problem?

April 12, 2007   No Comments

Who’s afraid of Google?

I was passing through WHSmith at Heathrow airport yesterday on my way back to San Francisco when the latest BusinessWeek magazine caught my eye. The cover story addresses fears that Google may be getting a little too big for its boots.

The timing was quite neat. Only a couple of days ago I blogged about a possible IT future dominated by Google’s technology (see below), and drew comparisons with IBM. The BusinessWeek article does the same. However, it talks of Google “building out of tens of thousands of server computers around the world that handle quadrillions of bytes of data”, which goes slightly over my tongue-in-cheek suggestion that everything could be done with five (although, to be fair, I didn’t say how big they had to be!)

April 5, 2007   No Comments

Thomas J. Watson, Sr. – Right after all?

Thomas John Watson, Sr. was the President of International Business Machines (IBM) during its years of spectacular growth in the 1920′s, 1930′s, 1940′s and 1950′s. It was during this time that he nurtured IBM’s innovative management style which, until recently, kept Big Blue at the top of the global IT league (although, with over 350,000 employees worldwide, IBM is still the world’s largest information technology employer. It was finally knocked off top spot by Hewlett Packard, based on total revenue, not profits).

It was Thomas Watson’s son, Thomas J. Watson, Jr., who finally took IBM into the “modern-day” computer business after taking over the reins in 1956, one month before the death of his father. Previously the company concentrated on the building of tabulating machines and cash registers – products which were to later be replaced by mainframes and personal computers. Thomas Watson Sr. was sceptical of the role of these ‘new’ machines – still very much in their infancy in his time – and was reported to have famously said that “there is a world market for maybe five computers”. There is considerable debate as to whether he did or did not actually say this, but looking at the landscape 64 years on, maybe he had a point.

It goes without saying that there was a much larger market for mainframe and personal computers, but had Mr. Watson said that the world could perhaps be run on five computers, then he might not have looked so out-of-touch. I’m thinking Google here, with it’s plans for on-line domination. First search, and more recently on-line tools and applications which many believe will rival and eventually replace Microsoft Office as our main productivity tool. Google has had such an astronomical impact since floating only three years ago, and, as with IBM in its day, it is blazing a trail with its innovative work and management practices.

Imagine the on-line landscape by the end of the decade. Is it really so unbelievable to think that everything we do could be run from five solar powered servers in Mountain View, home of Google? Thomas Watson, Sr. could have been a lot closer to the truth than he ever imagined.

If, of course, he ever said it in the first place…

April 2, 2007   No Comments