Where technology meets anthropology, conservation and development
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Posts from — June 2007

FrontlineSMS on a Mac?

Bobby, a friend of mine from the Philippines (who I met at a recent Fahamu workshop in Nairobi), has been doing some great work with FrontlineSMS lately and has become a real supporter of the software. Over the next few weeks development of the next version will begin – thanks to funding from the MacArthur Foundation – and hopefully Bobby will be a central player in that. In the meantime, he holds the honour of being the first person – that I’m aware of, anyway – to get FrontlineSMS running ‘on’ a Mac (within an XP ‘virtual machine’, anyway). And here’s his photo to prove it.

The new version will be platform independent, so hopefully we’ll see a lot more Macs running FrontlineSMS in the coming months and years…

June 30, 2007   No Comments

Where motives dare

I once caused a stir during a regular Friday night pub outing in Cambridge when I dared suggest that some people only worked in international conservation because it meant they got to visit cool places and work with exotic animals. Although some were a little shocked at my suggestion and strongly disagreed (I was, after all, out with a dozen or so conservationists) the very fact that they responded in such a manner proves that I may have just hit a nerve.

There can be little dispute that entire industries are built around the act of ‘international conservation and development’. And few are headquartered in developing countries, an irony in itself. I’m not sure if there are any official figures – please get in touch if you know of any – but the international conservation and development communities must be a considerable source of employment in the ‘developed’ world. Large percentages of allotted funding seem to have the habit of staying in-country and covering items such as head office salaries, rents, vehicles, meetings and other overheads. Why, entire conferences are built around, and funded, on single conservation or development themes. I’ve even been to a few.

There is much talk of local empowerment, local context and local ownership, but such an approach rarely suits a machine which needs considerable amounts of funding just to keep itself alive. Gerald Durrell (pictured), the late pioneering conservationist based in my home island of Jersey, always maintained that his ultimate aim was to secure the future of endangered species and their habits, and then close down his zoo. Job done.

The global conservation and development movement could have learnt a thing or two from this guy.

June 21, 2007   No Comments

And the winner is…

Few would dispute that we’re living in an age of tremendous innovation. It’s hard to believe that the PC has only been around for 20-odd years, and the mobile phone half-of-that. The personal computer may have blazed the original consumer IT trail, but what is happening today with the mobile phone is potentially hugely more significant. Let me explain.

Successful companies understand their customers better than unsuccessful ones, at least that’s what we’re led to believe. Back in the early days of the personal computer, customers were medium- to higher-wage earners, or at the top end the early adopters. It was the same with the mobile phone, considered toys for executives in the early days and only more recently essential devices for the masses. What’s different today is, unlike the PC which stalled price-wise at the lower-end of the developed western markets, mobile manufacturers have very quickly begun looking at the very bottom of the pyramid, the emerging markets, the billions living in poverty in the developing world. The rationale behind this is two-fold, at the very least. Firstly, the developed world (if we can call it that) has reached saturation point in terms of mobile ownership, so it is natural to look towards new markets. Secondly, mobile phones are incredibly, and perhaps uniquely, empowering socially and economically, so people don’t tend to see the move into emerging markets as an exploitative one.

For me, most significant is the interest that mobile manufacturers (and operators, come to that) are taking in development issues – poverty, gender, health, literacy, infrastructure, economic empowerment and so on. Just take the MOTOPOWER charging kiosk (pictured, courtesy of the Mobile Gallery), rolled out in Uganda earlier this year. Not only does it solve a major charging problem for mobile users (it runs on solar power, by the way), but it creates opportunity for micro-enterprise. Many women now run these kiosks.

This is just one example of how manufacturers and operators have quickly understood that poverty – in all its forms – are barriers to ownership, and as a result they’re making significant efforts to understand it. This, I believe, is a potential revolution in how big technology business views the developing world. Think, only recently have there been wide scale (global) attempts to build affordable laptops for the worlds poor – OLPC, for example – but it’s taken decades to get there. Mobile manufacturers are already on the ball, in less than ten.

It will be interesting to see how this plays out, but there may well end up being more than one winner. And the world’s poor may just be among them.

June 15, 2007   No Comments

Walking the walk

“It’ll never work…”
“Crazy”
“What a fantastic idea!”
“Masterstroke – we should all do that”
“You’ll freeze”
“I wouldn’t admit to doing that, if I were you…”

So it was, back in late October 2006, that I moved out of my $750-a-month rented room in Los Altos into a 1983 VW Westfalia Camper Van. Swapping a very comfortable room in a million dollar-plus home for a small van, as winter approached, could have ranked anywhere between “Crazy” and “Masterstroke”, but it was something I felt I had to do. I never really intended talking about it, but I’ve been prompted by many friends and a Knight Fellow who decided to write about it for a Brazilian newspaper.

So, as I enter my ninth month in the van (and my final week at Stanford), now seems a good-a-time as any to explain myself. And for someone who’s generally not short of words this has been a surprisingly difficult blog entry to write.

The initial catalyst for the move was purely financial, something few of us can ever escape. Each of the Fellows on my Program were required to fund their own living expenses, estimated at somewhere around $20,000 over the nine months. I was never going to let a lack of money stop me from taking up this huge opportunity, but when it became clear in early October that funds might become tight, using my hard-earned cash to acquire an asset (rather than paying off someone else’s mortgage) made sense. I could then sell it at the end and live almost rent-free. A search through Craigslist followed by a highly eventful bank holiday weekend drive down to Long Beach, California – the subject of another Blog entry sometime – turned my vision into reality. I handed in notice to my landlord the Sunday morning I left to collect the van, and lead a double-life for three weeks before finally moving out later that month.

The second reason – and part of the third, come to that – are a little less clear-cut, and maybe trickier to explain or understand because of it. For those of you who haven’t had the opportunity to visit Silicon Valley or Stanford campus, it is a place of extreme privilege. It’s clean, everything works, it’s all fantastically resourced, everything seems new, the architecture is stunning, the place is awash with amazingly clever people, and it looks rich. And why shouldn’t it? Last year they managed to raise close to a billion dollars and it ranks among one of the top universities in the world. It’s a real privilege to be here among only a couple of hundred Visiting Fellows, make no mistake. But when you put it all together it makes for something which doesn’t quite seem real to me at all. Just as I’ve always found it difficult discussing third world development issues in posh five-star hotels and conference rooms, coming to a place like this can easily make you lose focus. I didn’t want to. My way of keeping it real was to live a more basic, lean existence. It’s important to remember why you’re in a place like this, what got you here, and who and what it is you’re ultimately working to achieve. It’s not about how comfortable I can make my life, after all. Rightly or wrongly I struggle with rich pop stars banging on about the immorality of world poverty when they simply head back to hill-top mansions in their chauffeur driven cars when they’re done. kiwanja has made many fans over the past year, and I strongly believe this is because of its down-to-earth philosophy. Actions speak louder than words, and people can relate to what I believe in and what I do, and how I do it.

At the same time – and this is part of the third and final reason – I also wanted to show that anything is possible if you remain true to your vision, focus, passion and goals. That you don’t necessarily need tens of thousands of dollars to make a place like this work for you, or a privileged upbringing, or friends in high places. Why, you can even choose not to conform and still make it. Doors which seem shut are usually just ajar. A little confident nudge is often all it takes. But first you have to find the door.

I’ve always maintained that true change in the world will come through the collective action of the masses, driven not by high profile international charities, or film stars, or musicians or politicians but by everyday people themselves. I’ve blogged about this in the past. People just need to know that things are possible. Interviews with the BBC, industry award nominations, invitations to speak at conferences, specialist panel invitations and a major MacArthur grant.

Yes, anything is possible.

June 11, 2007   1 Comment

Analogy of a Fellowship

I’ve never done a real marathon – I find jogging mind-numbingly boring – but metaphorically speaking I’ve been running one for the past fourteen years. A journey which started accidentally back in 1993 reaches a major milestone tomorrow as this year’s Reuters Digital Vision Program winds down. The pace will then slow a little for the next few weeks, but picks up again after a short summer break back home in the UK. Thanks to a generous MacArthur Foundation grant work begins on the next stage of FrontlineSMS in the autumn, returning me to Stanford.

It’s been an incredible nine months, and it’s exceeded all expectations. My top five moments? Well, let me see. In no particular order…

1. Before leaving Cambridge last September I took out a ‘single-trip’ health insurance policy, not expecting to be going anywhere else for the foreseeable future. How wrong I was. A conference invitation in Bangalore came up just three months into my Fellowship, to be closely followed by a workshop in New Delhi, another conference in Canada and then a final workshop in Kenya last month. In the middle of all of that was a visit to the University of Arizona but, being in the States, that doesn’t count. Positive change number one: An increase in invitations to ‘industry’ events. Lesson number one: Take out multiple trip insurance policies in future.

2. Having the opportunity to learn from some of the most talented people around has to be Positive change number two. The great thing about this Program is that it brings in some of the brightest stars from developing countries and gives them full access to the ‘Stanford machine’. The opportunity is huge and those who get invited along are the very people best suited to take advantage of it. Me, for my part, crashed the party under the guise of a support person (or Collaboration Fellow, in Program-speak) but have been helpful enough for no-one to really notice or mind!

3. Without doubt the increase in visibility of my work has been enormous, and ‘Positive change number one’ is testament to that. My website has been around for over four years, and in true organic fashion has been gradually stumbled upon by numerous ICT practitioners, the mobile industry, NGOs, academics and the general public. Positive change number three is therefore my website, which has shot from an average of under 1,000 hits per day to 4,000 now. Not quite a YouTube, I know, but it’s a start…

4. Positive change number four was having my ‘Erik moment’ back in April. An ‘Erik moment’, in the context of the Digital Vision Program, is “a sudden and unexpected event which elevates exposure, and interest, in your project to international level”. (By the way, the phenomenon is named after Erik Sundelof, a 2006 Fellow and now good friend who was working on his citizen blog/journalism site when Israel invaded Lebanon after the seizure of a couple of their soldiers. Erik’s site became an avenue for Lebanese civilians to report what was happening, via their mobile phones, and let the world know how the war was affecting them personally). My ‘Erik moment’ came on Friday 20th April when the BBC announced to the world that my FrontlineSMS system was to be used that weekend to help monitor the Nigerian Presidential elections. Very few people, however hard they work at something, are lucky enough to get 15 minutes of fame, never mind courtesy of the BBC. I was, and will be eternally grateful for it (and the work of the Nigerian NGO, NMEM, who carried out the project on the ground). FrontlineSMS has since been used to help monitor the Philippine elections, and discussions are underway for it to be used in Kenya later this year.

5. Last, but not least, funding becomes Positive change number five. Through the increased exposure in my work, the chance to mix with some great people on this Program and, of course my ‘Erik moment’, the MacArthur Foundation now take my work to a whole new level by announcing a $200,000 grant for FrontlineSMS. Coming as it did, during the last week of the Program, it’s been the icing on the cake of an amazing nine months here.

The challenge now is to match this when I return in September. Sadly, it won’t be with Marvin, Cathy, Shashank, Isha, John, Edgardo, Nam, Netika, Steve, Adam, Hernan, Fabiana, Neil, Neerja and Atif.

But a Fellowship is forever, right? And we always have Facebook

June 6, 2007   No Comments