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Posts from — November 2007

Is this really the right answer?

You’re hungry. We enter a small cafe. The menu looks normal enough. But this is no normal cafe. It’s one of those “eat all you like” set ups, but with a difference. The portions are tiny, only one food item is available, and I have to repeatedly answer questions before you can take a mouthful. Sound fun? Well, I guess it could be if your life didn’t depend on it. For many other people, it may.

If this sounds like fantasy to you, or a great idea, or a crazy one, then you may like to know that this very game is being played around the world by thousands of people. Right now.

I can’t quite describe my reaction when I first heard about “FreeRice”, a website which helps people master the English language while they earn grains of rice to feed starving people around the world. Sure, there’s a real need to engage ordinary citizens – and educate people – in some of the most pressing issues of our time, and hunger is without doubt high among them. But does ‘blending’ it with an English language quiz really do anybody any justice?

Our planet is full of extremes. Take this one. There are nearly 800 million people in the world who go hungry every day. And then there are another 800 million diagnosed as clinically obese. “It’s the ultimate contradiction and two sides of the same problem” says US academic and former World Bank employee, Raj Patel, in his latest book “Stuffed and Starved”.

The “FreeRice” site interestingly pitches itself more as an English language aid than a place of compassionate, charitable giving. Why do I say that? Well, when I went to the Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) section, I was really interested in the whole concept of ‘earning’ rice for hungry people. This, after all, is what the name of the site encourages. It’s “FreeRice”, right, and not “FreeLanguageQuiz”? But no. The first five answers on the FAQ page all talk about how much better your chances of getting a job might be, or how your reading and writing could be dramatically improved, if you master your English vocabulary. The fact that you happen to feed people as you go – twenty grains of rice at a time, by the way – isn’t seen as quite so important. Rice only enters the equation at “Frequently asked question” number six.

It’s a huge challenge engaging ordinary members of the public in development issues. With so many charities in desperate need of funding, anything which stands out has the greatest chance of success. This is one of the reasons Comic Relief in the UK is so successful. Not only does it give something back – in the way of a great night of comedy on the BBC – but it also takes people on a gut-wrenching rollercoaster ride through images of absolute suffering and despair, intermingled with comedy clips and top-quality family entertainment. The contradiction is almost as powerful as the 800 million people sitting on each side of that ‘hunger line’.

Giving out free rice also has its own problems, as does seeing famine and hunger as purely a food distribution issue. Studies have shown that most recent famines have more to do with war and politics than a plain shortage of food. In an effort to reduce the damage that dumping food has on local economies, CARE International recently took the brave step of refusing food aid from donors. Similarly, a DFID project in Malawi recently started an interesting experiment, handing out money to villagers in Malawi rather than handing out food (see an earlier posting).

My reaction to “FreeRice” was a mixed one. Whilst it does bring wider attention to global hunger it does it in a way which, to me anyway, seriously trivialises the issue. Answering questions and seeing a little bowl fill with rice which fundamentally decides if someone will eat or not gives me – and excuse the comparison – a rather sick feeling in my stomach.

Of course, it’s easy for us to sit here and openly criticise, praise, unpick or condemn these types of initiative. The people you’d have to really ask would be those whose bellies have been filled by the near-four billion grains of rice donated so far. They’d be able to tell you if they really cared where it came from, or how it got there.

The right answer? Maybe. Maybe not. I’ll need to pass on that one. Ask me another?

November 28, 2007   No Comments

The mother of all error messages?

I was expecting the unexpected, but didn’t quite have this in mind. My enjoyment of the Official Google Blog (yes, I was reading about Android) was rudely interrupted by what must be the longest error message I have ever seen. I’m not sure if ‘OK’ was the right choice of text for the button, mind you. Yikes.

November 15, 2007   No Comments

In celebration of a blogging century

While I was writing my blog last Wednesday, I was pleasantly surprised when I realised I was getting tantalisingly close to a hundred entries. This, combined with kiwanja’s soon-to-be fifth anniversary, seemed worth celebrating in some way. So a couple of misguided evenings later (spend down my local Peets) plus, of course, last Friday’s entry which took me to that hundred, here it is. It’s been an interesting exercise, and I’ve enjoyed it – a little collection of some of my favourite entries from the past eighteen months.

November 11, 2007   No Comments

Battleship Google fires its new gun

The smoke has finally begun to settle. At times it reached almost fever pitch. Rumours that this was going to be the big shake-up the industry needed were followed, as reality set in, by sobering recognition of the challenges that lie ahead (and a scratching of heads as people tried to fill in much of the missing detail). Yes, this week Google decided time was right to officially show its intent, setting its sights squarely at the mobile industry and announcing not the much-hyped GPhone but Android, a new open mobile platform. As mobile continues to hot up, one of the biggest guns of them all has joined the battlefield and fired an early warning shot.

It’s been interesting to read through some of the comments over the week, both on international news sites and in the blogosphere. All is not well. Not only are we starved of some crucial detail but this has created a secondary problem of contradiction. On the detail side, for example, the SDK (Software Development Kit) isn’t being released until next week, and then it’s only an initial tentative sneak of what’s to come (“Comments welcome”, as the website says). The SDK is going to be rather important since it will dictate the nature of the open development which Android will live or die by. On the confusion side, we have headlines such as “Will GPhone kill off the iPhone?”. As far as I can tell, there really isn’t going to be a GPhone as such – Android is a software platform, an operating system, and environment. Unless we find out to the contrary (and let’s be honest, we don’t really know a huge amount yet) Google aren’t going to be branding any phones and certainly not designing any. As things currently stand Google will have as much control over the hardware their platform runs on as Microsoft do over the design of PC’s and laptops – in other words, not much. I doubt the iPhone has much to worry about quite yet. (Recall: Wasn’t Zune meant to be the iPod killer?).

Announcements about Linux-based open mobile initiatives, which Android is, are not new. There have been a number this year already, and Android joins a growing list which includes the likes of LiMo, OpenMoko and Qtopia. Analysts do seem to agree that Linux has a huge role to play in the future of mobile, but whether Google’s approach is going to be the breakthrough they believe is needed only time will tell. Yes, they may have an impressive list of around 30 partners, but many of these either aren’t doing particularly well right now, or are bit-part players in the mobile space. Nokia, the company with the dominant market share, and a vested interest in its own Symbian platform (technically an Android competitor) is conspicuous by its absence.

In the area where I spend most of my time – the use of mobiles for social and environmental benefit in the developing world – I have seen similar excitement at the announcement, with hopes that Android will open up a new world of opportunity for the community. Again, few people are being particularly specific about what this opportunity is, what it might look like and what problems it might end up solving. There is just a general hope that something good might come out of this. I wonder.

What is it, for example, that we can’t do now? What is it that we want to do which can’t be done with a combination of some of today’s tools, such as – say – SMS and Java? (Interestingly, Java is slated to play a key role in the Android platform). They’re pretty powerful and, although restrictive to a degree, many of the great things that have been going on in the “mobile for good” space lately have centred around one or the other. They’re both widely available, too – every phone out there can handle SMS, and a reasonable number of those can also run Java applications. Text messages are being used for all manner of communication – health messages, education, job postings and election monitoring among many others – and Java-based applications are enabling data collection and educational game development. Sure, we need to “think out of the box” and, more often than not many of the best ideas emerge that way. But we can think out of the box at any time, and should certainly never do it from a technology perspective. We shouldn’t approach this from the “What can Android do for us?” angle.

As far as I’m concerned, you start with an understanding of a ‘problem’, an understanding of the users and the environment, and consideration of the technology comes at the end. And, if it turns out that there’s not a viable, sustainable, appropriate technology-based solution to that problem then so be it. There won’t always be.

Android is only likely going to run on high-end devices such as smart phones. If we’re thinking about putting socially and economically empowering applications in the hands of the masses – and in this context I mean the couple of billion people at the bottom of the pyramid – then they’re going to need to have one of these phones. That might be a problem for quite some time to come, maybe even years. If, however, you have a nice control group – say fifty nurses who travel to remote clinics on a weekly basis – it’s not going to be too much trouble equipping them with a bunch of these handsets and running a neat health-based application on them. This is already being done in a number of countries and in a number of areas outside health, too.

We’re still about a year away from seeing anything running on an Android-powered device, and it may be at least another year or more before people sitting at the bottom of the economic pyramid start to own them in any significantly useful numbers. In the meantime there is plenty we can be getting on with.

Let’s face it, we’re only really beginning to scratch the surface with the tools we’ve already got.

November 9, 2007   1 Comment

Cast in stone

Engraved stone courtesy San Jose Engraving

November 4, 2007   No Comments

Considering Africa

During the summer, sandwiched between the end of my first Stanford Fellowship and a trip to Uganda with Grameen, I was asked by the Corporate Council on Africa to give an interview about my work. They were putting together a feature on “ICT innovators” for their Africa Journal, and wanted to talk about FrontlineSMS. I’m always happy to talk about my work – after all, I rely on this kind of interest to get word out about what I do – and am constantly surprised at the level of interest I get.

This week I finally saw a copy of the Journal. They had chosen to interview just three individuals, quite likely due to time and space constraints, but I found myself in the company of a couple of hugely talented Africans doing great work to further the advance of ICT on their continent. Funnily enough, one of them was Nam Mokwunye, a good friend of mine from Stanford, running an ambitious project to connect 100 Nigerian universities. Being seen as someone “whose localised solutions have greatly contributed to Africa’s ICT infrastructure” felt strangely odd since I don’t generally see myself as doing that. I am happy to simply be in a place where I can help others achieve their own goals and dreams.

November 2, 2007   No Comments

The community conundrum. Continued…

Last week I was called up by a Researcher at Berkeley wanting me to take part in a survey. After a conference in February this year, intriguingly entitled “The UN Meets Silicon Valley“, a number of initiatives were now beginning to emerge (I was invited to the conference, but it didn’t really seem like my kind of thing, despite having had the pleasure of working with the organisation recently). Yes, the gathering was over eight months ago, but we are talking the UN here (I did say this wasn’t my kind of thing, didn’t I?). According to the official conference announcement:

The United Nations meets the Silicon Valley to explore how technology and industry can bolster development. Prominent members of industry, academia, and the venture capital community will take the stage alongside members of the Strategy Council of the Global Alliance for ICT and Development to discuss the partnership between the public and private sectors in the field of ICT and development

It turns out that one of the key outputs from the conference was a call for the creation of some kind of community website, where technology companies in the Valley could connect with the ICT4D community ‘out there’ and become a catalyst for great things. The research taking place now hopes to determine what this community might look like, how it might work, and what it might actually do. Although its aims may be admirable, the thought of yet another community drives me to despair. I’ll happily be proved wrong – I wasn’t obstructive and did make a number of suggestions during my 30 minute conversation with the Researcher – but I can’t help but wonder where our continued obsession with community lies and why it continues to be something we find so hard to crack.

I’m no expert, but I guess you can put online communities into at least two categories – those built around small, micro-specific interest areas – such as a ban on a particular product or company, or the running of a local sports club – and those at the opposite end of the spectrum, the macro-non-specific areas. There are probably millions of examples of the first category, but far fewer of the second. Facebook and MySpace are the two obvious global gorillas that spring to mind (interestingly, the Groups feature in Facebook quite likely provides the platform for many of the newer micro-specific groups, many of which are humorous in nature and seem to serve no specific purpose other than to be funny). When we look at building communities for the more serious ICT4D, or mobile-related communities, it does no harm to look at how the Facebook ecosystem works. Why, for example, has it proved relatively painless for me to attract over 850 members to the Social Mobile Group, a group I set up to tap into the wider interest in mobile phones beyond the activist and professional communities? What motivates people to join that group, rather than some of the others outside of Facebook (or even within Facebook, for that matter)? Tough questions.

For me, one of the key issues has always been one of motivation. You know, the “Why should I make the effort to register myself on this site?” conundrum. Very few sites have really cracked this because few have been able to effectively deconstruct this motivational puzzle. And even when people are convinced that it’s worth their while registering on a site, getting them active is another thing. After all, you may be able to lead someone to a community, but you can’t make them post. Maybe one key advantage of Facebook is that once you’re registered you can show your support for multiple causes or interest groups with a couple of simple mouse clicks. If the act of registering is the problem, how to we get around that? No registration equals no idea who the members are, and what kind of community is that? Or, is knowing who’s in a community a defining factor of that community?

My Facebook experiment has expanded recently with the creation of the FrontlineSMS Supporters Group. Within the next few months the main FrontlineSMS website will be re-launched with a range of new features for the growing family of FrontlineSMS users, and others interested in mobile use in developing countries. When it comes to building a true, active community around it though, I remain hesitant. But one thing’s for sure – I’ll continue watching what’s happening on Facebook. I’m sure the answer lies in there somewhere…

(For an earlier Blog posting where I look at the more prominent mobile-based sites – community and otherwise – check out “View from the front row” in the August archive)

November 1, 2007   2 Comments