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Posts from — January 2008

Social mobile and the long tail

Erik Hersman at White African talked about it. The Economist also recently talked about it. And Tactical Tech are talking about it. Three commentators and a common theme, even if they don’t realise it. What am I talking about? Social mobile’s long tail, that’s what.

So, why the long tail? Well, it goes something like this. There’s no disputing that the mobile for good space is hotting up, with near-daily announcements extolling the virtue of mobile phones in promoting social and environmental good the world over. The problem is, despite the excitement we’re still struggling to scratch below the surface, meaning the majority of non-profits, particularly those in developing countries, can all but sit back in awe at the incredible things these little devices are doing. Solutions are tantalisingly close, but without the tools and a practical helping hand most of these NGOs remain passive observers. It’s these – the ones who aren’t yet able to do anything – that interest me the most. Let’s look at the graph.

We have three categories. Firstly, there are high-end high-cost solutions running SMS services across national or international borders, with little chance of replicability for your average grassroots NGO. These are represented by the red part of the curve and generally get the highest amount of exposure. Then we have lower-cost custom solutions, developed by individual (often mid-level) non-profits to solve a particular problem in a particular country or region, or to run a specific campaign. These have a slightly better chance of replicability for grassroots NGOs, are represented by the amber, and generally get a medium to high level of publicity.

Finally, we’re left with the simple, low-tech, appropriate technology solutions with great opportunities for rapid, hassle-free replicability among grassroots NGOs, represented in green (even better, take out the need to replicate altogether and actually give them the tools to do the work, a gap FrontlineSMS is working hard to fill). These projects generally get the lowest level of publicity, if any, since few have an international profile of any kind. Notoriously hard to communicate with, and with little or no money, it’s perhaps no surprise that most of the attention on the long tail is elsewhere.

In order for the mobile revolution to truly become a revolution, we need to be inviting infinitely more non-profits to the party. So much can be done, but so few are active. Going by my thinking, that means we need to be working on the green, because that’s where most grassroots NGOs sit, and that’s where help is needed the most.

As kiwanja’s nGOmobile competition seems to prove, social mobile is not about a lack of ideas or a lack of understanding, but a basic lack of tools…

(A fuller, expanded version of this Blog entry is available as a PDF here)

January 28, 2008   6 Comments

View from the front row

One of the best things about being a consultant, freelancer, wanderer or independent (choose whichever title you think best fits) is that I’m not tied to any one cause, NGO, company, community or website. Since I don’t actually work for any of them I can openly communicate, engage and contribute to many sites in many different areas and in many different ways. I quite like this. It helps promote my whole ethos of shared, open learning, and means that information and knowledge I pick up from one can often be equally shared with another (non-disclosure agreement permitting). Sometimes not being paid can have its advantages, too (although I do, occasionally, take on temporary consultancy work with some of them).

Right now, in the “mobile for good” space, we’re in the middle of very interesting times. We’re also, perhaps, at a crossroads. And the role that I’ve managed to carve out for myself, intentional or not, means that I consistently find myself at the centre of many of the current – and newer – initiatives. Take, for example, mobile communities and mobile portals (call them what you like). In recent months we’ve seen the launch, and re-launch, of numerous sites. Indeed, one of my FrontlineSMS-related plans involved the creation of one. I’ve since had a major re-think, although with users in over forty countries there is clearly a perfect opportunity to build a community of some kind. Building a truly vibrant community website around the wider social and environmental use of mobile is never going to be easy, and I would argue that no-one has yet managed to crack it (indeed, building truly active communities around anything can be a real challenge).

Right now I have a little experiment going on through Facebook. The Social Mobile Group is an attempt to bring people together who share an interest in mobile, from developers through to practitioners, bloggers, researchers, academics, writers and the general public. Since the Facebook structure was already present, it took ten minutes to create the group, and it now stands at around 1,150 members from a starting point of about 20 six months ago. I’m not sure where it’s going, but it slowly seems to be taking shape and it requires the minimum of effort. I’ve also tried to involve the members as much as possible, creating “Rotating Group Officer” roles which provides them with the opportunity to help grow and develop the group in their own way.

There are, of course, other sites out there acting as ‘mobile information’ points. Even the kiwanja.net site has an element of this with the Downloads section, Mobile Database and Mobile Gallery, although this is not its primary purpose. Other sites include a mix of the old and the new, and it will be very interesting to see how they evolve over time, and how many cross over and blend into others. Last year I began to note down the number of sites I’ve either become involved in, or provided input into, or spoken to people about, in the mobile space. This is what I came up with:

PAMONET
Following a meeting of African activist organisations in Nairobi early last year (each either using mobile, or with an interest in using mobile, in their work), Fahamu plan to create a Pan-African Mobile Network to encourage the sharing of information between activist organisations working in this field. This is due for launch sometime in 2008 and is currently limited to a membership of approximately 40 individuals or groups who attended the meeting

W3C Mobile Web Initiative
Following on from their Bangalore workshop in December 2006, the W3C Mobile Web in Developing Countries initiative aims to create a Wiki containing information specific to the use of mobile in developing countries, and how the organisation should go about promoting access to the internet in developing regions via mobile phones. There are currently 58 subscribers to the wiki

MobileActive
The MobileActive site was one of the earliest attempts to create a community of mobile activists. It provides information on how to go about developing mobile campaigns, and has produced a number of useful Strategy Guides on the subject. MobileActive has undergone a couple of re-launches in the past couple of years and currently has 127 participants according to the NTEN Affinity list

ShareIdeas
A recent Vodafone/Nokia-supported initiative, ShareIdeas is an online community and Wiki for sharing ideas on how to use mobile communications for social and environmental benefit. Organisations which have used mobile effectively in their work are encouraged to submit their case studies to the site, and to share their experiences with other non-profit organisations. The site recently announced a membership in excess of 700 people

Mobile Advocacy Toolkit
Following on from their successful NGO-in-a-Box solutions, Tactical Tech are in the process of developing a Mobile Advocacy Toolkit and Wiki, designed to help non-profits interested in making use of mobile in their work. The Toolkit will provide a range of open source tools, and the Wiki information on how to go about using the tools, and how other NGOs have utilised the technology in their work. No subscriber data is currently available

The Social Mobile Group
The Social Mobile Group is an attempt to harness the power of the Facebook community to create a network of developers, practitioners, bloggers, researchers, academics, writers and the general public all interested in the use of mobile for social and environmental benefit. Although relatively new, the Group already boasts a membership in excess of 1,150 people

Although many of these sites – and others like them not listed here -have different audiences, approaches and objectives, the one thing that binds them together is their shared interest in the social revolution being brought about by mobile technology, particularly in the developing world. In a space becoming increasingly crowded, many communities are dominated by a small number of active members. Facebook groups aside, ShareIdeas seems to be the one to watch, with Tactical Tech and PAMONET soon to join the party.

January 24, 2008   No Comments

When actions DO speak louder than words

Winston Churchill once famously remarked that it was “better to be making the news than taking it. To be an actor rather than a critic”. But there are times when this simplifies, and trivialises, the complementary roles that ‘actors’ and ‘critics’ can play. Half-a-century on, modern technology has empowered ‘critics’ in ways Churchill could never have imagined.

In 1984 a BBC news crew, accompanied by reporter Michael Bourke, travelled to Ethiopia and brought news of a growing humanitarian crisis to the worlds’ attention. “A biblical famine in the 20th Century” and “The closest thing to hell on Earth” was how he described it. The international community were shocked into action, and the following summer saw Live Aid – Bob Geldof’s massive mobilisation of the music industry which helped raise hundreds of millions for the famine victims. Michael Bourke – ‘critic’ turned ‘actor’.

Today, modern-day blogging is creating mini-Michael Bourke’s the world over. Human rights violations, environmental vandalism, political killings, oppression against citizens, animal cruelty and unlawful detentions make the news from all corners of the globe, made possible by brave souls empowered by mobile and internet technologies. The line between ‘actor’ and ‘critic’ is becoming increasingly blurred, if it exists at all anymore. Recent events in Kenya – which have spurned the creation of Ushahidi.com – is a perfect case in point.

A few short days ago, good friend Erik Hersman (who Blogs as the widely read and highly respected White African) aired his frustration at the lack of news coming out of the country from the man and woman on the street. In “It’s Not About Us, It’s About Them“, Erik noted:

“While blogging, emails, Twitter and the internet are doing a great deal of good getting the news out of what’s going on in Kenya to the rest of the world, I find myself troubled. You see, the communication that needs to be happening is at the grassroots level. Everyday Kenyans do not have access to any of these services. Let’s put our minds and capabilities towards solving real problems for people beyond the technologically elite”

True to his word, just five days later saw the launch of Ushahidi.com, a site which allows Kenyans to report acts of violence via the web and SMS, incidents which are then aggregated with other reports and displayed on a map. Ushahidi – which means “witness” in Kiswahili – provides an avenue for everyday Kenyans to get their news out, and news of its launch has been widely hailed in the mainstream press (and the Blogosphere, funnily enough). Putting Ushahidi together is a textbook study in rapid prototyping and collaboration, and Erik takes a huge amount of credit for blurring the ‘actor’ and ‘critic’ distinction yet further by pulling his finger out and actually doing something. As he says, when all the dust settles in Kenya, he doesn’t want to be one of the ones saying “I should have done something”.

From a personal perspective, Bloggers such as Erik have been hugely supportive of kiwanja’s work, without which there would have been little chance of initiatives such as FrontlineSMS and nGOmobile ever getting off the ground. nGOmobile alone has generated interest from over seventy grassroots NGOs, all of whom are now in with a chance of winning equipment to run their own text messaging services. FrontlineSMS has empowered NGOs in over forty countries from all corners of the globe. Essential to this has been a dedicated band of supporters, including White African, ZapBoom, Tactical Tech, ShareIdeas, Textually.org, Ore’s Notes, Total Tactics, Black Looks, Saidia.org and 160Characters, among many others.

Whether or not we’re ‘actors’ or ‘critics’ – and whether or not it really matters – we all have a valuable role to play. Ushahidi shows us just how valuable that role can be.

January 16, 2008   3 Comments

Fuel, food and cellphone credit

According to a report yesterday in the New York Times on the continuing crisis in Kenya, “fuel, food and cellphone credit are in short supply”. Who would have thought, even just a couple of short years ago, that in a time of humanitarian crisis cellphone credit would be uttered in the same sentence as ‘essential’ fuel and food items?

Many people have long argued that communications, and access to information, ought to be basic human rights. Maybe their time is coming.

January 7, 2008   No Comments

Consequences

Imagine, for one moment, that the recent Kenyan elections went peacefully. That voting went smoothly, results were counted on time and in an orderly fashion, and there was general calm. Then, following declaration of the winner, local NGOs make their own announcement – of widespread corruption, ballot-box stuffing, destroyed votes. Their proof? Thousands of text messages sent in from monitors, spread around the country, keeping a watchful eye on events. All hell breaks loose, and we see riots and widespread violence on an unimaginable scale.

This isn’t quite what happened, but it could have been.

My knowledge of Kenyan politics is limited – I’ve only been to the country once in early 2007- although I do have a number of politically active Kenyan friends. But despite my amateur status I, like everyone else, never expected this. Hundreds dead, a hundred thousand fleeing their homes, tribal violence and accusations of genocide. Years of progress in one of Africa’s most stable countries reversed in an instant, and no end in sight.

For a while there was interest in Kenya in repeating the use of my FrontlineSMS system, which helped monitor the elections in Nigeria last year. That election was relatively peaceful, despite widespread accusations of corruption. Although FrontlineSMS didn’t feature, the whole subject does raise some awkward questions. The very work that I do, despite being thousands of miles away from where it is usually applied, does have consequences. And very real ones at that.

I’ve been thinking more and more about this over the past few days. How would I feel, or anyone come to that, if they developed technology whose ultimate use lead to this level of violence and loss of life? This didn’t happen in Kenya, but it could have.

A few people have spoken to me about this over the past couple of days. Interestingly, while I was concentrating on the negative, they were thinking more positively. If something like FrontlineSMS had been used, they argued – and more reliable exit polls published as a result – wouldn’t that have helped reduce the ‘shock’ of the result, for the opposition at least? After all, much of the initial violence was sparked by disbelief at the result, where early polls had indicated a strong lead for the opposition candidate. Could something like FrontlineSMS have allowed results to be trickled out to the public more slowly, reality-checking anticipated results on both sides?

Election monitoring with mobile phones is still in its infancy, and there are a number of different schools of thought. Some organisations concentrate on equipping official monitors with the technology, while I believe more strongly in engaging citizens in the process. A mixture of the two is probably most likely the way forward – it doesn’t need to be one or the other. But what NMEM did in Nigeria was a breakthrough. According to White African:

“This type of election monitoring is ground breaking in Africa. I wouldn’t be surprised if it continued to be a case study for future monitoring efforts around the continent – it perfectly showcases how technology can be used to circumnavigate government and organizational inefficiencies by going directly to the people”

And the consequences of this kind of monitoring? Well, I remain convinced that mobile technology has a significant role to play in spreading democracy and improving the democratic process, and not just in developing countries. Indeed, the positive impact of mobile phones in this area – and many others – has been well documented. But with all things technology, we need to be aware of the negatives.

Even mobile phones, as great as they are, have some.

January 4, 2008   1 Comment

Ring, ring… The grassroots is calling

One thing I really enjoy about kiwanja’s work is how it encourages NGOs to come up with their own solutions to their own problems, how it focuses on the grassroots and how it seeks to help those organisations looking to help themselves. While other initiatives appear more interested in what people are doing with technology, a large part of what interests me is how we empower organisations who aren’t there yet – those that have the ideas but lack the capacity to see those ideas through. For example, for every NGO using mobile technology in their work there are dozens, if not hundreds, who aren’t.


I’ve been fortunate over the past few weeks to be involved in the judging of a couple of competitions, and by far the most enjoyable has been nGOmobile (and not because it’s one of my own projects). While other competitions are largely dominated by industry players and middle- and heavyweight NGOs, nGOmobile has been unashamedly aimed at the small guy. Having spent a lot of time living and working in the developing world, I remain convinced that one of the best ways to solve many of the chronic problems in these countries is through grassroots empowerment. As William Easterly points out in The White Man’s Burden – a topic I blogged about in the summer – development’s traditional ‘top down’ approach has had little tangible return on its hundreds of billions (or trillions?) of dollars investment.

One of the really nice things about nGOmobile is that NGOs get the chance to win a prize based on what they’re going to do, rather than what they’ve done. While this makes the competition a little unique, it does make it more of a challenge from an organisational point of view.

The competition was launched in October, and ran for three months. Getting news out to grassroots NGOs, many of whom struggle with their own connectivity issues, was never going to be easy. But thanks to some fantastic support from other mobile-related sites and bloggers, including White African, ZapBoom, Tactical Tech, ShareIdeas, Textually.org, Nokia, Ore’s Notes, Total Tactics, Black Looks, Saidia.org and 160Characters, news broke fast, and a feature on the BBC World Service Digital Planet programme made a big impact. By the time the competition closed over seventy NGOs had submitted entries. Other, higher-profile and bigger-budget, better-established ICT competitions would have been happy to hit anywhere near that.

Analysing the results of the competition makes fascinating reading, as did my first analysis of FrontlineSMS usage last month. What we’ve done, in essence, is taken the pulse of the grassroots NGO community. Where are they working? What is their focus? What concerns them? How would they solve a problem? How would mobile technology make their lives easier? What would the impact be if they had it? The pie chart above does indeed tell an interesting story.

Health-related work came out on top at 19% – perhaps not a huge surprise – but conservation, running it close at 18%? That was a surprise. The conservation community has been a little slower than most to grasp the benefits of mobile technology, but it looks as though things are beginning to change. The human rights community has been increasingly active in this area, with sites such as ICT4Peace and New Tactics taking a lead, and agriculture- and fisheries- related projects have been responsible for some of the higher-profile mobile-based solutions, including Manobi, TradeNet and the 2006 WSIS Award winner, East African Fish Auctions. Entries in the competition reflect this.

Interest in nGOmobile among the blogging community, grassroots NGOs and the mobile industry has been fantastic, and discussions are already underway on ways to scale the competition in 2008 and increase its own – and the winners – profile. It’s incredible to think that it was only launched four months ago.

The grassroots were given the opportunity to speak. And boy, are they calling

January 2, 2008   No Comments