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.

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.

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