NEWS: World Economic Forum invitation for kiwanja.net

Following an appearance earlier this year at GSM Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Ken Banks has been invited to an invitation-only World Economic Forum meeting in New York next month which will focus on collaborative opportunities between the telecommunications, financial services, healthcare and media & entertainment industries. Addressing the critical issues needed to catalyze innovative solutions, this meeting will bring together senior level executives and top strategists as well as leaders from the areas of public policy, civil society and academia

Outcomes from the meeting, which will focus on mobile health, banking and entertainment, will serve to guide the World Economic Forum’s ongoing workstream around the mobile Internet as well as frame discussion for its upcoming Annual Meeting in Davos 2009. Invitees from the telecommunications community include the top strategists and executives from Alcatel-Lucent, AT&T, Avaya, BT, Cisco, France Telecom, Google, HTC, Intel, Microsoft, Motorola, Nokia, Telstra, Vimpelcom, Vodafone and many others

Staying connected. And relevant.

In the fast-moving social mobile space, keeping up with developments can be a tricky affair. For every initiative we unpick, examine and discuss there are dozens more which never end up gracing the pages of the world wide web, or are never profiled at conferences or in magazines, books or other ICT4D publications.

Understanding what technology is used, how it is deployed and what impact it has is only a small part of it, of course. People also want stories, context and personal experiences, too. Many of the great conference presentations I’ve listened to have had that, and back in January this year the editors of Vodafone receiver came to me looking for it.

“Your kiwanja.net work is intriguing, and we are big fans of the mobile gallery. Because pictures like that of the Bodafone, the Kampala Mobile Repair Shop, The Uganda Village Repair Sign and many others convey such a lively impression of the context in which mobile technology is used, we’d like to suggest to go for a picture story that highlights a few use cases to describe the “mobile-enabled social change” you are aiming at – how mobiles can facilitate communication, push the spread of information, the growth of digital literacy and making everyday life a bit easier in developing regions”

For the past fifteen years I’ve been travelling regularly to and from the African continent, and have been fortunate to have lived, worked and visited many places including Uganda, Zambia, Nigeria, Cameroon, Kenya, South Africa and Mozambique. During that time I’ve worked with some incredible people on a number of equally incredible projects, touching on everything from school and hospital building to primate and biodiversity conservation, and the application of ICT in poverty alleviation programmes. Had I not been so incredibly fortunate – particularly with my more recent brushes with mobile technology – I’d never have been able to write the Vodafone receiver article, let alone take any of the photos.

Understanding the realities of life in ‘developing countries’ is essential, I believe, if we’re to fully grasp what today’s emerging mobile technology means to people. That means spending time on the ground, getting our hands dirty and trying things out. “Rapid prototyping” or “failing fast” shouldn’t be terms to be afraid of, but ones to embrace. After all, the only way to fully release the potential of mobile technology for positive social and environmental change is to try things out, and more crucially give others the opportunity to do the same.

Back in 2003, during one of my many visits to Bushbuckridge (an area which straddles Kruger National Park in South Africa), I took this picture of a group of women about half-way through their daily wait for water. I use this photo regularly during my presentations because, to me, it challenges our perception of technology and empowerment. What can mobile technology do for these people? Or, perhaps more crucially in the context of my work, what can mobile technology do for the non-profits working in the areas where these people live? After all, it’s the grassroots non-profits on the ground who are generally better placed to answer that first question.

Towards the end of many of my conference presentations I turn to the obligatory “Challenges” slide, where I discuss some of the unresolved issues and difficulties working in the mobile space. One of the more widely discussed of these is the Social Mobile Long Tail concept, which looks at the focus of mobile applications development, and how it largely fails the grassroots NGO community. Another is the “developer/practitioner divide”, where application developers – who are generally as geographically detached from a problem as you can get – try to create solutions to a problem they don’t fully understand. Thankfully we’re seeing an ‘ICT4D shift’ which is leaning away from a culture of ownership and more towards one of collaboration and empowerment.

In a recent paper Richard Heeks, referring to the “developer/practitioner divide”, makes the point that in order to be more effective “ICT4D 2.0 champions” (as he calls them) must understand enough about the three domains of computer science, IS, and development studies. If it weren’t complicated enough, I suggest we also throw in anthropology for good measure.

Despite having a decade-long IT career behind me, when I went to Sussex University in 1996 studying the subject was the last thing on my mind. I wanted to learn more about the context of emerging ICT4D work – the “D” part. Anthropology was thrown in for good measure, but is now equally if not more important in my work. If we’re honest about it, technology is generally cold and passive – it’s the people who use it and interact with it that makes it interesting, hence my addition of anthropology to Heeks’ list.

Sitting at the self-titled intersection of “technology, anthropology, conservation and development” means I get involved in a fascinating array of projects and initiatives. Some draw heavily on my technology background, others on my experience living and working in Africa, and others on the application of anthropology. The really interesting ones combine all three. FrontlineSMS alone, with its growing community of users, draws me into the work of NGOs involved in human rights, health, education, activism, conservation and agriculture, to name a few. Some great stories are already beginning to emerge following the recent release in June.

In addition to FrontlineSMS – the main focus of my work at the moment – kiwanja has also been collaborating and working with Tactical Tech on their forthcoming Mobile Advocacy Toolkit, Grameen Technology Center on their AppLab initiative in Uganda, Kubatana.net on a range of projects (including the forthcoming Freedom Fone initiative), Question Box on a mobile version of their innovative web-based village intercom, and W3C on the Mobile Web For Social Development (MW4D) initiative. Other kiwanja projects include the Silverback mobile phone conservation game (pictured), nGOmobile – which will shortly announce a second annual competition – and the new “mobility” project (which has an incredible partner line-up).

Of course, all of this work beautifully feeds back into itself, allowing me to share the learning and experiences from one project with another, which is just how it should be. Apart from Grameen – where I spent a month in Uganda last summer getting the AppLab initiative up and running (when I should have been on honeymoon), and the Kubatana work which involved a three week spell in Zimbabwe (no honeymoon) – the rest has been largely co-ordinated from my corner at Stanford University, the comfort of my temporary VW Camper-based Global HQ, or the Cambridgeshire village where I live.

Nothing can replace experience in the field, of course, but at least working on such a broad and fascinating range of projects helps keep kiwanja’s work – and that of others – connected and relevant. Which is also just how it should be.

Future FrontlineSMS

Today has turned out to be rather significant for FrontlineSMS. Two months and two days since we released the new version we’ve hit our 500th download request. Although I didn’t set any targets back on launch day, by all accounts we’ve done incredibly well and FrontlineSMS is now likely the most widely adopted non-profit text messaging platform around.

Of course, many of those 500 users will probably never do anything significant with it, but at least they’re thinking about how they can apply mobiles in their work, and at least there’s a tool they can turn to as they begin to explore their mobile world. And for those who are beginning to use it, we’re slowly building a powerful picture of how it’s being adopted in the field. Here’s some feedback from just a few of our new users.

Mercy Corps, Indonesia – agriculture: We have been using FrontlineSMS for about a month sending weekly information on commodities such as plant, fish, fertiliser and pesticide prices, and weather forecasts (pictured). In the longer term we plan to send SMS-advertisements as well. Right now we have around 350 subscribers consisting of internal staff, farmers, buyers, government staff and other organisations

FrontlineSMS is also central to a UNDP pilot project where it is being used to provide coffee prices and other related agricultural information to 150 smallholder farmers. This project was previously covered here.

Open University project, UK – election monitoring: We are working in Mozambique where we are setting up coverage for local elections in 43 municipalities on 19th November. We publish the Mozambique Political Process Bulletin and during election periods we do a daily newsletter. We will be running FrontlineSMS with four lines – two for each of the two mobile phone companies. One line will be our fifty correspondents in the field – largely local radio and local newspaper journalists who will also string for us. We did this in the 2003 and 2004 elections and the only change is to use text messages that can go directly into the computer for basic information. The other line will be open and we are experimenting, for the first time in Mozambique, with an open request for citizen correspondents to send us text messages on the conduct of the election

FrontlineSMS first hit the headlines last April when it was used to monitor the Nigerian Presidential elections. This story was picked up by the BBC, among many others. The software has also been used to co-ordinate election monitoring in The Philippines, and is being lined up to help monitor the forthcoming elections in Ghana, Guinea and Cote D’Ivoire.

mPedigree, Ghana – health: We intend to use FrontlineSMS for the “rapid prototyping” of creative mobile health services related to drug authentication, and to help us with our surveying and administration on the prevalence of fake drugs. Based on the work we’ve been doing here in Ghana since 2007, we’re convinced there is room for FrontlineSMS in various e-government initiatives, health included

One of the early higher-profile projects making use of the latest version of FrontlineSMS is “Mobiles in Malawi“, where it has been implemented as the central communications hub for 600 community health workers in a rural hospital. Plans are already underway to replicate this work in places such as Kenya and India. The work in Malawi was covered here back in June.

National Democratic Institute, USA – election monitoring: Thanks for all your (collective) work in bringing such a quality product to market. As you may know, NDI has done a lot of work using SMS to collect and broadcast data via SMS in a number of elections around the world over the past two years. The latest version of FrontlineSMS is quite impressive, and much more accessible for non-technical users starting off in the SMS world. Although it can’t replace the custom coding we do through other methods, it’s a GREAT tool for international development partners who don’t have a lot of technical expertise but who want to stick their toe into the world of SMS. FrontlineSMS is now on our radar and something that we will always keep in mind when giving recommendations to partners

Anonymous media organisation, Iraq – news dissemination: We had been in contact with a number of local mobile operators hoping to negotiate the launching of a news alert service. While progress with local operators was relatively slow we started to look for a technical alternative and that was when we found out about FrontlineSMS. The team came to realise, during FrontlineSMS testing and evaluation, that the program was a fantastic way to deliver our content. A user-friendly program, three of our staff were trained to use it within the context of few hours. The effectiveness of FrontlineSMS is evident as we can create, manage and update the profiles of the clients’ groups we created. We now send messages to at least eight countries using different operators in Europe and the Middle East, with the messages delivered to all the numbers at the same time. We are keen to continue using FrontlineSMS as we predict that the demand for our services, via the software, will grow in the future

A significant number of rural radio stations have requested the latest version of FrontlineSMS as a method of sourcing audience-feedback, and we’ll bring further information as we get it. Use of the software continues in Zimbabwe, however, where it is being used to keep members of the public updated on news and current affairs, and to provide them with a channel to air their views.

Watch this space for further stories and case studies, particularly as our outreach efforts expand and we prepare for nine conferences in three months, not to mention an exciting engagement with the Clinton Global Initiative in late September.