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Posts from — October 2008

Students to debut FrontlineSMS on Android?

CS210 is a project-based Computer Science Innovation & Development course at Stanford University where students work with faculty and staff to build on the spirit of innovation and excellence at Stanford and the larger Silicon Valley area. As part of the course this year, Karina Qian and David Gobaud are working with the Computer Science Department and the Haas Center for Public Service to create Masters and Senior project classes. Here, Karina talks about one project which hopes to create a Google Android version of kiwanja’s FrontlineSMS system

Students in CS210 usually collaborate with corporate liaisons on software challenges presented by global corporations that require innovation. Teams take projects from concept to completion, which includes defining requirements, iterating through ideas and prototypes and, ultimately, producing a finished work product. To reflect the growing importance of collaboration with the NGO sector, David Gobaud and I are working on allowing students to collaborate with non-profits on software challenges that require innovation, and would expose a new generation of programmers to the possibilities available in applying technology to social problems.

In CS210, a team of 3+ creative, bright Stanford Master’s level Computer Science (CS) students tackle one project over two quarters – for a total of six months – starting in January. The final product will be showcased at the Stanford Software Faire held in June.

Right now a group of students are interested in a project that would build a comprehensive all-mobile mass text-messaging program on Android. (For those of you interested in the technical detail, students would essentially impose a REST architecture on top of SMS, basically using SMS as a form of HTTP. Each SMS message would represent a 160 character mini-webpage that would serve as an information architecture for any kind of project, from election-monitoring to rapid disaster relief).

As a first step the project would involve porting FrontlineSMS and other, existing mass text-messaging platforms (like InSTEDD’s GeoChat) onto Android. The program would then be expanded to create a larger suite of features that would also allow users to process, manage, and respond to data using different software and display data using varying web-based interfaces. It would be open source, allowing users to adapt the program by mashing in other applications as needed.

This project would create a cheaper, more flexible, and more adaptable platform for managing SMS by virtually eliminating the need for computers, and even Internet, in the field. Large chunks of crowd-sourced data can be aggregated in a server in the urban areas, and uploaded onto the web for dissemination and/or further parsing. Crucially, users will no longer need computers to set up a mass SMS platform, only an Android-enabled phone and a phone plan with (unlimited) text messages. The decreased cost of operating SMS-based networks would have a significant impact on non-profit mobile projects.

The class is a great opportunity for a team of 3+ software engineers to devote themselves to the completion of this project for twenty weeks. Students would work in consultation with InSTEDD and FrontlineSMS. However, despite being a non-profit project, the class is primarily directed toward industry and this requires an unrestricted donation of $75,000. We are actively seeking funding to cover this. Thank you.

Karina Qian is co-founder of techY, a Stanford on-campus initiative which aims to engage students in global NGO technology issues

If you, or anyone you know, is interested in helping fund this innovative and exciting project, please contact Ken Banks through the kiwanja.net website. (FrontlineSMS has already been integrated into a human rights monitoring system in the Philippines – blog post pending – and work continues on its integration into the new Ushahidi crowdsourcing platform. Further work is pending on a number of other projects, including with the team at InSTEDD)

October 29, 2008   2 Comments


You can always tell you’ve been to something quite special when the bar rises not only off the scale but out of site. “Amazing. Inspiring. Community. Friends. Special. Overwhelming. Over-fed. Unstoppable”. Just some of the words used by delegates in the closing session on Saturday to describe their Pop!Tech08 experience. Mine would have been “Spiritual”. And yes, with a capital ‘S’.

This was my first Pop!Tech. Two years ago I had never even heard of it, but by last year I had. I wanted to go then, but it was never going to happen. Twelve months can be a long time in mobile, and this was to be my year. It would have been more than enough to have just sat back in Camden Opera House and soak up the amazing atmosphere, like the majority off the 700-odd people fortunate enough to be there. But going as an inaugural Pop!Tech Social Innovation Fellow made it all the more special. The many people I had the pleasure to spend four days with at the Fellows boot camp made sure of that. Finally getting to spend some quality time with Erik Hersman was one of the highlights, as was our late evening spent in a cabin in the woods with Ethan Zuckerman, beer in hand, while the three of us discussed the intricacies of baseball. Such a shame these moments are so rare, but it’s the rarity that makes them so special, I suppose.

kiwanja presenting FrontlineSMS at Pop!Tech08 - Photo courtesy Leapologist (Flickr)

Traditionally, conferences are all about turning up and hearing what you hope to be interesting people talk. Sometimes you get lucky. Here, it didn’t matter, although the speaker line-up was stunning. Pop!Tech felt different because it wasn’t just about speaking, about presenter and presented, but more about dialogue. Everyone there was interested and interesting in their own right. The three days felt like a hyperactive family re-union of massive proportions. People were physically and mentally overwhelmed by it. Pop!Tech is intellectual renewable energy in its purest form. The Camden Opera House was well and truly lit up with it.

Spirituality is a word rarely mentioned in the technology world, although a lot of what I see in the people who work in our little corner of it is spiritual in nature, whether they realise it or not. Hearing about individuals inspired and driven to action by key events – the loss of close friends, suffering or hardship witnessed at first hand, injustice – are strong testament to the strength and presence of that human spirit.

There were many emotional connections at Pop!Tech, many emotional moments, many off-stage but some on. When Zinny Thabethe and Andrew Zolli embraced at the end of a stirring session about the HIV/AIDS crisis in South Africa, their arms reached out and embraced us all. It’s these moments that leave me struggling for a word other than ‘conference’. Conferences just don’t do that.

Industry events now have a lot to live up to, although it would be unfair to judge them against Pop!Tech’s incredibly high standards and rather unique positioning. But, if I can’t help myself, there’s always Pop!Tech09, I guess… o/

October 28, 2008   No Comments

SMS-powered rural healthcare in-a-box

A few months ago Josh Nesbit, a Senior in the Human Biology Program at Stanford University, travelled to east Africa where he spent the best part of his summer introducing FrontlineSMS into a rural hospital in Malawi.

St. Gabriel’s Hospital, where Josh worked, is located in Namitete. It serves 250,000 rural Malawians spread throughout a catchment area one hundred miles in radius. With a national HIV prevalence rate of 15-20%, children orphaned by AIDS will represent as much as one tenth of the country’s population by 2010. With tuberculosis (TB), malaria, malnutrition and pneumonia ravaging immuno-compromised populations, the health system – including St. Gabriel’s Hospital – faces a disquieting burden. Malawi’s health challenges are compounded by its devastatingly low GDP per capita, by some measures the lowest in the world, and with just two doctors and a handful of clinical officers, St. Gabriel’s Hospital is also strikingly understaffed.

With woefully inadequate communications exacerbating the problem, Josh – with the help of the Haas Center for Public Service at Stanford University and the Donald A. Strauss Foundation – implemented kiwanja‘s FrontlineSMS software to connect the hospital with its community health workers (CHW). Now, drug adherence monitors are able to message the hospital, reporting how local patients are doing on their TB or HIV drug regimens. Home-Based Care volunteers are sent texts with names of patients that need to be traced, and their condition is reported. The “People Living with HIV and AIDS” (PLWHA) Support Group leaders can use FrontlineSMS to communicate meeting times. Volunteers can be messaged before the hospital’s mobile testing and immunization teams arrive in their village, so they can mobilize the community. According to Josh, FrontlineSMS has essentially adopted the new role of coordinating a far-reaching community health network.

The hospital sees intense promise in the formidable duo of FrontlineSMS and the cell-phone-yielding health worker. The usefulness of a well-managed communications network is undeniable, particularly when the information is so vital. In the first hours of the pilot program, a deceased patient’s extra ARVs were secured, the Home-Based Care unit was alerted of ailing cancer patients, and a death was reported (saving the hospital a day-long motorbike trip to administer additional morphine).

Since returning to Stanford, Josh has continued his work, speaking at a number of conferences and workshops and producing a user manual – “Building an SMS Network into a Rural Healthcare System” (available here as a PDF, 7Mb). According to Josh, the guide “provides an inexpensive way to create an SMS communications network to enable healthcare field workers as they serve communities and their patients”.

Not only has FrontlineSMS enabled a significant improvement in healthcare delivery for St. Gabriel’s, the project is infinitely scalable and replicable. Coming in at just $2000, Josh has clearly demonstrated what is possible with just three basic ingredients – a single laptop, one hundred recycled mobile phones, and local ownership and engagement. Now, with his step-by-step user guide and the minimum of investment in time and money, rural hospitals the developing world over can easily implement their own SMS communications network.

October 22, 2008   1 Comment

Social mobile: Doing what it says on the tin

About a year ago I was asked to give an interview to the Africa Journal. They were looking at ICT innovators and entrepreneurs in Africa and I agreed, despite being mildly uncomfortable being labelled an ICT innovator or an entrepreneur (and an African one, at that). At the end of the interview, however, they captured a brief moment which beautifully encapsulated what FrontlineSMS is all about. The interview ended:

FrontlineSMS provides the tools necessary for people to create their own projects that make a difference. It empowers innovators and organizers in the developing world to achieve their full potential through their own ingenuity

FrontlineSMS has always been about empowerment. It’s never been about telling people how to use mobile phones to monitor elections, to increase market transparency, or help raise awareness around HIV/AIDS issues, even though it’s been used for these things and many more. At the end of the day, it’s a tool which allows organisations to figure out how to do these things for themselves. Combine that with a connected community and you have the makings of something quite powerful.

The decision to build a platform – and not a specific solution to a specific problem – has turned out to be one of the key strengths of the software. The new functionality we’ve added to the latest version takes this one step further allowing, for example, St. Gabriel’s hospital in Malawi to figure out how to do automatic remote top-ups of their health workers’ phones, or CP-Union in the Philippines to share incoming SMS data – human rights reporting in this case – with their own K-Rights Monitoring software. When users start adding contacts, keywords and actions in FrontlineSMS, or integrating it into existing systems, they’re essentially creating something new, something from scratch, a communications environment all of their own making.

In ideal circumstances platforms become something of a blank canvas, and the brushstrokes the user-generated ‘content’ (actionable ideas, in this case). Not only does this encourage a culture of do-it-yourself thinking, it also creates instant engagement and ownership. Combine these with the local knowledge and level of engagement many NGOs already have with their stakeholders, and you’re half-way to a positive outcome. Approaches which allow initiatives to grow from the ground up, focussing on technology as the enabler (not the owner) generally have the greatest chance of success. The uses of FrontlineSMS, for example, are bewildering, and they’re growing all the time. Few, if any, were anticipated. Lower the barriers to entry and all sorts of things can happen, it seems.

Local ownership, the use of appropriate technology, ease-of-use, high replicability and accessibility, and a low barrier to entry should be among the key ingredients of any grassroots-focussed social mobile tool. If we’re to make real, tangible progress then the tools we create don’t only need to set out to empower, they need to empower. In other words, they need to do exactly what they say on the tin.

October 19, 2008   No Comments

NEWS: Latest PC World article online

“ICTs are regularly touted as holding great potential to enhance the work of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) working for positive social and environmental change around the world. With many NGOs working in difficult and challenging conditions, any technology that enables improved communication is sure to be welcomed. However, while the development community has traditionally been quick to grasp emerging technologies – mobiles in particular – the same cannot be said for their conservation counterparts”

kiwanja‘s latest PC World article – “Mobile IT Helps Conservationists Get The Message” – discusses some of the applications of mobile technology in the global conservation effort

October 8, 2008   No Comments

Cambodian farmers turn to their phones

At the University of Canberra, Senior Research Fellow Dr Robert Fitzgerald has been evaluating FrontlineSMS as a replacement for a commercial application previously implemented in their Cambodia Crop Production and Marketing Project (CCPMP). Since 2006, Robert and his team have been developing an SMS-based market information service for maize and soybean farmers and traders in western Cambodia.

CCPMP research had already highlighted poor communications between the different levels of the supply chain as a major challenge to the agriculture sector in the region. According to Robert, “We explored various options for the development of an improved marketing communication system and proposed to local stakeholders the development of an Electronic Marketing Communication System (EMCS) based on the use of SMS technology. We undertook a pilot project in which daily grain market information was collected by the Ministry of Commerce and entered into a database that was accessible by mobile phone in Cambodia using SMS”.

The pilot project proved highly successful and its impact stimulated further work in a follow-up project funded by the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR). It was at this point that Robert and his team began to explore alternative messaging systems.

“One of the most encouraging aspects of our early work was the excitement generated amongst farmers, traders, ministry officials, silo owners and potential development partners. The SMS concept was very appealing but we faced a real challenge – we wanted to use this excitement to move from a trial project to a fully fledged operating model but we needed a software application that would ensure the long term sustainability of community-based communication systems. Because the project is working with two NGOs based in western Cambodia, it was imperative that we implemented a cost-effective solution that could be managed by local staff. As it turned out, FrontlineSMS had it all. Not only is it open source but it is simple to install and maintain, and has more functionality than our previous software, all combined with a much better user-friendly interface”.

Since launch of the latest version earlier this June, Dr. Fitzgerald has been testing FrontlineSMS at the University of Canberra along with a Cambodian Phd student, Nou Keosothea, who will be working with him to conduct in-country trials over the next few weeks.

Our plan is to install two FrontlineSMS systems in the Pailin and Samlaut regions of western Cambodia. Once these are installed we will conduct a series of stakeholder workshops to better understand the communication aspects of the maize and soybean production and marketing supply chain. Price, weather updates, handy hints will all figure on these systems in addition to standard SMS-based communications

Watch this space for further updates as the project moves forward, and details of a number of other agriculture-based FrontlineSMS implementations being planned by NGOs around the world.

October 8, 2008   11 Comments

NEWS: kiwanja.net joins the ICT4D Collective

Professor Tim Unwin from the ICT4D Collective has appointed kiwanja’s Ken Banks its latest member. The Collective, based at Royal Holloway at the University of London, is a group of people committed to undertaking the highest possible quality of research in the field of ICT4D, and making the results of this available freely to the global community. They do this primarily in the interests of poor people and marginalised communities. In 2007, the Collective was awarded the Status of a UNESCO Chair in ICT4D

As well as research, the Collective undertakes teaching at undergraduate and postgraduate levels, and contributes to the delivery of focused short courses on all aspects of ICT4D. Members of the Collective also provide consultancy services in the field of ICT4D

October 7, 2008   No Comments

Empowerment: It’s the users, stupid!

Empowerment (em-pou-er-ment)
The process of transferring decision-making power from influential sectors to poor communities and individuals who have traditionally been excluded

It’s been an interesting last few days. I’ve just finished giving talks at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), and the ICT4D Group at Royal Holloway. Both may be ‘London-based’ universities, but they were both totally different audiences. The SOAS crowd were more academically-focussed, whereas the ICT4D audience were more rooted in the practical application of mobile technology, not solely the theory underlying it. I think you can probably guess where I felt most at home.

Saying that, one of the more interesting questions came from someone at SOAS, where I was asked how I defined empowerment in the context of my work, who it was exactly it was being empowered, and who was claiming it. It was an interesting discussion, and something I’ve touched on in the past (see “Whose revolution is it anyway?” from the May 2008 archive). The talk reminded me of my seminar days at Sussex University, where Development Studies students were rewarded for (often severe) critical analysis of thirty-five years of international development failure. Not only were the students wary that they might be hearing about something that may actually be working, a couple of staff members joined in for good measure. There’s nothing like being challenged, that’s for sure.

To remove any doubt about who it is being empowered, and who’s claiming the empowerment, I generally put my end-user hat on. Speaking from their perspective makes it generally much harder to argue. I’ve had enough contact with a growing number of FrontlineSMS users over the past three years to know what it means to them. If FrontlineSMS had helped just one of these NGOs I’d have been happy. The truth is that it’s helping many, many more.

If the SOAS crowd were expecting a technical or theoretical answer to their question, they were about to be disappointed. I’ve always tried to remain user-focussed, and all of my FrontlineSMS blog posts are based on feedback to explain and demonstrate impact. During conference presentations I only briefly introduce the FrontlineSMS ‘platform’ (essentially a laptop, a phone, a cable and a pile of code). What most people are interested in hearing is the meaningful, practical, tangible kind-of stuff that happens when people start figuring out the kinds of things they can do with it. This is where the rubber meets the road, and this is what formed the basis of my answer.

To me, the empowered includes NGO fieldworkers in Afghanistan who receive daily security messages and alerts. During a recent Taliban attack FrontlineSMS was…

… essential for us getting the word out quickly. E-mail was down, voice was spotty but SMS still worked. We also had female staff at a school near the incident and were able to tell them to stay put till things quietened down. All my staff made it home safe today

It also includes patients and staff at St. Gabriel’s Hospital in Malawi where, in the words of the staff at St. Gabriel’s Hospital, FrontlineSMS has “adopted the new role of coordinating a far-reaching community health network serving 250,000 Malawians”. And in Aceh, two FrontlineSMS-driven projects – one run by the UNDP – is successfully helping increase income-generating opportunities for smallholder coffee farmers and their families. Many more agriculture-based projects are on the way.

In Iraq, Aswat al-Iraq news agency have implemented FrontlineSMS as an information dissemination tool within a number of locally based news organisations who were struggling to come to terms with local mobile operators. According to the agency:

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

And in Azerbaijan, another local NGO – Digital Development – are using FrontlineSMS to reach out to voters in the forthcoming Presidential elections (the software is being used to encourage youth participation in the electoral process. Not every country has a Barack Obama). According to Digital Development, “FrontlineSMS has been a game-changer for the ‘Civil Society Coalition of Azerbaijani’ NGOs and the ‘Society of Democratic Reforms in Azerbaijan’. The ability to properly manage our text messaging campaigns has added 100% value to the effectiveness of our work”. Earlier this year Digital Development pledged to sign up 80,000 voters via SMS to swing 2008 presidential elections through innovative get-out-the-vote activities, including their “Count to 5!” campaign (pictured).

Many of these users, of course – NGOs, and the communities they’re reaching out to – don’t care what underlying technology delivers a message, or the theory underpinning the application of mobile technology in a developing country context. As long as they get a message and as long as it’s useful, timely, relevant and actionable, that’s all that counts.

And, using FrontlineSMS, that’s just the kind of message increasing numbers of NGOs find themselves being able to deliver.

October 6, 2008   1 Comment

NEWS: SoCap08 panel discussion on ICTs in developing countries

kiwanja.net will be taking part in a panel discussion at Social Capital Markets 2008 in San Francisco on 14th October. SoCap08 brings together hundreds of leading social entrepreneurs and investors from around the world. Panel members include David Edelstein (Grameen Technology Centre), Ken Banks (kiwanja.net), Marnie Webb (Techsoup) and Dwight Wilson (One Roof). The discussion – “ICT in the Developing World” – will be moderated by Gary Bolles from Xigi Media, and will discuss innovative approaches and key challenges in developing and rolling out ICT solutions – including mobile applications – in developing countries

October 6, 2008   No Comments

Mobile telephony and the entrepreneur

This article – “Mobile telephony and the entrepreneur: An African perspective” – was originally written for the autumn edition of Microfinance Insights magazine. A copy of the original article is available as a PDF here

Whenever the words “Africa” and “economic development” meet – which is often – it’s usually in the context of external, foreign aid and large, multilateral development efforts. Large numbers and global donor agencies do, after all, have a habit of stealing the headlines. You’d be forgiven for thinking that little else was happening.

But you’d be wrong.

With penetration rates in excess of 30%, and handset sales among the highest in the world, Sub-Saharan Africa is witnessing a new kind of home grown, mobile-driven economic development. The numbers may not be that big – yet – but the impact on the ground is obvious and the difference it is making to people’s lives clear. Farmers are now able to access market information through their phones, increasing income in some cases by up to 40%. Casual labourers are able to advertise their services, allowing them to take on more work and avoid down-time waiting on street corners for work to come their way. Unemployed youth can get job vacancies on their phones, alerting them when work becomes available. And, for the first time, the un-banked can transfer money to relatives, or make payments for goods and services, through their phones.

Their impact is not restricted to economic empowerment, either. Mobile phones are also able to provide health information and advice, remind people when to take their medicine, and allow citizens to engage more actively in civil society by monitoring elections and helping keep governments accountable. Others can get wildlife early warnings, mitigating against livelihood- and life-threatening human-elephant conflict. It turns out that mobile phones can be useful for much more than just ordering pizza, looking up the football scores or arranging a Friday night out.

The impact, and uses of, mobile technology in the developing world is nothing short of staggering. What’s more, it has spurned the growth of a whole new informal sector, empowering local entrepreneurs and businesspeople the continent-over. With immense value placed on owning a phone, there’s no shortage of opportunities for people to make a little money on the way.

In “Mobile Telephony: Leveraging Strengths and Opportunities for Socio-Economic Transformation in Nigeria”, Christiana Charles-Iyoha sheds some light on the value Nigerians placed on their mobile phones, many describing losing them as literally a matter of life or death for their businesses. At the same time, many – not only in Nigeria but also many other parts of Sub-Saharan Africa – have been quick to exploit the numerous opportunities that this explosion in ownership brings.

Anyone who’s travelled to an African country in the past couple of years would not have failed to notice women selling airtime on the streets, children dodging cars at main junctions selling chargers and phone covers, street vendors making a living charging people’s phones, and mobile phone repair shops helping people squeeze one last drop of life from their old phones. There is also a thriving second-hand market, with stalls selling all manner of new and recycled handsets. Entrepreneurs are even building their own mobile-mobile services, strapping phones and spare batteries to the front of bikes and travelling to where the business is.

In a now much-cited 2005 study, London Business School economist Leonard Waverman concluded that an extra ten mobile phones per hundred people in a ‘typical developing country’ leads to an additional 0.59 percentage points of growth in GDP per person. From a government perspective, taxes and revenue generated from an insatiable demand for communications no doubt fuels a large part of this growth, but there’s also little doubt a significant amount also comes from a growing, and increasingly efficient informal sector. At the bottom of the pyramid (BOP), where micro-loans of just a few dollars are a proven catalyst in helping people work their own way out of poverty, we have a technology which has the clear potential to do the same.

Of course, more phones in more hands also presents opportunities for the microfinance (MFI) sector, many of whom seek to improve the lives of those same people in or around the bottom of the pyramid (BOP). Mobile technology has already been embraced by organisations such as Grameen, with their now-much duplicated Village Phone programme, but mobile phones also present organisational opportunities through improved communications with field staff, and options to electronically capture data from the field. MFI’s are already utilising text message (SMS) technology to communicate with customers, using software such as FrontlineSMS – which turns a computer and attached mobile phone into a central SMS communications hub – to run surveys and collect information. In many remote areas where keeping in touch with borrowers, or collecting financial data, is a challenge, the humble SMS is opening up a raft of new opportunities. Grameen Village Phone in Kampala, Uganda, a user of FrontlineSMS, comments:

We use it to automate communication with our village phone operator (VPO) channel. It really makes our lives easier by giving us a clear record of what’s been sent and responded to that can be reproduced and reused elsewhere. It also helps us promote a culture of SMS use for communications

As more and more people become connected, future studies of Sub-Saharan Africa and its economic potential will find it harder and harder to ignore the growing influence of mobile technology, and the power and spirit of African entrepreneurship – and grassroots NGOs – to capitalise on it. There’s little doubt that this spirit has always been there, but perhaps it’s just taken mobile technology to create an environment in which much of it can thrive.

October 1, 2008   3 Comments