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Posts from — November 2008

Pocket messaging?

During the recent Pop!Tech Social Innovation Fellows boot camp in Camden, Maine, I had the pleasure of sharing a cabin with Erik Hersman of White African, AfriGadget and Ushahidi fame. Despite knowing Erik for a couple of years or so, it was the first time we’d managed to sit down over a prolonged period and chat Africa, mobiles, innovation and technology. It was great and, as it turned out, productive.

Most evenings founds us blogging, Tweeting (@whiteafrican and @kiwanja), practicing our 5-minute Pop!Tech pitches, sharing stories and bouncing random ideas around. So it came as no surprise when we stumbled on a pretty cool idea for a hybrid piece of hardware (at least we think it’s a pretty cool idea). If it existed, we thought, this thing could unlock the potential of platforms such as Ushahidi and FrontlineSMS yet further, and prove a real breakthrough in our efforts to lower the barrier to entry for organisations seeking to use SMS-based services in their social change work.

Messaging hubs like FrontlineSMS – currently being used by Ushahidi in the DRC to collect and forward local text messages to a remote server – require three things to work. Firstly, a computer with the software installed and configured; secondly, a local SIM card connected to a local mobile operator; and thirdly, a GSM modem or mobile phone to send and receive the messages. The GSM device is essential, as is the SIM card, but the computer is another matter. What if messaging software such as FrontlineSMS could be run ‘locally’ from a microSD card which slotted into the side of the modem? The software, drivers, configuration files and databases could all be held locally on the same device, and seamlessly connect with the GSM network through the ‘built-in’ modem. This would mean the user wouldn’t need to own a computer to use it, and it would allow them to temporarily turn any machine into a messaging hub by plugging the hybrid device into any computer – running Windows, Mac OSX or Linux – in an internet cafe or elsewhere.

Right now this is only an idea, although we’re going to see what we can do with it early next month when Erik and I, along with most of the Ushahidi team, happen to be in Nairobi, Kenya. Using Erik’s extensive contacts in the Kenyan innovation space, we’ll be looking to see if a prototype device like this can be cobbled together in a workshop somewhere. I’m willing to sacrifice a GSM modem in the name of progress.

If the guys can pull it off then there’s a real chance we could get funding for wider trials. Things would then get really interesting not only for our own projects, but also for many others working in the same social mobile space, making rapid prototyping and the dissemination of tools much quicker and easier.

November 26, 2008   2 Comments

NEWS: Hewlett Foundation announces major kiwanja.net funding

The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation have today announced a major grant in support of kiwanja’s ongoing activities. The grant, worth a total of $400,000 over two years, will see the ongoing support and development of FrontlineSMS, the creation of an MMS (multimedia messaging) version of the platform, FrontlineSMS outreach, the creation of a non-profit online text messaging aggregator, and the scaling of the nGOmobile competition

The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation makes grants to address the most serious social and environmental problems facing society, where risk capital, responsibly invested, may make a difference over time. The Foundation places a high value on sustaining and improving institutions that make positive contributions to society

The grant also represents the official launch of The kiwanja Foundation, a US non-profit organisation founded last year with the support of Perkins Coie. The kiwanja Foundation will act as a wider fundraising mechanism for kiwanja’s work and, in the future, aims to become a source of seed funding for innovative “social mobile” projects

The Hewlett grant announced today follows previous grants from the MacArthur Foundation and the Open Society Institute. You can follow all the latest project news and updates via Twitter and/or the FrontlineSMS Supporters Group (on Facebook)

November 19, 2008   2 Comments

NEWS: Index of PC World articles available

A compilation of all kiwanja’s PC World guest articles is now available via a new section on the kiwanja.net website. Visit the PC World Articles page for further details

For all other news, remember to visit the News page

November 18, 2008   No Comments

Mobile applications development: Observations

Technology and democracy: both great in theory, a little harder in practice. One of the key challenges is that one successful model doesn’t – by default – work somewhere else. For mobile techies, if we can’t easily ‘transplant’ a solution from one place to another, where does our “figure out what works” mantra leave us? What relevance does it have? Have we ever managed to “figure out what works” and make it work somewhere else, geographically? Is it even possible, or is it just a good industry sound bite?

Progress in the social mobile field will come only when we think more about best practices in the thinking and design of mobile projects and applications, rather than obsessing over the end products themselves. By then most of the damage has usually already been done. In my experience, many social mobile projects fail in the early stages. Lack of basic reality-checking and a tendency to make major assumptions are lead culprits, yet they are relatively easy to avoid. I would argue that successful mobile projects – those aimed at developing countries in particular – have a better chance of succeeding if some or all of the following are considered from the outset.

Women queue for water in Bushbuckridge, South Africa (photo Ken Banks, kiwanja.net)

Firstly, think carefully if you’re about to build a solution to a problem you don’t fully understand.

Check to see if any similar tools to the one you want to build already exist and, if they do, consider partnering up. Despite the rhetoric, all too often people end up reinventing the wheel.

Be flexible enough in your approach to allow for changing circumstances, ideas and feedback. Don’t set out with too many fixed parameters if you can help it.

From the outset, try to build something that’s easy enough to use without the need for user training or a complex manual, and something which new users can easily and effortlessly replicate once news of your application begins to spread.

Think about rapid prototyping. Don’t spend too much time waiting to build the perfect solution, but instead get something out there quickly and let reality shape it. This is crucial if the application is to be relevant.

Never let a lack of money stop you. If considerable amounts of funding are required to even get a prototype together, then that’s telling you something – your solution is probably overly complex.

Learn to do what you can’t afford to pay other people to do. The more design, coding, building, testing and outreach you can do yourself, the better. Stay lean. These tasks can be outsourced later if your solution gains traction and attracts funding. The more you achieve with few resources the more commitment and initiative is shown, increasing the chances a donor will be attracted to what you’re doing.

Don’t be too controlling over the solution. Build an application which is flexible enough to allow users, whoever and wherever they may be, to plant their own personalities on it. No two rural hospitals work the same way, so don’t build an application as if they did.

Think about building platforms and tools which contribute to the solution for the users, rather than one which seeks to solve and fix everything for them. Let them be part of it. Think about how your imported solution looks to a local user. Are they a passive recipient of it, or can they take it and turn it into their solution? A sense of local ownership is crucial for success and sustainability.

Ensure that the application can work on the most readily and widely available hardware and network infrastructure. Text messaging solutions aren’t big in the social mobile space for nothing. And, for the time being, try to avoid building applications which require any kind of internet access, unless you want to restrict your target audience from the outset.

Every third party the user needs to speak to in order to implement your solution increases the chances of failure by a considerable margin, particularly if one of those parties is a local mobile operator.

Be realistic about what your application can achieve, and wherever possible look for low-hanging fruit. Remember – big is not better, small is beautiful, and focus is king. A solid application which solves one element of a wider problem well is better than an average application which tries to solve everything.

Bear in mind that social mobile solutions need to be affordable, ideally free. Business models, if any, should be built around the use of the application, not the application itself. Easier said than done, so try to engage business studies graduates at universities, many of whom are always looking for cool social-change projects to work on.

Leverage what local NGOs (or users) are best at, and what they already have – local knowledge, local context, local language and local trust among local communities. Remember that it’s unlikely you will ever understand the problem as much as they do, and that it’s always going to be easier to equip them with tools to do the job than it will ever be for you to learn everything they know.

Don’t waste time or energy thinking too much about the open sourcing process (if you decide to go that route) until you know you have something worth open sourcing. (And, by the way, the users will be the ones to let you know that).

Don’t build an application for an environment where it may politically (or otherwise) never be adopted. For example, a nationwide mobile election monitoring system would need government buy-in to be implemented. Governments which commit election fraud to stay in power are unlikely to adopt a technology which gives the game away.

Consider controlling distribution and use of your application at the beginning. Not only is it a good idea to be able to contact users for feedback, donors will almost always want to know where it is being used, by who and for what. Neglect to collect this data at your peril.

Promote your solution like crazy. Reach out to people working in the same technology circles as you, post messages on relevant blogs, blog about it yourself, build a project website, try and brand your solution, and make use of social networking tools such as Twitter and Facebook. Although your target users may not be present, many are likely to be fairly resourceful, and the more people talking about your solution the more likely news is to filter down to them.

Finally, build a community around the application, encourage users to join and share experiences, and to help each other. Don’t be afraid to reach out for additional information, and work hard to keep it active, engaging and growing. Communities are notoriously hard to build, but when they work they’re worth it.

This blog post is also available as a PDF.

Note: I followed up on this post with an article for PC World – “Social Mobile Applications: The Missing Book“. (An index of all kiwanja PC World articles is available here)

November 18, 2008   32 Comments

Fireside chat

If I was ever asked to give a short, informal introductory fireside talk about FrontlineSMS, it would probably go something like this…

FrontlineSMS was originally released at the end of 2005 based on a hunch that there was a need within the grassroots non-profit community for a simple, easy-to-use replicable text messaging tool which didn’t require the internet or expensive infrastructure or equipment to use. The idea came during fieldwork in South Africa, where I was looking for something that South Africa National Parks could use to re-engage the local communities within the conservation effort through their mobile phones. I couldn’t find anything.

Several months later the idea of a mobile-based messaging hub came to me, and I decided it might be worth trying to write something. Over a five week period I sat at a kitchen table in Finland developing a prototype FrontlineSMS (during development it was known as “Project SMS” until good friend Simon Hicks came up with the newer, better name). Clearly the hunch has paid off. FrontlineSMS is today in the hands of well over a thousand non-profit organisations, and increasing numbers are beginning to do some quite incredible things with it. (A nice little history of FrontlineSMS was published in the Stanford Journal of African Studies recently).

Bushbuckridge - the inspiration behind FrontlineSMS

Despite a warm reception to the launch from bloggers, reporters and activists, it wasn’t until April 2007 that the software really came to prominence when it was used by local NGOs to help monitor the Nigerian Presidential elections, the first time (it is believed) that civilians have helped monitor an African election. The story was widely reported, most notably on the BBC. Late last year news of its use in Pakistan during the state of emergency was reported in the Economist (bloggers were afraid to use the internet to report news and information, so turned to text messaging. FrontlineSMS enabled them to be anonymous). FrontlineSMS has since been featured a number of times on the BBC World Service, and more recently on PRI’s “The World” when it was used by activist groups to help spread news and information during the recent troubled Presidential elections in Zimbabwe.

Last spring and summer, with increasing numbers of people taking an interest in the software, the MacArthur Foundation stepped in to fund the development of a rebuild (at this stage FrontlineSMS was still technically proof-of-concept). The nine-month project created a new and improved version – one which now also runs on Windows, Mac and Linux machines. Main development work was carried out by an incredible team at Masabi in London. In parallel, Wieden+Kennedy carried out a full branding, communications and website-building exercise. Thanks to them there are now hundreds of former conference goers around the world in possession of much sought-after FrontlineSMS badges… \o/

When I think about the growing number of users and uses, and the kinds of projects that FrontlineSMS has enabled – not to mention the enthusiasm many NGOs have shown for what the tool has done for them – a quote in the Africa Journal from last year rings incredibly true:

“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”

The use studies are beginning to back this up. Since the new version was released at the end of June 2008, 932 NGOs have downloaded it. News of its availability has primarily been spread through news sites and blogs, driven in large part by incredible support from the NGO community, volunteers, bloggers, Twitterers, ICT4D professionals, professional and amateur reporters, and donors. A single person may have originally come up with the concept, but it’s been a huge team effort to move it on to where it is today.

If there was ever a paragraph that summed up the kind of impact FrontlineSMS is having, then this would be it. Take a deep breath…

In Aceh, UNDP and Mercy Corps are using FrontlineSMS to send market prices and other agricultural data to smallholder rural coffee farmers. In Iraq it is being used by the country’s first independent news agency – Aswat al Iraq – to disseminate news to eight countries, and in Afghanistan it is helping keep NGO fieldworkers safe through the distribution of security alerts. In Zimbabwe the software has been used extensively by a number of human rights organisations – including Kubatana.net – and in Nigeria and the Philippines it helped monitor national elections (it’s also being lined up to help register 135,000 overseas Filipino workers ready for their 2010 elections). In Malawi, FrontlineSMS is generating a huge amount of interest in the m-health sector where a project started by Josh Nesbit – a Stanford University student – is helping run a rural healthcare network for 250,000 people. It was used by bloggers in Pakistan during the recent state of emergency to get news safely out of the country, and in the October 2008 Azerbaijani elections it helped mobilise the youth vote. FrontlineSMS is being used in Kenya to report breakages in fences caused by elephants, and is now running the Overseas Filipino Workers (OFW-SOS) emergency help line, allowing workers to receive immediate assistance in case of personal emergency. Just this month it was deployed in the DRC as part of the Ushahidi platform to collect violence reports via SMS. It’s also being used by Grameen Technology Centre in Uganda to communicate with the Village Phone network, and has been integrated into the work of a major human rights organisations in the Philippines. Projects are lined up in Cambodia and El Salvador (where it will be used to help create transparency in agricultural markets) and a network of journalists will be implementing FrontlineSMS to help report and monitor forthcoming elections in Ghana, Guinea and the Ivory Coast.

FrontlineSMS clearly has considerable potential if this smallest of snapshots is anything to go by. I’ve always believed that if we’re able to build an NGO user community around a single, common, appropriate mobile solution then amazing things could happen. If what we’re beginning to see now isn’t exciting enough, just remember that this is only the start. When we all work together, anything and everything is possible.

November 14, 2008   No Comments

NEWS: FrontlineSMS updates now available via Twitter

Updates on FrontlineSMS – latest funding news, blog posts, news items, guest articles and case studies – are now available via Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/frontlinesms. If you’re also on Facebook you can also join the FrontlineSMS Supporters Group

November 9, 2008   No Comments

Mobiles reach out to Azerbaijan’s youth

Razi Nurullayev is Co-Chairman of the Society of Democratic Reform in Azerbaijan, and Executive Secretary of the Civil Society Coalition of Azerbaijani NGOs. In this guest post, he talks about the state of democracy and mobile technology adoption in Azerbaijan, and how FrontlineSMS is contributing to the work of non-profit organisations in the country

Mobile technology adoption in Azerbaijan is on the rise. Out of a population of approximately nine million people there are today well over four million mobile phones, making text messaging one of the fastest growing communications mediums available. While many internet users have email accounts, most are only checked once or twice a week. SMS is proving more direct and immediate, and as a result many civil society organizations have started using it to reach their potential members, clients, and target audiences.


The Civil Society Coalition of Azerbaijani NGOs first heard of FrontlineSMS last year through the CIVICUS e-newsletter. We later began using it to reach our own members through news alerts, meeting requests and awareness-raising around human rights violations. FrontlineSMS has brought a real change to the way the Coalition sees and uses mobile tools, something we previously considered beyond us.

Prior to our adoption of FrontlineSMS we were communicating through mass email. Unfortunately this channel rarely reached more than half of our members due to either lack of email accounts among our members, or the late checking of messages. Now we don’t have to worry about email inefficiency, and can send out hundreds of text messages to members at once.

After quickly realising the wider potential for text messaging in our work, we decided to enter kiwanja’s nGOmobile competition last December with plans for a new “Count to 5!” campaign. As one of four winners we received a laptop computer, US$1,000 in cash, a Falcom USB modem and two Nokia mobile phones. The equipment was used to raise awareness and levels of activism among young voters in advance of our October 2008 Presidential Elections. Digital Development approached the US Embassy in Azerbaijan and received financial support to run the campaign. According to Mrs. Konul Agayeva, our Executive Director:

The Embassy were very interested in “Count to 5!”, and the ability of FrontlineSMS to reach potential young voters in a short period of time. This method of voter activism was something of a “technological revolution” in our country and has proved itself highly effective in this and our wider civil society and democracy work. Imagine, you sit at your desk with a cup of tea and control your project, and at the same time receive great feedback to what you’re doing, and see considerable impact. I highly recommend that this software be adopted by NGOs around the world

FrontlineSMS is now well-established in our work, and more and more NGOs in the country are beginning to pay attention to our mobile activism campaigns. Keep an eye on the Digital Development website for further details on what we’re up to!

About Azerbaijan
Azerbaijan – officially the Republic of Azerbaijan – is a country in the Caucasus region. Located at the crossroads of Eastern Europe and Southwest Asia, it is bounded by the Caspian Sea to the east, Russia to the north, Georgia to the northwest, Armenia to the west, and Iran to the south. The Nakhichevan Autonomous Republic (an exclave of Azerbaijan) borders Armenia to the north and east, Iran to the south and west, and Turkey to the northwest. The Nagorno-Karabakh region in the country’s southwest declared itself independent from Azerbaijan by the Armenian separatists in 1991, but it is not recognized by any nation. The capital city is Baku

November 8, 2008   2 Comments

NEWS: kiwanja to speak at National Endowment for Democracy

Ken Banks has been invited to speak in Washington DC at an event organised by The Centre for International Media Assistance at the National Endowment for Democracy. The half-day workshop – “The Role of Cell Phones in Carrying News and Information” – seeks to answer a range of questions including how cell phones are being used as a medium of communication for news and information, who is using them to receive information, how journalists and NGOs are integrating them into their work, and which approaches have been unsuccessful and why. The ultimate goal of the workshop is to formulate recommendations for funders, policymakers and implementers on strategies for using mobile technology in conveying news and information

November 7, 2008   No Comments

NEWS: Latest PC World article online

It’s official. Or so it seems. Already the most active handset manufacturer in the developing world, Nokia this week made an announcement that places it well and truly at the heart of the international development effort. It’s a move that mirrors the company’s “developed world” strategy — a move from out-and-out hardware supplier to one of a more inclusive services-based outfit. As if (very) successfully designing and building low-cost handsets for emerging markets wasn’t enough, Nokia will now start offering emerging-market specific data services through its low-cost phones. And we’re not talking music or games here. We’re talking agriculture and education, and that’s just for starters

kiwanja’s latest PC World column examines Nokia’s move into providing “social data” services through their low-cost mobiles in developing countries, and what this might mean to the ICT4D community

November 6, 2008   No Comments

Nokia: “Developing markets”?

Ka-Torchi poster, Uganda. Photo: Ken Banks, kiwanja.netIt’s official. Or so it seems. Already the most active handset manufacturer in the developing world, Nokia today made an announcement which places it well and truly at the heart of the international development effort. It’s a move which mirrors their ‘developed world’ strategy – a move from out-and-out hardware supplier to one of a more inclusive services-based outfit. As if (very) successfully designing and building low-cost handsets for emerging markets wasn’t enough, Nokia will now start offering emerging-market specific data services through their low-cost phones. And we’re not talking music or games here. We’re talking agriculture and education, and that’s just for starters.

According to today’s November 2008 Press Release:

“In 2002, Nokia unveiled a strategy to lower the cost of owning and operating a mobile phone and to bring the benefits of mobile telephony to people in emerging markets. Today, we are expanding that vision by introducing a number of devices and services that aim to bring the power of the Internet to these markets as well. The mobile device and the Internet are a powerful combination in connecting people with each other, accessing information, news, entertainment and sharing. By introducing products and services that are affordable, relevant and easy-to-use, we believe Nokia can fuel the growth of the Internet in emerging markets through mobility”

The announcement is interesting on a number of fronts. In addition to their move into ‘social mobile’ services – something previously the domain of the ICT4D community and a handful of innovative companies who managed to figure out working business models – Nokia also announced “Mail on Ovi” which enables Series 40 users to set up and run email accounts without the need to go anywhere near a personal computer. The mobile browsing world is also set for a shake-up with the announcement of new low-cost internet-enabled handsets, including the Nokia 2323 Classic (pictured) with a price point of just €40.

A little over a year ago, in a post called The Digital Divider, I made the point:

“The opportunity at the bottom of the pyramid is huge, and handset manufacturers and network providers alike are working hard to fill it with phones. For them, the most important issue is cost because that’s what’s most important to their customer. And if this means providing trimmed-down handsets at the lowest possible prices then so be it.

This current reality sees many of these phones with no GPRS, no browser, no Java, no camera, no colour screen – the very technologies which form the lynchpin of our plans to promote the mobile phone as the tool to help close the digital divide”

The emergence of feature-rich sub-$50 handsets isn’t necessarily a game changer on its own, but it’s a significant step in the right direction. Cheap as it may be, even the Nokia 2323 Classic is still around $25 off target from a comfortable price-point for many BOP customers, assuming they’re among the target audience. The shared phone culture in many developing markets could of course come to the rescue, allowing a single web-enabled phone to open up web access for many people, assuming shared phone functionality (private bookmarks, cookies, browsing history, and so on) is made available. It’s not clear whether this has been.

It’s the addition of Nokia Life Tools – agricultural and educational services – which raises eyebrows almost as much as it raises the bar. How will Nokia’s move into providing agricultural data and advice to farmers effect, for example, the operations of Trade At Hand, DrumNet, Manobi or TradeNet? Will they be partners in any Africa-wide venture? (Nokia do seem to be developing a habit of going-it-alone – more recently with their release of Nokia Data Gathering – rather than working with established, existing open source tools). For now, Nokia Life Tools will only be available in India, giving everyone – including Nokia – plenty of time to see how this thing plays out:

“Nokia Life Tools is a range of innovative agriculture information and education services designed especially for rural and small town communities in emerging markets. Nokia Life Tools helps overcome information constraints and provides farmers and students with timely and relevant information. These services use an icon-based, graphically rich user interface that comes complete with tables and which can even display information simultaneously in two languages. Behind this rich interface, SMS is used to deliver the critical information to ensure that this service works wherever a mobile phone does, without the hassles of additional settings or the need for GPRS coverage. Nokia plans to launch the service in the first half of 2009 with the Nokia 2323 classic and the Nokia 2330 classic as the lead devices in India, and expand it across select countries in Asia and Africa later in 2009″

So, what next? Nokia develop a mobile payments platform and embed the client into all of their emerging market handsets? Imagine, a single company controlling the entire mobile technology value chain would make interesting viewing. It could well be the answer to the age old fragmentation problems suffered by the “social mobile” and ICT4D space, but would this give the Finnish giant Google-esque powers?

These are interesting times. And for once, it’s the users at the bottom of the pyramid who stand to gain the most.

November 4, 2008   No Comments