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Posts from — December 2008

Why I blog about Africa

(Like White African, I don’t usually take part in blog memes. Unlike White African, it’s usually because I don’t get an invite. ;o) But that aside, I’ve recently read a number of posts by eminent African bloggers in the current “Why I Blog About Africa” series and have been inspired by what they’ve written. That @ksjhalla recently invited me to the table came as something of a surprise. Here goes my contribution)

“To be honest, I feel like something of an imposter gatecrashing a party. Unlike many of the bloggers taking part in this meme, I can lay no claim to be African, or half-African, or even remotely African. Maybe the fact that the continent has tried to take my life on more than one occasion gives me some claim to take part? Or the fact that I’ve been captivated by the geography, the cultures, the wildlife, the opportunity, the hope and above all the people I have met and befriended since my first encounter back in 1993? Having no physical connection with Africa other than that gained by long haul air travel, I’ve regularly asked myself what it is that draws me back to it so often, both in person and in writing. Answering this question without calling on well-trodden cliches is quite a challenge.


After all, it would be all too easy to overplay any ‘spiritual’ connection (as happened with the peculiar “I am African” campaign, pictured), or one drawn out of sympathy for a continent in turmoil, or a people condemned to a life of poverty and a strong Western-held view that “Africa needs to be saved”. But that’s not the Africa I know, least of all the Africa I’ve witnessed on many of my travels over the past fifteen years and, above all, not the Africa that many of my African friends see.

If I were honest, my interest and fascination in Africa came about at a time in my life when I was desperately trying to find my way. If I were to be allowed one cliche, it would be that Africa found me. Shear chance took me to Zambia in the summer of 1993, and since then I’ve allowed luck, circumstance and events on the continent to determine my direction. It is pure coincidence that almost all of the conservation and development projects I have worked on have been in Africa – Zambia, Uganda, South Africa, Mozambique, Nigeria, Cameroon and Zimbabwe among them. And I feel truly honoured to have experienced cultures, friendships and a way of life I could never have dreamed of a decade or more ago.

I blog about Africa because I see a continent blessed with cultural and natural beauty, a continent working hard to lift itself from troubled beginnings, and the rise of a new breed of African leader with a deep devotion and love for what their country, and the continent, means to them. I blog about Africa because in it I see many of the good things that the West has lost or chosen to throw away, and because I am blessed to count many hard working and devoted Africans among my friends. I also blog about Africa because that’s where I continue to be called and because, one summer back in 1993, it somehow came in search of me”.

Thanks again to Kaushal for tagging me (read his thoughts here). Continuing the theme, I tag the following:


December 30, 2008   13 Comments

Spreading the [text] message

I often get asked the advantages of FrontlineSMS over the standard ‘Group’ messaging functionality of some (notably Nokia) mobile phones, or the supplied Handset Manager software. It’s an obvious question if you just see FrontlineSMS as a simple Group messaging hub. Not until you use it, or dig a little deeper, do you realise it’s a lot more than that.

(Larger version available here)

One of the great strengths of the software are “keyword actions” – the things that can be done with an incoming text message. For example, automatic replies can be triggered (with any message of your choosing), the incoming text can be forwarded as a new SMS to a predefined Group of people (which is what Twitter used to do for the masses before they pulled the plug), the message can be forwarded to any email address or email distribution list/group, the message can be sent to an online Twitter account or update your Facebook status, or posted to a web service/site such as Ushahidi, or passed on to another application running on the local computer (or written to an external database). Any combination of these actions can be triggered, making FrontlineSMS extremely flexible.

Once the new year (and the new Hewlett Foundation funding) kicks in, we’ll be working on a range of user-requested enhancements. FrontlineSMS remains very much work in progress. Watch this space – in 2009 there’s much more to come… \o/

December 16, 2008   6 Comments

Invention. Collaboration. Integration.

The past couple of weeks have been particularly exciting for Ushahidi and FrontlineSMS. Independently they’ve been featured on the BBC and CNN websites, where their use in the DRC and Malawi respectively continues to gain traction. Jointly they’ve appeared in Forbes Magazine in an interview given by Ory (which was predominantly about Ushahidi, but given the enormous openness and spirit of collaboration between the two projects, the FrontlineSMS integration also made it to print).

I’ve been a big fan of Ushahidi – particularly the people behind it – long before they started using FrontlineSMS as their local SMS gateway. I wrote about the project when it came to prominence during the Kenyan election crisis, and included it (along with FrontlineSMS and Kiva) in a discussion about rapid prototyping – something I’m a huge fan of – in one of my PC World articles:

The interesting thing about these three projects [Ushahidi, Kiva and FrontlineSMS] is that they all proved that they worked – in other words, proved there was a need and developed a track record – before receiving significant funding. Kiva went out and showed that their lending platform worked before major funders stepped in, just as FrontlineSMS did. And Ushahidi put the first version of their crowd sourcing site together in just a few days, and have reaped the benefits of having a working prototype ever since. If there is a lesson to learn here then it would have to be this – don’t let a lack of funding stop you from getting your ICT4D solution off the ground, even if it does involve “failing fast”

Given Ushahidi’s Kenyan roots (and those of the Founders) and its growing collaboration with FrontlineSMS, it was more than a little apt that last week saw three of us working together at a Plan International workshop near Nairobi (photo, above, of us at a separate Ushahidi developer meeting). Erik Hersman, Juliana Rotich and myself didn’t only present Ushahidi and FrontlineSMS as standalone tools to the Plan staff, but also demonstrated how easily and how well the two could work together. It was the first time the three of us had collaborated like this, and the first time that I’d seen a FrontlineSMS/Ushahidi sync running in the field. As Erik himself commented:

One of the basic tenants of Ushahidi’s Engine is to make it open to extend through other mobile phone and web applications. The first one we’ve done this with is FrontlineSMS, which has worked out incredibly smoothly for us. Within a week of releasing our alpha code, we deployed Ushahidi into the DR Congo, and used a FrontlineSMS installation locally to create the hub for any Congolese to report incidents that they see. It has worked flawlessly…

During our presentation, Plan International staff were able to text messages into the FrontlineSMS hub at the front of the room, messages which were then automatically posted via the internet to the Ushahidi server. Erik approved some of the comments (not all!) via the online Ushahidi dashboard from the back of the room, and the attendees saw them appearing on a Ushahidi map beamed via a projector onto the wall. Although live demonstrations are risky at the best of times, the sync took two minutes to set up, and everything worked perfectly. For everyone behind the Ushahidi and FrontlineSMS projects, months (and in the case of FrontlineSMS, years) of hard work was paying off right before our eyes.

Graphic courtesy Ushahidi

For the workshop delegates, the potential of the two tools – independently and together – was clear, and ideas for their application in Plan projects across Africa continued to flow for the rest of the week. What’s more, the benefit of working together to demonstrate the independent and collaborative power of the tools was clear to Erik, Juliana and myself. An innocent Tweet about “Ushahidi/FrontlineSMS Road Shows” brought back encouraging words, and even an offer to try and help make it happen.

There’s much talk of collaboration and integration in the mobile space, and things are slowly beginning to happen. The recent establishment of the Open Mobile Consortium is further proof of a growing collaborative environment and mentality. What took place last week in Lukenya is just a small part, but one that I – and the team behind Ushahidi – are immensely proud to be a part of.

December 15, 2008   3 Comments

NEWS: Video of kiwanja’s Pop!Tech 2008 presentation now available online

A video of Ken Banks’ presentation at this year’s Pop!Tech gathering in Camden, Maine is now available online. Ken, who was selected as a Pop!Tech 2008 Social Innovation Fellow, talks about Dr. Who, Daleks, appropriate technology, mobile phones and FrontlineSMS in a five minute talk given to 700 delegates and attendees

The video is available via the kiwanja.net site (with some additional background information) or directly from the Pop!Tech site. Videos of the other Fellow’s presentations are available on the Fellows page

December 14, 2008   No Comments

Empowering Africa’s youth

Taken at a Plan International workshop in Kenya, December 2008. Plan projects working with primary school children throughout Africa will soon be implementing FrontlineSMS in their work. (Photo: Erik Hersman)

December 11, 2008   No Comments

FrontlineSMS @ Netsquared/USAID

Two FrontlineSMS-based projects have been entered in the 2008 Netsquared/USAID challenge. The challenge is sponsored by The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and aims to find the best in mobile innovations for good. Voting is carried out by the NetSquared community, and fifteen finalists will be chosen. A panel of judges, selected by USAID, will then select the winners. The first place winner will receive a grant of $10,000, the two runner-ups will receive grants of $5,000 each. All three winners will have the opportunity to present their ideas to senior USAID officials, experts, and the public in Washington D.C.

The first FrontlineSMS-related project – Providing Business Opportunities Information to Farmers and Producers via SMS – aims to help Salvadorian agricultural and agro-industrial producers sell their products in local markets for better prices and obtain better profit margins, thus mitigating the effect of intermediaries or middlemen. The primary target is better marketing of vegetables and garden crops.

The system will allow producers and buyers to post “buy/sell” offers through SMS messaging directly to mobile phones, or through a call centre managed by the project (where operators will log information from semi-literate or illiterate farmers). Then summaries of these “classifieds ads” will be sent through SMS and e-mail to service subscribers. Additionally, communities of buyers/sellers with Internet access will be able to see these offers on a project website as well as through different RSS feeds via other web sites. As a result, producers and buyers will be able to interchange information and develop commercial activities directly without the need for intermediaries.

The second project – Mobile Application for Virtual Community Based Complementary Currencies – will develop a mobile phone m-banking application aimed at enabling the creation of community based complementary currencies. The application will operate in very much the same way as Wizzit and m-Pesa.

A complementary currency is a currency which operates in conjunction with the national currency. It does not replace the national currency – they merely create additional opportunities for the real economy to operate in times of greatly reduced credit and financial liquidity (for example, poor communities with under-employment). The idea, implementation and value of a creating a community-based complementary currency are well documented. There are over 1,900 community-based currencies around the world, including Ithaca Dollars, Time Banks, and the lesser known but extremely successful WIR based in Switzerland.

And finally – not a FrontlineSMS-related entry but a project which does use the software – is Ushahidi, a piece of open source software that solves communication and visualization challenges during crises situations through mapping and crowd sourcing. (Ushahidi hit the pages of the BBC News website today).

To vote for your favourite projects, visit the Challenge website.

December 10, 2008   1 Comment

NEWS: “Mobiles in Malawi” project featured on CNN.com

Josh Nesbit’s Mobiles in Malawi project has been featured on the ‘Technology’ pages of the CNN.com website. Josh travelled to Namitete over the summer to install a text-based communications network using FrontlineSMS. Josh, who is about to return to Malawi, was interviewed along with kiwanja‘s Ken Banks for the article, which can be read here

December 5, 2008   No Comments

NEWS: kiwanja.net and FrontlineSMS to feature on SHIFT Radio

The work of kiwanja.net, and specifically FrontlineSMS, will be featured on a special edition of SHIFT Radio on Friday 5th December. SHIFT Radio is an informal, lively internet radio channel hosted by Chris Melissinos. “Each week he talks about the latest in tech gadgets, interviews leaders in the video game and rich media industries and cuts up revolving guests, hosts and live callers”. Ken Banks was contacted by the station after taking part in a Net Impact discussion on social mobile gaming, and the recent launch of kiwanja’s Silverback gorilla game

December 4, 2008   No Comments

NEWS: Latest PC World article online

“If you were thinking of designing or building a Web site, you’d be in luck. If you were thinking of writing a suite of financial management software, you’d be in luck. If you were even thinking of creating the next big video game, you’d be in luck. Visit any good bookstore, and the selection of self-help books and “how-to” guides leave you spoilt for choice. People have been working on these things for ages, and good and bad practice in Web site, financial software or games development – among many others – is well established. The biggest challenge you’d likely face is deciding which book to choose. If you’re anything like me, you’ll leave the store with at least a couple”

kiwanja’s latest PC World article – ‘Social Mobile’ Applications: The Missing Book – argues the potential of a book focusing on best practice in developing mobile applications for the developing world

December 2, 2008   No Comments

NEWS: Video interview with Nokia Conversations website

Late last month Ken Banks was invited to meet up with the team behind Nokia Conversations, the handset giant’s official blog. During a short six minute video interview, Ken gave his thoughts on mobile innovation in Africa, plans for FrontlineSMS (following the recent announcement of funding from the Hewlett Foundation), and the challenges of financial sustainability faced by many social mobile projects. The interview is available here

December 1, 2008   No Comments