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Time to eat our own dog food?

Is the future of social mobile an empowered few, or an empowered many? Mobile tools in the hands of the masses presents great opportunity for NGO-led social change, but is that the future we’re creating?

In The White Man’s Burden – Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good”, William Easterly’s frustration at large-scale, top-down, bureaucracy-ridden development projects runs to an impressive 384 pages. While Easterly dedicates most of his book to markets, economics and the mechanics of international development itself, he talks little of information and communication technology (ICT). The index carries no reference to ‘computers’, ‘ICT’ or even plain old ‘technology’.

But there is an entry for ‘cell phones’.

"Small is Beautiful"E. F. Schumacher, a fellow economist and the man widely recognized as the father of the appropriate technology movement, spent a little more time in his books studying technology issues. His seminal 1973 book – Small is Beautiful – The Study of Economics as if People Mattered” – reacted to the imposition of alien development concepts on Third World countries, and he warned early of the dangers and difficulties of advocating the same technological practices in entirely different societies and environments. Although his earlier work focused more on agri-technology and large-scale infrastructure projects (dam building was a favorite ‘intervention’ at the time), his theories could easily have been applied to ICTs – as they were in later years.

Things have come a long way since 1973. For a start, many of us now have mobile phones, the most rapidly adopted technology in history. In what amounts to little more than the blink of an eye, mobiles have given us a glimpse of their potential to help us solve some of the most pressing problems of our time. With evidence mounting, I have one question: If mobiles truly are as revolutionary and empowering as they appear to be – particularly in the lives of some of the poorest members of society – then do we have a moral duty, in the ICT for Development (ICT4D) community at least, to see that they fulfill that potential?

You see, I’m a little worried. If we draw parallels between the concerns of Easterly and Schumacher and apply them to the application of mobile phones as a tool for social and economic development, there’s a danger that the development community may end up repeating the same mistakes of the past. We have a golden opportunity here that we can’t afford to miss.

But miss it we may. Since 2003 I’ve been working exclusively in the mobile space, and I’ve come to my own conclusions about where we need to be focusing more of our attention if we’re to take advantage of the opportunity ahead of us. Don’t get me wrong – we do need to be looking at the bigger picture – but there’s not room at the top for all of us. I, for one, am more than happy to be working at the bottom. Not only do I find grassroots NGOs particularly lean and efficient (often with the scarcest of funding and resources), but they also tend to get less bogged down with procedure, politics and egos, and are often able to react far more quickly to changing environments than their larger counterparts. Being local, they also tend to have much greater context for their environments, and in activism terms they’re more likely to be able to operate under the radar of dictatorial regimes, meaning they can often engage a local and national populace in ways where larger organizations might struggle.

So, waving my grassroots NGO flag, I see a central problem of focus in the mobile applications space. Let me explain. If we take the “Long Tail ” concept first talked about by Chris Anderson and apply it to the mobile space, we get something like this. I call it “Social Mobile’s Long Tail”.

Social Mobile Long Tail, kiwanja.net

What it demonstrates is that our tendency to aim for sexy, large-scale, top-down, capital- and time-intensive mobile solutions simply results in the creation of tools which only the larger, more resource-rich NGOs are able to adopt and afford. Having worked with grassroots NGOs for over 15 years, I strongly believe that we need to seriously refocus some of our attention there to avoid developing our own NGO “digital divide”. To do this we need to think about low-end, simple, appropriate mobile technology solutions which are easy to obtain, affordable, require as little technical expertise as possible, and are easy to copy and replicate. This is something I regularly write about, and it’s a challenge I’m more than happy to throw down to the developer community.

Another key problem that we have emerges as a symptom of the first. Because larger international development agencies, by their very nature, tend to pre-occupy themselves with the bigger issues, they often inadvertently neglect the simple, easier-to-fix problems (the “low hanging fruit” as some people like to call it). The Millennium Development Goals (MDG’s) are good examples of the kinds of targets which are far easier to miss than hit.

In mobile terms, using the technology to enhance basic communications is a classic “low hanging fruit”. After all, that’s what mobile phones do, and communication is fundamental to all NGO activities, particularly those working in the kinds of infrastructure-challenged environments often found in the developing world. Despite this, there are few tools available that take advantage of one of the most prolific mobile communication channels available to grassroots NGOs – the text message (or SMS).

Much of my own work with FrontlineSMS has sought to solve this fundamental problem, and in places such as Malawi – where Josh Nesbit, FrontlineSMS, a laptop and one hundred recycled mobile phones has helped revolutionise healthcare delivery to 250,000 rural Malawians – the benefits are loud and clear. In other countries, where activities of international aid organizations may be challenged or restricted by oppressive, dictatorial regimes, grassroots NGOs often manage to maintain operations and often provide the only voice for the people. In Zimbabwe, Kubatana.net have been using FrontlineSMS extensively to engage a population not only starved of jobs, a meaningful currency and a functioning democracy, but also news and information. In Afghanistan, an international NGO is using FrontlineSMS to provide security alerts to their staff and fieldworkers. The software is seen as a crucial tool in helping keep people safe in one of the world’s most volatile environments. With a little will, what can be done in Zimbabwe and Afghanistan can be done anywhere where similar oppression exists.

Destined for the rubbish

In cases such as these – and there are many more – we need to stop simply talking about “what works” and start to get “what works” into the hands of the NGOs that need it the most. That’s a challenge that I’m happy to throw down to the ICT4D community. There’s only a certain amount of talking and critiquing we can, and should, do.

There are, of course, many issues and challenges – some technical, some cultural, others economic and geographical. The good news is that few are insurmountable, and we can remove many of them by simply empowering the very people we’re seeking to help. The emergence of home grown developer communities in an increasing number of African countries, for example, presents the greatest opportunity yet to unlock the social change potential of mobile technology. Small-scale, realistic, achievable, replicable, bottom-up development such as that championed by the likes of Easterly and Schumacher may hardly be revolutionary, but what would be is our acknowledgement of the mistakes of the past, and a co-ordinated effort to help us avoid making them all over again.

I spent the best part of my university years critiquing the efforts of those who went before me. Countless others have done the same. Looking to the future, how favourably will the students and academics of tomorrow reflect on our efforts? If the next thirty years aren’t to read like the last then we need to re-think our approach, and re-think it now.

39 comments

1 linda { 03.24.09 at 9:59 pm }

fabulous commentary as always mr banks!

2 James BonTempo { 03.24.09 at 10:10 pm }

RT @kiwanja: Why small, local, appropriate and grassroots is beautiful, and how we avoid eating our own dog food. http://tinyurl.com/djunkd

3 TJ Sondermann { 03.24.09 at 11:18 pm }

RT @kiwanja: Why small, local, appropriate and grassroots is beautiful, and how we avoid eating our own dog food. http://tinyurl.com/djunkd

4 sondernagle { 03.24.09 at 11:18 pm }

RT @kiwanja: Why small, local, appropriate and grassroots is beautiful, and how we avoid eating our own dog food. http://tinyurl.com/djunkd

5 paconmiller { 03.25.09 at 3:10 am }

RT @kiwanja Why small, local, appropriate and grassroots is beautiful, and how we avoid eating our own dog food. http://tinyurl.com/djunkd

6 Topics about Politics » Time to eat our own dog food? { 03.25.09 at 5:15 am }

[...] Let us build Pakistan placed an interesting blog post on Time to eat our own dog food?Here’s a brief overview…also tend to get less bogged down with procedure, politics and egos … be able to operate under the radar of dictatorial regimes, meaning they… [...]

7 Topics about Phones » Time to eat our own dog food? { 03.25.09 at 7:15 am }

[...] articleblip» Source: Chiefs TE Gonzalez wants trade, 2009-03-25 01:03:10 | ArticleBlip…. placed an observative post today on Time to eat our own dog food?Here’s a quick excerptIf we draw parallels between the concerns of Easterly and Schumacher and apply them to the application of mobile phones as a tool for social and… [...]

8 Trey { 03.25.09 at 8:29 am }

Very interesting and provocative post, Kenny! I think your opening comment sums up your position and point well, that if we want tools that anyone can use then we have to think in a different way. There seems to be a lot happening in the cell phone world right now but a lot of it isn’t focused where you argue some of it needs to be.

Thanks, and keep up the great work! :)

9 Mission MANNA { 03.25.09 at 12:29 pm }

RT @kiwanja Why small, local, appropriate and grassroots is beautiful. http://tinyurl.com/djunkd (via @paconmiller)

10 missionmanna { 03.25.09 at 12:29 pm }

RT @kiwanja Why small, local, appropriate and grassroots is beautiful. http://tinyurl.com/djunkd (via @paconmiller)

11 Luca { 03.25.09 at 1:30 pm }

Ken, you raised very interesting points and I really hope to be with you not repeating the mistakes of the past. I’ve been trained that assessing initial needs and following people’s requests, and not only our personal dreams, can be a good way to avoid failures. Personally, I don’t believe much in looking and repeating “best practices” but I prefer to focus on the initial analysis of a project to be sure it considers to the needs. I’m not sure this is the only pre-requisite as innovation and evolution need to break rules and pass over existing habits. Maybe it is only the attitude people do things and the attention towards users’ demands and habits. Or, more probably, the solution is a mix of all of this.

12 kiwanja { 03.25.09 at 4:30 pm }

@Linda – Thanks! Looking forward to working with you again soon

@Trey – You hit the nail on the head when you highlighted the opening paragraph. No approaches are wrong – many people make the mistake of interpreting it that way – but depending on the future we want we need to think in different ways. And challenging is good, as long as it’s productive. I hope this is taken that way :)

@Luca – Nice to hear from you again! Hope all’s well. I totally agree with your sentiments re: assessing projects at an individual level. Of course, it we’re to build tools and achieve mass adoption then we need to think more generally, and perhaps balancing these two are a big part of the challenge

13 Ken Banks { 03.25.09 at 4:46 pm }

Fascinating online (but mostly offline) discussions centred on yesterday’s “dog food” blog post. http://tinyurl.com/djunkd

14 kiwanja { 03.25.09 at 4:46 pm }

Fascinating online (but mostly offline) discussions centred on yesterday’s “dog food” blog post. http://tinyurl.com/djunkd

15 Sarah { 03.27.09 at 4:55 am }

I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don’t know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.

Sarah

16 Brursefesia { 04.04.09 at 1:55 pm }

Great site this http://www.kiwanja.net and I am really pleased to see you have what I am actually looking for here and this this post is exactly what I am interested in. I shall be pleased to become a regular visitor :)

17 jranck { 04.07.09 at 10:32 pm }

@kiwanja “time to eat our own dog food?” more on the long tail for mobiles: http://bit.ly/43v1rS

18 Jody Ranck { 04.07.09 at 10:32 pm }

@kiwanja “time to eat our own dog food?” more on the long tail for mobiles: http://bit.ly/43v1rS

19 rene vrancken { 04.07.09 at 10:37 pm }

FavesNews Time to eat our own dog food? | Build it Kenny, and they will come…:

Shared one time http://tinyurl.com/djunkd

20 renevranc { 04.07.09 at 10:37 pm }

FavesNews Time to eat our own dog food? | Build it Kenny, and they will come…:

Shared one time http://tinyurl.com/djunkd

21 ICTlogy { 04.23.09 at 7:15 pm }

World Development Indicators 2009: a commentary (part I)…

The World Bank has published the World Development Indicators 2009. The indicators and the report that accompanies the updated version of the indicators are, arguably, one of the best comprehensive snapshots on the state of the question of development …

22 Dog bite Cliams { 05.07.09 at 3:23 pm }

I do think social media will become a massive advertising resource, great blog and lots of useful information.

23 Celulares para el Desarrollo y la Inclusión Social. « El Kikuyo Digital { 05.09.09 at 6:33 am }

[...] El reto, el desafío es entonces como lo explica Ken Banks de Kiwanja.net , generar aplicaciones para el desarrollo de los sectores más pobres que ocupan ésta tecnología. [...]

24 David Isaak { 05.23.09 at 12:38 pm }

After reading the Ken’s blog…I am reeling. Need to re-think causes and motivations for deploying cell phone…or any for that matter… technology in ICT4D. Thanks Ken, we needed this.

25 Ken Banks { 06.15.09 at 6:49 pm }

@bill_easterly Thanks for the R/T, Bill. BTW here’s that mobile post we were in contact about some months ago. http://tinyurl.com/djunkd

26 kiwanja { 06.15.09 at 6:49 pm }

@bill_easterly Thanks for the R/T, Bill. BTW here’s that mobile post we were in contact about some months ago. http://tinyurl.com/djunkd

27 bill_easterly (William Easterly) { 06.15.09 at 9:44 pm }

great post: mobile tech great but no pancacea RT@kiwanja here’s that mobile post . http://tinyurl.com/djunkd

28 William Easterly { 06.15.09 at 9:44 pm }

great post: mobile tech great but no pancacea RT@kiwanja here’s that mobile post . http://tinyurl.com/djunkd

29 bill easterly { 06.15.09 at 9:44 pm }

great post: mobile tech great but no pancacea RT@kiwanja here’s that mobile post . http://tinyurl.com/djunkd

30 Ken Banks { 06.15.09 at 9:57 pm }

Nice to get a blog R/T from the man himself. @bill_easterly Great post: Mobile tech great but no pancacea. R/T @kiwanja http://is.gd/12NBj

31 kiwanja { 06.15.09 at 9:57 pm }

Nice to get a blog R/T from the man himself. @bill_easterly Great post: Mobile tech great but no pancacea. R/T @kiwanja http://is.gd/12NBj

32 Nathaniel Whittemore { 06.15.09 at 10:05 pm }

RT @kiwanja: Nice to get a blog R/T f. the man himself. @bill_easterly Great post: Mobile tech great but no pancacea. http://is.gd/12NBj

33 socialentrprnr { 06.15.09 at 10:05 pm }

RT @kiwanja: Nice to get a blog R/T f. the man himself. @bill_easterly Great post: Mobile tech great but no pancacea. http://is.gd/12NBj

34 Eldis_Updates (Eldis) { 06.16.09 at 2:55 pm }

Time to eat our own dog food? | Build it Kenny, and they will come…: Is the future of social mobile an empower.. http://tinyurl.com/djunkd

35 The folly of “finding what works” | Build it Kenny, and they will come... { 06.17.09 at 3:38 pm }

[...] There are more parallels between the approach of “mobiles for development” practitioners and our “traditional development” counterparts than we care to admit. It seems that in a blind rush to innovate we’re borrowing a few too many bad habits from our developmental colleagues when we ought to be identifying and applying best practices. Some time ago, I raised a number of these issues in a challenging blog post entitled “Time to eat our own dog food?“. [...]

36 An inconvenient truth? | Build it Kenny, and they will come... { 12.12.12 at 5:09 pm }

[...] the development community, and my fears that we may end up missing a golden opportunity (see “Time to eat our own dog food?” from March 2009). I’ve long been a champion of platforms, and understanding how we [...]

37 The Truth About Disruptive Development – Funan Capital Impact Investment { 01.20.13 at 5:05 am }

[...] technology offers the development community and my fears that we may end up missing a golden opportunity. I’ve long been a champion of platforms and of understanding how we might build tools for people [...]

38 The Truth About Disruptive Development | Millennial Ambitions { 03.12.13 at 3:22 pm }

[...] technology offers the development community and my fears that we may end up missing a golden opportunity. I’ve long been a champion of platforms and of understanding how we might build tools for people [...]

39 The fun is over. Time to get tough? | Build it Kenny, and they will come... { 07.29.13 at 11:43 am }

[...] more appropriate technology and mainstreaming ICT4D, sadly I had to admit very little. As I wrote three years earlier: I spent the best part of my university years critiquing the efforts of those who went before me. [...]

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