Ushering in the Advisors #1: Erik, Jan

At one time or another, all projects need a little help and direction. FrontlineSMS is no exception, and we’re fortunate to have been able to draw on the skills, experience and support of many close friends and allies over the past couple of years or so. During the FrontlineSMS building process we’ve been totally focused on the users – unashamedly so – and only now are we beginning to catch up organisationally.

This week sees the formation of a Board of Advisors for FrontlineSMS. With a field- and user-based theme, we’re honoured to welcome Erik Hersman and Jan Chipchase as our first round of appointees.

ErikErik is the co-founder of Ushahidi (which means “testimony” in Swahili), a web application created to map the reported incidents of violence happening during the post-election crisis in Kenya. Raised in Sudan and Kenya, Erik brings unique energy and insight to the world of technology and innovation – bridging the gap between Africa and Silicon Valley. An avid blogger Erik writes two different technology blogs including AfriGadget and WhiteAfrican. One dedicated to low-tech African ingenuity, and the other to high-tech mobile and web changes happening throughout Africa.

The user-needs-driven focus of the Ushahidi/FrontlineSMS relationship has become a model in collaboration for us, and Erik’s experience, passion and focus mirrors our own multidisciplinary approach to identifying and solving problems. His experience and understanding of the African technology landscape will be invaluable as we move our efforts forward. Erik has been a great mentor over the years, and he remains a good friend.

JanJan specialises in understanding the intersection of people, culture and technology. For eight years he worked out of the Nokia Research Center, Tokyo where, as Principal Scientist he conducted user experience and exploratory design research, taking teams into the field across the four corners of the globe. He is currently based out of Nokia’s Los Angeles design studio, conducting research to guide and support corporate strategy. Jan’s thinking is featured on his blog at www.janchipchase.com.

Jan, who we’ve known for a while, has built a considerable following for his work with Nokia, and continues to be a leader in his field. His focus on people, culture and technology is a perfect fit for us in many ways, reinforcing our own commitment to understanding and responding to user needs as a major driver in the development of social mobile tools. Jan’s experience will be particularly valuable as we begin the process of understanding the challenges and impact of FrontlineSMS on the ground.

We’re incredibly excited to be able to draw on the considerable experience of our new Advisory Board members, each of whom will help steer and direct our technical, marketing and organisational development. With software downloads rapidly approaching the 4,000 mark, the imminent launch of a FrontlineSMS Developer Community, and the emergence of new spin-off organisations such as FrontlineSMS:Medic and FrontlineSMS:Credit, there’s without doubt plenty to be getting on with.

The Board of Advisors will all be profiled on the FrontlineSMS website once all appointments have been made. Two more will be unveiled next week. In the meantime…

… welcome Erik and Jan! \o/

Step inside the laptop bank

In the world of social innovation, many of the smartest ideas focus on “market inefficiencies” and, in particular, ways of reducing them. As increasing numbers of mobile operators implement airtime transfer systems and mobile money functionality on their networks – particularly in developing countries – opportunities also increase for locally-run microfinance institutions and their customers at the bottom of the pyramid.

In the spirit of social innovation, Ben Lyon recognised the opportunity early. The result? FrontlineSMS:Credit – a first in laptop banking – announced last week at Africa Gathering in London.

FrontlineSMS:Credit landscape

The concept is simple:

FrontlineSMS:Credit aims to make every formal financial service available to the entrepreneurial poor in 160 characters or less. By meshing the functionality of FrontlineSMS with local mobile payment systems, implementing institutions will be able to provide a full range of customizable services, from savings and credit to insurance and payroll

The FrontlineSMS:Credit system is in essence a convergence of SMS-aggregating software and mobile commerce systems, which together provide an efficient and accessible platform for microfinance institutions (MFIs) to deliver and track loans via Short Message Service (SMS). Since FrontlineSMS:Credit utilises the widely available GSM wireless telephone network, implementing MFIs need neither an Internet connection nor a permanent office to conduct business. Not only that, MFIs will be able to make use of alternative power sources such as solar panels, allowing them to operate ‘off the grid’. This could provide a comparative advantage for those working in rural and underserved areas.

FrontlineSMS:Credit Uses

Based on the successful FrontlineSMS:Medic model, FrontlineSMS:Credit is a new venture, and Ben is currently building his team. He has a range of vacancies for anyone interested in helping develop the concept. A number of large microfinance-based institutions, and major international development agencies, have already expressed strong interest in being part of his “democratising finance” movement. Further details of the project, and current vacancies, are available on the project website at http://credit.frontlinesms.com

Congratulations Ben!

(You can read an earlier article on CreditSMS (now FrontlineSMS:Credit) on  PC World here)