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Posts from — December 2009

Blog it, Kenny: Most read posts of 2009

After months – maybe years - of badgering by good friend Erik Hersman (he of White African fame), late last December I finally moved my blog over to WordPress. I actually began blogging in February 2006, but started with a plain-old HTML page on the kiwanja website. Shortly after I moved over to Blogger before finally seeing the light and moving to the king of blogging platforms. (Erik – you were right).  :)

It’s been great seeing the readership grow, and with a neat calendar year of invigorated blogging behind me I thought it would be fun to throw together a list of the top twelve most read posts of 2009. These posts are the most read, rather than most popular (usually measured by number of comments, Tweets, etc):

1. Bones for mobile phones (1466 reads)
2. Anthropologists! Anthropologists! (946 reads)
3. A mobile database that brings it all together (806 reads)

4. The making of an SMS icon (727 reads)
5. The Million Dollar Homepage (639 reads)
6. Dispelling the myth? (603 reads)

7. Time to eat our own dog food? (564 reads)
8. Mapping medicine availability via SMS (547 reads)
9. FrontlineSMS: Now with Forms (540 reads)

10. Step inside the laptop bank (538 reads)
11. Grameen’s AppLab comes of age (533 reads)
12. Radios. Batteries. Solar. Implications (529 reads)

And three personal favourites which didn’t make it to the list:

13. “Inappropriate” appropriate technology?
14. Why does this picture trouble me?
15. A glimpse inside social mobile’s long tail

Interesting that three of the top six posts are anthropology-related (as is one of my favourites). Anyway, happy new-year-blogging to everyone! Thanks for reading. Here’s to 2010!

December 30, 2009   18 Comments

Information into action: Africa and beyond

Two organisations I’ve had the pleasure of working with – Tactical Tech and Fahamu – have independently announced the release of a film and a book which cover different aspects of non-profit digital activism. Both are well worth a look.

Info-activism.org – a Tactical Tech initiative – explores how rights advocates “use information and digital technology to create positive change”. Actions are broken down into 10 tactics which, through the site, provide original and artful ways for rights advocates to capture attention and communicate a cause (see video, above). The website includes a 50-minute film documenting inspiring info-activism stories from around the world and a set of cards, with tools tips and advice to help people plan their own info-activism campaigns. Further details of the launch are available on the BBC News website.

Turning to more traditional media, Fahamu/Pambazuka have published a new book – SMS Uprising: Mobile Phone Activism in Africa – which provides “a unique insight into how activists and social change advocates are addressing Africa’s many challenges from within, and how they are using mobile telephone technologies to facilitate these changes”.

The book is essentially a collection of essays by people engaged in using mobile phone technologies for social change, and it provides an analysis of the socio-economic, political and media contexts faced by activists in Africa today. The essays address a broad range of issues including inequalities in access to technology based on gender, rural and urban usage, as well as offering practical examples of how activists are using mobile technology to organise and document their experiences. Contributors include friends Sokari Ekine (Blacklooks) – also the editor – Amanda Atwood (Kubatana.net), Juliana Rotich (Ushahidi), Christian Kreutz (Crisscrossed.net) and others.

Congratulations to everyone at Tactical Tech and Fahamu on their initiatives, both of which provide valuable contributions to a growing body of literature on digital activism. Thanks also for the invitations to contribute – an honour and a pleasure!

December 21, 2009   44 Comments

Fishing meets texting in Banda Aceh

We continue our recent agriculture theme in this, the eighteenth in our series of FrontlineSMS guest posts. Here, Teddy Syahputra – a System Consultant at the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) in Banda Aceh - talks about their use of the software, and how it is set to underpin a new nationwide SMS service in the country

“The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations in Banda Aceh (Indonesia) have been using FrontlineSMS for over two years, and recently it was deployed in a pilot project concentrated on the needs of local fishermen. Following the success of this early pilot, we are now implementing a nationwide project called Fish Marketing Information System (FMIS) to support the development of conducive and fair trade practices for economically competitive fish products from Aceh in the local, national, regional and international markets.

Image courtesy FMIS

The price information is processed by a computer-based system (primarily a website and MySQL database) using FrontlineSMS as the SMS gateway. Fish price information is being disseminated to fisherfolk, fish farmers, traders, processors and government agencies through a combination of SMS, local radio, the project website and local newspapers.

For the data collection we developed our own software – called “Enumerator” – and we provide each of the collectors with a handset with the software pre-installed. The software is easy to use, allowing the operator to insert the species name and the prices in pre-defined fields. “Enumerator” then binds the data into an SMS, which is then sent to FrontlineSMS for processing and passing into the database. Integration and implementation was easy thanks to FrontlineSMS’ powerful ‘keyword’ functionality.

FMIS and FrontlineSMSThe next phase of the project is to implement FrontlineSMS/FMIS throughout other provinces in Indonesia, but this time the Indonesian Government will be handling the SMS gateway in each province, and the local website.

This project has already helped hundreds of people in Indonesia, with many more to follow. FrontlineSMS has been invaluable in helping us achieve this. Not only is the software free, but it is incredibly easy to use – we downloaded it and had it working ourselves in no time. This ease-of-use is also essential if other districts are to be easily able to replicate what we have done here”.

Teddy Syahputra
National Information System Consultant
Food and Agriculture Organisation of United Nations
Banda Aceh, NAD – Indonesia
www.fao.org

December 15, 2009   38 Comments

ICT, emergencies and conflicts

Following their recent examination of the mHealth landscape, the UN/Vodafone Foundation partnership today turned their attention to a new topic – New Technologies in Emergencies and Conflicts. The new study, available for download on the UN Foundation website, examines how authorities and humanitarian/aid organisations balance the opportunities and challenges of exploiting different technologies at key stages during the timeline of a crisis.

The report provides a useful overview of the topic, and gives a number of good examples of how social media tools are being deployed on the ground in emergency and crisis situations. The report also highlights a number of mobile-related tools and services – including FrontlineSMS and Souktel - and provides a number of examples of how Ushahidi has been deployed in trouble spots around the world.

Update: Release of the report was also covered on the BBC News website – check out “Aid agencies must use new tools” for more.

December 10, 2009   25 Comments

Mountain-top texting for charity

In the seventeenth in our series of FrontlineSMS guest posts, Laura Hartstone – one of the organisers behind the “3 Peaks 3 Weeks” Challenge – talks about their plans to use FrontlineSMS to provide daily climbing updates to supporters around the world via SMS

The 3 Peaks 3 Weeks Challenge is an annual all-female climbing event which aims to summit three of Africa’s highest peaks in less than three weeks raising money and awareness for the three peak issues currently facing Africa; environment, education, and health.

The challenge is organized in partnership with Save the Rhino International (SRI). They help with event management and logistics as well as collecting and distributing raised funds to the three pre-selected non-profit organisations in Africa.

Photo courtesy Laura Hartstone

3 Peaks 3 Weeks provides an opportunity for women around the world to experience the diverse culture and beauty of East Africa while contributing to ongoing development efforts. To date the event has raised over half a million dollars. On January 9th, 2010 the third annual team will take on the challenge. Eleven women from Canada, USA, UK, Australia and Ireland will unite in Africa. The task will be difficult – and their effort, monumental.

Over the past year the team has held events, fundraisers, and walked the streets of their hometowns seeking donations to support grassroots initiatives in East Africa. Even during the current economic hardships, they have managed to raise over $100,000. With passion to help make poverty history, and outstanding commitment to social responsibility, these women are inspiring people around the world.

The 3 Peaks 3 Weeks team will now use FrontlineSMS to stay in touch with supporters, friends and family while on the mountain. The team will carry a mobile phone and send a LIVE update via SMS to base camp. From base camp, the SMS will instantly reach supporters around the globe using FrontlineSMS’ ‘auto-forward’ functionality. Hear which girls are getting altitude sickness, who can’t sleep at night, what food they are being served, and when they make it to the summit! You can subscribe to the live updates by texting the word CLIMB to +255 688 905 872. You will get an automated reply either immediately, or within a day or two, confirming your subscription! Thanks.

More information is available here:

The “3 Peaks 3 Weeks” website: www.3peaks3weeks.org
More on live updates: http://3peaks3weeks.wordpress.com
Contact me: laura@3peaks3weeks.org

December 10, 2009   26 Comments

Mechanics vs. motivation: The two faces of social innovation

It’s been a busy and interesting few weeks, and I’ve met many people interested in many of the subjects which also fascinate me – entrepreneurship, social entrepreneurship, innovation, Africa, mobile technology and appropriate technology, among others. Being on the road is my equivalent of the town hall meeting, of door-to-door canvassing. It’s a great way – maybe the only way – to stay connected with the grassroots and meet the up-and-coming innovators of the future. I’m beginning to realise I enjoy speaking much more outside tech circles than within them. We need to introduce social mobile to new audiences, after all, rather than continually preach to the converted.

So, what am I learning from all of this? Most of the younger people I meet want stories. Sure, they want to know some of the theory, a little about the technology. But what resonates more than anything is the background to our tools and where we get our drive and motivation from. They want to resonate, to feel closer to the possibilities and potential, to see themselves in our shoes. They want to walk away with “Well, they did it. Why can’t I?”.

This was most apparent during talks to students and faculty at Mills College, the University of San Francisco, Santa Clara University and Stanford, all packed into a three week marathon trip to the West Coast at the end of last month. What struck me were the two approaches I often witnessed to spreading the ‘innovation’ and ‘social entrepreneurship’ message. While one seems to focus on mechanics, the other focuses on motivation. Let me explain.

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One or two of the events I recently attended have focused on the mechanics of innovation and entrepreneurship. This world centres on business models, the quest for data, for metrics and an obsession on measuring impact. Lots of tables, numbers, graphs, theories. The very things which score low on most people’s motivational scale. This quote, from Aaron Sklar at IDEO (which I tweeted from the conference), sums up the downside of this approach perfectly.

There certainly seems to be a mismatch between the way social innovation is taught, and the realities of how most social innovators innovate. The ‘a-ha’ moment innovators-to-be hear about is rarely the discovery of a new metric, or a new business model, or a new way of presenting or collecting data. It’s the realisation that a problem can be solved, and solved in a new way. These answers often come by doing and experiencing, being out in the field, and there are almost always stories behind why the person was there, sometimes how they got there, and what they suddenly saw which gave them their big idea.

If I’m totally honest, I find the mechanical approach a total turn-off. It grinds me down and saps any enthusiasm I have for technology and innovation. That’s not to say it’s not important – it’s vital, in fact – but you can always figure out that stuff later, once you have your big idea. No big idea, no need to worry.

Innovation and entrepreneurship start with passion, so we ought to focus more on that. We can help by speaking about our own interests, passions and stories – which most of us have – and less on the mechanical stuff (some of which, incidentally, includes the actual technology we’ve invented). This is why, I think, people tend to resonate more with individuals who succeed, rather than bigger organisations. Take the Tech Awards last month. Over a dozen people - not companies – who have found a way to make a difference. The celebration of their achievements would have been less remarkable if they’d all been housed in resource-rich environments. Innovation out of scarcity is what seems to really excite people.

Al Gore at the Tech Awards. Photo courtesy godutchbaby on Flickr

Al Gore spoke at the Tech Awards gala. After a thirty minute speech not a single person could doubt his passion and commitment to the climate change cause, whether or not you agree with him. And hardly any mention of the intricacies of the science. This was a motivational speech if ever there was one. Somehow, if he’d focused on the mechanics I doubt he’d have had half the impact. Al Gore has taken a complex subject and made it accessible, and that has to be one of his major achievements.

We need to do the same with entrepreneurship, social entrepreneurship, technology and innovation. These subjects need to be demystified, and we need to put passion back where it belongs. And, in my mind, that’s ahead of just about everything else – business models, graphs and metrics included.

[Related post: "Enabling the inspiration generation"]

December 7, 2009   104 Comments

Social mobile gets its own “roadmap”

After three workshops on three continents, conversations and meetings with countless NGOs, academics, researchers and technologists, and many hours of conference calls, W3C this week released their “Mobile Web for Social Development Roadmap”, a comprehensive document which sits at the heart of the wider work of the Mobile Web for Development Interest Group (MW4D).
According to the Roadmap document, its purpose is to help:
“… understand the current challenges of deploying development-oriented services on mobile phones, evaluate existing technologies, and identify the most promising directions to lower the barriers of developing, deploying and accessing services on mobile phones and thereby creating an enabling environment for more social-oriented services to appear”
The Roadmap is split into two distinct sections. The first covers challenges and issues in developing mobile tools for social development, and the second looks specifically at technology options. The primary audience are individuals, organisations and entrepreneurs interested in social mobile; the mobile industry itself; academics; international organisations and, finally, policy makers and regulatory bodies.
The Roadmap is very much a work-in-progress, and the MW4D Interest Group welcomes comments, recommendations and suggestions to help shape it as the work moves forward.

After three workshops on three continents, conversations and meetings with countless NGOs, academics, researchers and technologists, and many hours of conference calls, W3C this week released their “Mobile Web for Social Development Roadmap”, a comprehensive document which sits at the heart of the wider work of the Mobile Web for Development Interest Group (MW4D).

According to the Roadmap document, its purpose is to help:

“… understand the current challenges of deploying development-oriented services on mobile phones, evaluate existing technologies, and identify the most promising directions to lower the barriers of developing, deploying and accessing services on mobile phones and thereby creating an enabling environment for more social-oriented services to appear”

The Roadmap is split into two distinct sections. The first covers challenges and issues in developing mobile tools for social development, and the second looks specifically at technology options. The primary audience are individuals, organisations and entrepreneurs interested in social mobile; the mobile industry itself; academics; international organisations and, finally, policy makers and regulatory bodies.

Question time in Sao Paulo (2008). Other meetings were held in Bangalore (India) in 2006, and Maputo (Mozambique) in 2009. Photo: Ken Banks, kiwanja.net

The Roadmap is very much a work-in-progress, and the MW4D Interest Group welcomes comments, recommendations and suggestions to help shape it as the work moves forward.

December 3, 2009   23 Comments