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.

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

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“]