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Posts from — January 2010

Social mobile and the missing metrics

Scenario 1: Five hundred people gather together for three days. They talk, they discuss, they share and they learn. And then they leave. Some stay in touch, others have picked up enough to start a project of their own. Others just leave with a satisfied curiosity, others with the odd new blog post behind them

Scenario 2: A charitable foundation funds the creation of a new mobile tool. Over a one year period there is software development, a new website, user testing and roll-out

Scenario 3: A university professor embarks on a piece of field-based research to examine the impact of a mobile-based health initiative in Africa. He or she writes a paper, highlights what did and didn’t work, gets it published and presents it at a conference

Question: What do these three scenarios have in common?
Answer: It’s unlikely we’ll ever know their full, or real, impact

Let’s assume, for one moment, that everyone working in social mobile wants to see their work have real, tangible impact on the ground. That would equate to:

  • A patient receiving health information through their phone which can be directly attributed to improving their health, or their likelihood of staying alive
  • A farmer receiving agricultural information which can be directly attributed to better family nutrition, or an increase in income or standard of living
  • A team of human rights activist reporting violations which can be directly attributed to the fall of an evil regime, or the passing of new legislation, or the saving of a specific person’s life
  • And so on…

Fine. But are things ever this clear cut? Ever this black or white?

The social mobile world is full of anecdotes. Qualitative data on how certain services in certain places have been used to apparent great effect by end-users. But what we so often lack is the quantitive data which donors and critics clamour for. You know – real numbers. Take the 2007 Nigerian Presidential elections, an event close to my own heart because of the role of FrontlineSMS. This year – 2010 – will witness another election in Nigeria. What was the lasting impact of the 2007 mobile election monitoring project? Will things be done any differently this year because of it? Did it have any long-term impact on behaviour, or anti-corruption efforts?

Much of the data we have on FrontlineSMS falls into the anecdotal and qualitative categories. Like many – maybe most – mobile-based projects, we have a lot of work to do in determining the very real, on-the-ground impact of our technology on individuals. We regularly write and talk about these challenges. But it’s not just about having the funding or the time to do it. It’s figuring out how we measure it.

If a farmer increases his income through a FrontlineSMS-powered agriculture initiative, for example, but then spends that extra money on beer, that’s hardly a positive outcome. But it is if he passes it to his wife who then uses it to send their third or fourth daughter to school. How on earth do we track this, make sense of it, monitor it, measure it, or even decide how we do all of these things? Do we even need bother at all?

Of course, as my recent Tweet suggests, we shouldn’t get too obsessed with the data. But it’s important that we don’t forget it altogether, either. We need to recognise the scale of the challenge – not just us as software developers or innovators, but also the mobile conference or workshop organiser, and the professor, both of whom need to face up to exactly the same set of questions. The case of the missing metrics applies just as much to one as it does to the others, and we all need to be part of finding the answer.

January 31, 2010   63 Comments

Talking to the trees?

The UK’s Guardian newspaper ran an interesting photo gallery last week showing mobile phone masts ‘dressed’ up as trees. For a while it seemed these might catch on as increasing numbers of people complained about the appearance of ‘ugly’ metal masts in their neighbourhoods. While inner-city masts can be hidden, in the country there are fewer options. Disguising them as trees is a favourite.

More images and descriptions on the Guardian website gallery here.

January 28, 2010   8 Comments

When it’s reasonable to be Unreasonable

One of the most exciting things about my work is the incredibly talented people I get to meet. Up-and-coming entrepreneurs with a never-say-die, get-up-and-go attitude. I’m continually inspired and more than happy to offer my help in any way I can, particularly to those looking to implement FrontlineSMS one way or another in their work. Today, two of these projects have made it through to the next round of a major competition and are looking for your help. I hope you feel equally inspired to show your support – it’s only a few mouse clicks away and costs little.

What’s it all about?

The Unreasonable Institute unites up to 25 high-impact social entrepreneurs from around the world, who attend an intensive 10-week summer institute. There, entrepreneurs incubate their ventures with rigorous skills training and expert mentorship. At the end of the ten weeks, the Institute connects the Fellows with start-up capital and a global network of support. In short, the opportunity provided by the Institute will make a significant contribution to the growth of these early-stage initiatives.

Finalist #1: FrontlineSMS:Credit

FrontlineSMS:Credit, run by Ben Lyon, is one of the finalists. 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. Ben is currently in Sierra Leone testing his system, and signing up local organisations for early pilots. Visit Ben’s page on the competition website and support his pioneering work!

Finalist #2: Light Up Malawi

Light Up Malawi – run byRaina Kumra – is a venture which aims to bring 100% alternative energy to Malawi through policy reform and the creation of a sanctioned pilot program for all manufacturers of solar, biomass, and wind energy products. In a sign that collaboration is alive and well even among competition finalists, one of the key systems they plan to deploy is FrontlineSMS:Credit, which will be used to assist with the setting up of rural distribution programs, and allow for the creation of finance systems for village entrepreneus. Please show your support for Raina’s work  by visiting her competition page here.

Both projects need pledges of just $10 from 650 individuals. The first 25 projects from the 37 finalists to raise $6,500 will secure their place on the summer program. Please take a moment to show your support. You pledge now and pay later, and it only takes a minute. Thank you!

(You can read more about how the Unreasonable Marketplace works here).

January 26, 2010   20 Comments

SMS joins battle against human trafficking

January 2010 is National Slavery & Human Trafficking Prevention Month. In this, the nineteenth in our series of FrontlineSMS guest posts, Aashika Damodar – Founder of Survivors Connect – gives some background and context on the challenges of fighting human trafficking, and talks about the impact FrontlineSMS has had on their anti-trafficking efforts

“The telephone is used to connect between the commune, district, or the province and throughout the country. When we didn’t have the telephone, it was very difficult to communicate. I had to send men by boats or bicycles. It would take at least one to five days”
Mr. Khao Phorn, 62, Commune Chief

“There is no electricity in this commune. People use oil lamps, batteries, and dynamos. I recharge my telephone at my mother’s house with a fueled dynamo. Using the telephone is very important to communicate with family or relatives, and is quite cheap. Without the telephone, if we want to visit them, we would spend 40,000-50,000 for transportation each time”
Mrs. Phally, 30

“The Telephone is very important for our society. If there was no telephone, everything would be slow”
Mr. Seng Sareth, 53

“These are just some of the thoughts of people throughout SE Asia on the introduction of mobile phones in their daily life. With mobile phone usage on the rise, our team at Survivors Connect has been brainstorming: “How can such a small but powerful globalized tool of communication be used to address human rights concerns?”. We found it thanks to FrontlineSMS.

RaFH was established in 1993 as a non-profit organization, focusing on the fields of social health science, gender equality, women’s and child rights, reproductive health and family planning and the Northern and Southern most provinces of Vietnam, especially in rural, mountainous and remote areas where ethnic minorities and disadvantaged groups reside. Their mission is to contribute to national poverty reduction programs, deliver primary healthcare in target areas and improve human rights conditions.

Most recently RaFH, along with many non-profits in the region, have seen an increase in the trafficking of young women and children up to China for the purpose of domestic servitude, forced marriage and often times commercial sex and other forms of labor. This has been particularly problematic in the North where the Vietnamese-Chinese border is porous for locals, resulting in regular migration upward.

When the international community on anti-trafficking, as well as several NGOs like RaFH first took notice of this phenomenon, groups flooded into the region to start raising awareness in “vulnerable communities” along the border. Often this entailed skits, presentations, and material handouts that discuss what human trafficking looks like, who is a trafficker, what are popular job scams a trafficker may tell you and how to stop it. Many NGOs were satisfied with this work and were able to tabulate that they reached several hundreds of villagers.

However, this did not reduce incidents of people going missing, or trafficking. What we learned over time was that many of the activities of these NGOs were anti-migratory in nature and in their messaging. Without working with communities and building better education infrastructure, access to proper health care, and skills training, rarely would we be able to stop an individual from leaving their community or village for another job opportunity. Our question then became, how could we make migration safer and stop human trafficking from happening to others? This involves understanding the broader system of human trafficking, and an understanding of everything that happens between points of origin to points of destination.

This brought us to Lao Cai, a border province with Guangxi, China, with two international border gates and several paths by which local people travel regularly, and even daily for work. It is a busy commercial center, also popular for tourism. Lao Cai has 25 ethnic minorities such as the Hmong, Thai, Dao, Tai, Muong to name a few, accounting for 75% of the whole population there. These ethnic minorities have little access to education and major resources. With its geographical features, such as high mountains and remote and widely spaced communities, trafficking in women and children has been increasing. Lao Cai also borders with Ha Khau district in China where there are several brothels receiving victims of trafficking from Vietnam. Up to 2008, it is estimated that 341 women were trafficked up to China for commercial sex, and many more for marriage.

Earlier last year, RaFH held several training courses for 136 representatives of local authorities in the region such as police, health workers, women’s unions, from provincial and grassroots level, owners of hotels, restaurants and more. They were brought together to create what is popularly called (in anti-trafficking circles) “community intervention teams” (CITs), equivalent to US-based human trafficking task forces. They were taught all about human trafficking, major issues unique to Lao Cai and how each of them could respond from their vantage point if a case were to arise. From there, 8 CITs formed, each including about 7 members from the police, justice, health centers, women’s unions and others. Their main tasks are to identify trafficking cases and intervene, rescue and support victims. They also disseminate information in the community to raise awareness about the issue and teach others how to protect themselves from trafficking.

RaFH has created a formal center at the Provincial Lao Cai Womens Union, equipped with computers, books, as well as trained staff to counsel and support victims of trafficking. These types of centers can be found all around the world and prove to be most effective when they use the energy, talent and skills of all types of members in the community, from teachers to social service workers. It is in this space that Survivors Connect found an opportunity to support their CIT through the use of FrontlineSMS.

Why are we calling it Helpline SMS Networks? We’re using FrontlineSMS to coordinate CITs better and equip them with an easy and cost effective tool to respond to the needs of victims and survivors faster than they currently do. Their primary goal is to help victims, survivors and support the healthy functioning of a referral system/alert-response network. To have a well-concerted and coherent strategy to deal with human trafficking, which is mired in complexity, it is essential that all relevant agencies (both state and non-state) act as partners in effort, and are able to use their capacity to respond appropriately to all situations, like gears in proper alignment.

The referral system we’re building (with FrontlineSMS as the core platform) is essentially a network of agencies and individuals that provide support and services for a victim or survivor in a trafficking or unsafe migration situation. By using FrontlineSMS, they go beyond being a normal network – they are becoming a fast and efficient system for communication and information sharing.

So, how does the Helpline SMS Network work?

RaFH Counseling centers operate FrontlineSMS from their in-office laptop. All CIT members are equipped with a mobile phone that is strictly used for the Helpline SMS Network. From their computer, they have contacts organized based on location in Lao Cai, whether they are members of the CIT, or constituents/villages they have done awareness presentations to, health care workers, police, border patrol etc. They regularly send messages to their constituents about human trafficking, alerts on latest activity and cases. Villagers can text back, ask questions, be a part of the dialogue, and report to the CIT if there is an incident of violence, a sudden disappearance of a child, arrival of outsiders into a village, or simply if someone is planning to leave Vietnam.

This information is kept on the CIT’s radar and regular checks are made to see if he/she has made to their destination, or if there may be trafficking involved. If any of the members of the CIT find something in the field, they report their findings back to RaFH. They also use FrontlineSMS to stay in touch with their clients receiving services at the Counseling Center, in order to monitor the progress of every survivor and to ensure their safety in the rehabilitation process. It is these very survivors that also inform the messages, tactics and strategies used by the CITs because they know first hand what trafficking is and what the experience is like.

Below is a summary of the networks core functions:

Helpline SMS: “Ending Slavery one SMS at a Time”

Victim Identification: This aspect of RaFH’s work focuses on victim identification through a combination of community education and awareness-raising activities as well as implementing direct outreach strategies. RaFH collects the mobile numbers of people in their target areas so that they are first point of contact for a potential victim or for an individual wanting to migrate.

Distribute Information: The Helpline SMS network regularly sends mass texts to their target communities about latest trafficking cases, popular scams, offers a trafficker may make, and information about events and resources in their area.

Victim Services & Protection: Once victims are identified and out of his/her situation, they immediately present a wide variety of service needs. An adequate response to these needs requires a comprehensive service program including the power and skills of law enforcement, social service providers, health care workers and human rights advocates. These very people make up the CIT/SMS Network. When an individual or client is in some emergency situation or needs assistance either going to the hospital, police, or even a courtroom, he/she can contact the SMS Network or CIT to get that support.

Referrals: Lets the CIT/network know that a client is on his/her way for help and communicates the nature of the problem. Referrals can be for medical care, a legal advocate, police or anyone with the relevant skill set in the network.

Status Update: Allows CITs to stay in touch with individual clients/survivors and support them through the rehabilitation process.

Support Groups: The network connects survivors and clients receiving care at the counseling center with others and provides information on location for meetings and resources.

Campaigns: RaFH soon plans to use FrontlineSMS to run formal campaigns and surveys to determine how effective their services/quality of care is.

We have learned a lot about both human trafficking and the power of community-based approaches in combating modern-day slavery. By establishing a set of links between existing available resources and services, the system is regularly highlighting new gaps in services and allowing the network to improve. Overtime, its built-in “self improvement” character will help us understand why unsafe migration and trafficking occurs.

Thanks to the power of FrontlineSMS, we can build more effective human rights networks that cost little, deliver results, and combat trafficking better than we have ever seen. This software provides timely access to services, channels of information to those that need it, migrants, potential victims as well as agencies trying to serve them. We hope to replicate this model in other countries where rural trafficking is a great problem and hopefully make a serious stab at slavery in our lifetime“.

Aashika Damodar
Founder
Survivors Connect
www.survivorsconnect.org
Follow us on Twitter: @sconnect

January 24, 2010   59 Comments

Mobile Design. Sans Frontieres.

Although I find myself intrigued by the convergence of computer science, human computer interaction (HCI) design and international development, it’s not often that I find myself in a room of experts. They’re just not places I tend to mix, most likely because I have no professional IT qualifications, let alone a computer science degree, and I’ve done most of my own software design off-the-cuff, much to the dismay of people who hoped there was a robust process behind it.

Last August I got my first taste of the very real challenges that the computer science world faces when it comes up against the equally real challenges of international development. The meeting – convened at UC Berkeley – was an eye-opener for me to say the least, and as I left I blogged about how thankful I was that it wasn’t me who had to come up with the answers. You can read that post here.

A little later in the year I was invited to speak at the First International Workshop on Expressive Interactions for Sustainability and Empowerment, held at one of Vodafone’s London offices. The topic of conversation was similar, but here the focus was on how to build mobile tools that work in difficult, challenging, ‘foreign’ environments. Following my talk I was invited by the Editor of Interfaces, John Knight, to contribute an article to the next edition of their magazine.

For the article I teamed up with Joel Selanikio, co-founder of DataDyne.org and the creator of the EpiSurveyor mobile data collection tool. It made sense working with Joel for a number of reasons. Not only have I known and admired him and his work for some time, but Joel is first and foremost a paediatrician. For him – like me – understanding the problem takes priority over the technology, consideration of which should always come last. FrontlineSMS and EpiSurveyor have both evolved from time spent in the field – observing, experiencing and understanding before designing, developing and building.

You can read our thoughts on the process – “Ten things you might want to know before building for mobile – in the current edition of Interfaces magazine (PDF, 2.5Mb).

For further posts on the subject see the “Mobile applications development” section of this blog, which includes a 10 minute video on the topic.

January 10, 2010   35 Comments

Ushering in the Advisors #3: Tess, Renny

Following the launch of the FrontlineSMS Advisory Board late last year, we’re honoured to announce news of our latest two appointees – Tess Conner and Renny Gleeson. Tess and Renny join previous recruits Larry Diamond, Jenny AkerJan Chipchase and Erik Hersman.

Rather than formulate a general board of Advisors, we’re trying to be strategic by appointing individuals in areas we consider key for the ongoing success and growth of the project. Tess and Renny fall into the branding/public relations category – clear communication and positioning will be increasingly crucial as we continue to build and deploy non-profit facing mobile services. In addition to their professional expertise, both have a strong interest in ICTs and their impact around the world. Tess has already spent the past year helping us with press and outreach, and Renny has been instrumental in the exciting – and path-breaking – branding work carried out on FrontlineSMS and the growing family of related projects.

Tess is an independent Communications Executive leading consultations which involve global community investments and social initiatives. With experience living and working in the developing world, she’s developed a great deal of passion and understanding around on-the-ground realities faced by rural communities, and the potential of the right technologies in the hands of these communities. Recently with Cisco Systems, her drive is to understand issues concerning technology’s role in education and economic development. She graduated with a Masters in Global Media and Postnational Communication from the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, and is an avid surfer.

Renny has worked all sides of the interactive marketing space from client, to agency, to publishing/sales, beginning his “career” as an animator and game designer creating online and CD-ROM games, before helping to found Saatchi & Saatchi’s Darwin Digital company in 1997. He was later recruited by the National Basketball Association to be their Senior Director of Global Media and Interactive Marketing, where he created mobile programs and programming, oversaw fantasy game-related syndication revenue and developed interactive platforms for NBA corporate partners. Renny has since found his spiritual home at Wieden+Kennedy (W+K) as their Global Director of Interactive Strategies, where he shapes client vision on the “brave new digital world”.

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 now approaching 5,000 and the imminent launch of a number of new initiatives, not to mention 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. The final two will be unveiled in the coming weeks.

Welcome Tess and Renny! \o/

January 6, 2010   9 Comments

New year, new funding, new release

We may only be a couple of days in, but 2010 is already promising to be another exciting year. After twelve months of steady growth (and one which saw us regularly exceed our limited technical capacity), late last month we were pleased to secure significant new funding. A $150,000 grant – our first from the Rockefeller Foundation - will allow us to increase the size of our FrontlineSMS developer team and better service the growing needs of our user, partner and developer communities. A huge thanks to Rockefeller for their support. \o/

The revamped version of FrontlineSMS – originally funded by the MacArthur Foundation in 2007/2008 – has only been available for just short of 18 months, but we’ve already put out two significant upgrades, with a third imminent. Each of these has been shaped by user feedback and requests for new features, all co-ordinated through our active and growing online Community, probably one of our greatest achievements. The latest release includes new language support, a mapping module and extended ability to connect external software applications.

Over the past few months we’ve also been quietly working on a new SMS-based initiative with partners Wieden+Kennedy, Accenture Development Partnerships (ADP) and the GSM Association. Technical development on this Hewlett Foundation-funded project – which will solve one of the biggest challenges faced by many grassroots mobile initiatives – starts next month. More news on that, and the new FrontlineSMS release, soon!

January 4, 2010   58 Comments