Posts from — February 2010
Kubatana.net – a Zimbabwean NGO who work to strengthen the use of email, mobile and the Internet among local NGOs and civil society organisations – were the very first FrontlineSMS user way back in October 2005. This initial contact lead us to work together on an early prototype of “Dialup Radio”, an Interactive Voice Response (IVR) service they’re now about to fully launch as “Freedom Fone”. As the service nears release, Amy Saunderson-Meyer – Media and Information Officer at Kubatana – talks about the tool and how they see it helping civil society in Zimbabwe and beyond.
“Bottom of the Pyramid (BoP) strategies are viewed in many contemporary business circles as the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. BoP refers to the 2.6 billion people who live below the $2 a day breadline and many business strategists argue that if targeted correctly, these consumers can offer businesses a main line into one of the fastest growing markets. Even if the price of products and services has to be reduced, profits can be made up and surpassed in volumes sold.
A more neutral view of BoP strategies is that they are not simply a means to make millions, but a pragmatic appreciation that through commercial profit making activities, sustainable solutions can be developed that help alleviate poverty. With thought, the poor can be incorporated into the system in a mutually beneficial manner – not only as consumers but also as producers, partners, entrepreneurs and innovators.
Freedom Fone’s BoP strategy focuses on building and promoting an open source software platform for information sharing that is intuitive, cost-conscious, internet independent and ultimately targets all kinds of phone users. Deployers of the Freedom Fone platform can be small or large NGO’s or service organizations – even individual information activists. The goal is to broaden the base of audio information providers and facilitate the development of two-way communications with communities which have traditionally been underprivileged, marginalized and sometimes even stigmatized.
The Freedom Fone platform can be used to assist with education, learning, healthcare and medical support for chronic diseases like HIV/Aids, TB and malaria. Voice menus conveniently provide information on demand services, making them a useful additional channel for community radio stations and emergency response initiatives. It can be used to provide information on the full spectrum of issues including sanitation, the environment, agriculture, fishing, business, finance, marketing, community, arts and culture news. Its ‘leave-a-message’ and SMS functionality can be leveraged for citizen journalism.
Essentially Freedom Fone is a simple but novel medium for addressing social development. The currency we are working with is knowledge, the tool we are using is the mobile phone and the mobile function we primarily leverage is audio, through Interactive Voice Response (IVR).
Freedom Fone has focused on knowledge sharing because in a globalized information age, access to relevant information is pivotal to development and vital for survival. Content is king and knowledge is power! However the people who need information the most are often the ones at the bottom of the pyramid, and they tend to remain on the fringes of our society. For instance, in developing countries, information flow is often blocked by restricted infrastructure, lack of resources and limited unreliable access to computers, email and internet. Other factors such as language barriers and low literacy levels exist, and in certain developing countries this information alienation is further compounded by restrictive and authoritarian governments.
Freedom Fone has focused on the mobile phone as the medium of communication because according to a UN report, 60% of the world’s population has mobile phones. By 2009 there were already over 4.5 billion mobile phone subscriptions in circulation and developing countries account for over two thirds of these mobile phones. In contrast only 25% of the world’s population has internet access and in Africa there is only a 6.8% internet penetration rate. Thus the wide use of mobile phones bridges the chasm between the haves and the have nots. Their use cuts across the ‘digital divide’ and they have the potential to act as information access equalizers. For example, in Zimbabwe, barely 5% of Zimbabweans have access to the internet but there are over 3 million mobile phones contracts in a country of 11 million, which represents a penetration rate of roughly 27%. In South Africa – which offers a good indication of future development patterns in Africa – only 7% of the population has internet access, but there are approximately 36 million active cell phone users, which is roughly 80% of the population.
To address the limited access to and the high cost of internet connectivity in many developing countries, Freedom Fone has been designed so that it does not require any access to the internet to function. The Freedom Fone server can be connected to mobile phone SIM cards, landlines and Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) numbers. Callers can phone in from a landline, basic mobile phone, or soft phone like Skype. If uninterrupted power is provided, the system can be available to callers 24 hours a day, providing a valuable information on demand channel, as well as a vehicle through which the public can contribute information or queries 24/7.
A number of Freedom Fone’s core features focus on interactive voice menus and callback functionality. By consciously marrying the mobile phone with IVR, Freedom Fone extends this previously business-oriented tool, into the arena of social development and social media. By simplifying the user interface and minimizing the technical alternatives, we predict that information providers will find building voice menu-based information services intuitive rather than intimidating and cost-effective rather than costly.
Providing an alternative to the limitations imposed by the 160 characters allowed in an SMS is likely to be liberating. Freedom Fone provides a do-it-yourself platform for increased two way communication, facilitating the contribution of rich audio files by both the operator and caller. Its audio orientation offers similarities with radio programming – however there are dramatic differences in the start up costs, required technical know-how and government regulation. It is interactive as it enables end users to become information providers by contributing questions, audio content and feedback in response to the voice menus. Audio files also have the enormous benefit of surpassing the issues of literacy, going beyond language differences, as people can create and manage information in their own dialect. For deployments in Africa, audio is also strongly aligned with the oral traditions of story-telling.
Importantly, Freedom Fone has been designed to run on and with low-powered equipment to facilitate its deployment using solar power.
As Freedom Fone services the BoP, it is essential that deployments offer affordable, cost-effective access to information. Sadly, in Zimbabwe the cost of local mobile calls is $0.25 per minute making call-in costs a major challenge for local deployment. The same hurdle does not exist for deployments in East Africa where competition exists between mobile network providers and call costs are minimal. In countries where Voice over IP (VoIP) is legal further opportunities pertain, as VoIP cuts costs and facilitates scalability.
The Freedom Fone platform offers the potential for cost recovery through advertising which can be incorporated into the voice menus as short audio clips. Another option are premium numbers which can be negotiated with mobile network operators. In time we hope to source funding to build features that facilitate micro-payments for accessing voice menu content or receiving SMS updates.
Freedom Fone aims to put information in the hands of the public by simplifying and popularizing information outreach via IVR and SMS. It is a tool for content creation, by the people for the people. It shifts BoP solutions beyond profits, by giving the punch of informative power to the people”.
Media and Information Officer
The Kubatana Trust of Zimbabwe and Freedom Fone
February 28, 2010 24 Comments
The positive. The negative. The upbeat. The downbeat. The optimistic. The pessimistic. The African view. The Western view. The good. The bad. The “half full”. The “half empty”.
The two faces of African literature?
February 22, 2010 62 Comments
Today at Mobile World Congress, Vodafone announced “the world’s cheapest phone”. At $15 it certainly scores low on the price tag – which is good – but it also scores low on functionality – not so good. Not only is this a problem for any end user who might need (or want) to use it for things beyond voice calling and SMS, but it’s also perpetuating a long-standing problem in the social mobile world dating back over five years.
With the ICT4D community putting an increasing focus on “smarter phones” – ones which feature downloadable applications and allow for cloud-based solutions, for example – where do phones like today’s Vodafone 150 fit in? Aimed specifically at emerging markets, these are the kinds of phones Vodafone are hoping will end up in the hands of the very patients or farmers the ICT4D world is itself working hard to reach.
Low-cost phones have certainly achieved one thing – low cost – and in price terms they’ve done exactly what they said on the tin. Over the past five years or so, prices have indeed steadily dropped, as we can see if we pick an early “emerging market handset” winner from 2005 (the Motorola C113), a ZTE phone widely available in East Africa in 2008, and today’s Vodafone 150.
The prices may have changed, but functionality has largely stagnated. You couldn’t browse the web on the Motorola in 2005, nor the ZTE in 2008, and today you’d have the same problem on the Vodafone 150. You can’t download applications onto any of them, either. They all have monochrome screens and look pretty-much-the-same despite having a five year gap between them. Very little has changed other than price, it would seem. Voice and SMS remain king at the bottom of the pyramid, or so it would seem.
The real trick is to reduce the price of these phones whilst at the same time increasing (or at very least maintaining) functionality, a combination which no manufacturer has yet managed to crack. Nokia’s announcement last week of their cheapest 3G-enabled phone for the Indian market shows prices are shifting downward for data enabled phones, but at $90 it’s still some way off what most would consider affordable for the remaining 1.5 billion people in the world without a phone.
From today’s announcement, a sub-$40 smart phone – which really would change the game – looks to be as far off as ever.
[Related post: "The Digital Divider"]
February 15, 2010 44 Comments
In this, the twentieth in our series of FrontlineSMS guest posts, Marcelo Mosse – Executive Director of the Centre for Public Integrity in Mozambique – talks about their use of the software in promoting citizen engagement in monitoring their national elections, and in their efforts to promote transparency in government
“The Centre for Public Integrity of Mozambique (CIP) is a not-for-profit, non-partisan, independent organisation, endowed with legal status, and with administrative, financial and patrimonial autonomy. Our general objective is to promote integrity, transparency, ethics and good governance in the public sphere, and to promote human rights in Mozambique, and we use our website to launch campaigns, document events, and publish case studies and reports on Mozambique’s political process.
In 2008, local elections took place in Mozambique and the CIP decided to try using SMS to collect events reported by citizens. We implemented FrontlineSMS and launched a press campaign aimed at making the public aware of the opportunity to report and comment on events on the electoral campaign, and events at the voting posts.
Telephone lines were made available and FrontlineSMS was installed and used by CIP staff in charge of coordinating the publishing of text messages on our website. Response from the citizens was considered satisfactory – with mobile phones in use over most of the country and accessible to almost all economic level layers, citizens showed they were eager to contribute.
Later in 2009, during the general elections in Mozambique, we increased the number of available lines for the public and launched a more comprehensive campaign (newspapers, television, and radio). The outcome was considered very satisfactory with SMSs being received right from the beginning of the electoral campaigns. FrontlineSMS was also used to get instant reports from the CIP’s correspondents placed at the 43 municipalities all over the country.
Thanks to FrontlineSMS we were able to compile reports on party and candidate practices during the electoral campaigning, citizen’s reactions and opinions on the electoral process and anomalies at the voting posts.
User experience from those using the software was positive. It was easy to understand and operate, to add phones, and manage and classify messages received. The CIP intends to continue using FrontlineSMS on other campaigns where we believe citizen contribution can be valuable”.
Centre for Public Integrity Mozambique
February 14, 2010 54 Comments
Update 24/02/10: Applications now closed. Please don’t apply for either of these posts. Thanks! \o/
After four years of steady growth, FrontlineSMS has witnessed a dizzying rise in activity over the past few months. One full-time position has increased to three with the hiring of Josh Nesbit as our FrontlineSMS Ambassador and Alex Anderson as our lead developer. And thanks to new funding from the Rockefeller Foundation last month, we’re now looking to build our team further and fill two more positions – in Software Development and Project Management.
Thanks to the seemingly inexhaustible support of our friends over at Wieden+Kennedy, we’ll be locating our small but growing team in their amazing central London offices – a hotbed of creativity, if ever there was one. As a result, we’re limiting our search for new team members to London and the surrounding area for now, but will look further afield as we get further established as an organisation.
So, who are we looking for?
This might not be the best title for a role which requires the candidate to have a wide array of interests – software testing, fundraising, website maintenance, creating promotional materials and brochures, training, and helping scope new projects. We’re also going to need them to help out with community-building and support, and to run smaller specific FrontlineSMS-related projects as they arise. This position is a real moving target and, as part of a small team the candidate will have the opportunity to shape the role for themselves. All we ask for is hard work, dedication, a passion for social mobile, and a strong desire to help see our organisation grow.
We’re also looking for a Junior/Intermediate Java Developer to assist with the maintenance and development of new features on our multi-platform desktop Java application, FrontlineSMS. There will also be opportunities to help out on another exciting web-based project we’re working on in partnership with the GSM Association and Accenture, and to help us explore the potential of iPhone, Facebook and Symbian extensions to our projects. Above all, we’re looking for someone with a passion for exploring the social potential of mobile technologies, and a willingness to contribute to all stages of the software development process, including architecture, UI, testing and deployment.
If you’re based in or around London and interested in either of these positions, click here for further details and then get in touch as soon as possible! Feel free to share a link to this post with any lists or individuals you think might be interested.
With hopes of further funding on the horizon, these are unique opportunities for individuals interested in mobile technology and social change to join and influence a small, active, growing team. Join us on our journey, and you never know – it may well be the start of a new journey all of your very own. \o/
February 8, 2010 84 Comments
Better late than never, I’m about to start reading “Dead Aid“, Dambisa Moyo’s much touted book. I’ve already read a few blog posts and reviews – some about her, some about her book – and the Guardian’s “An evening with Dambisa Moyo” seemed worth a look. In an otherwise downbeat review, one statement stood out a mile.
“Africa is to development what Mars is to NASA” – the ultimate development studies essay question. It certainly got me thinking. To what extent is Africa development’s playground, a place to ‘try things’, to experiment? Often with so little accountability – see Bill Easterly‘s “White Man’s Burden” – it’s easy to see why it’s thought of as an easy place to pilot, to test, to try out. “And if it goes wrong, well, let’s try something else, somewhere else”.
During a workshop at IDS a couple of weeks ago, I commented that the development sector in Africa was littered with the carcasses of failed projects, a kind of ‘elephant graveyard’ for the well-intended.
I’d love to see an ICT4D/African technology conference pick up on the “NASA, Mars, Development, Africa” theme. And I’d love to be in the audience. Any takers?
February 5, 2010 31 Comments