Pop!Tech. At 100,000 feet.

Today sees the start of Pop!Tech 2010, an annual gathering of kindred spirits in the picturesque town of Camden, Maine. Pop!Tech is always full of surprises, and yesterday proved no exception when about twenty of us found ourselves standing in a field in Augusta helping Colin Rich launch his latest ‘balloon’.

For those who don’t know, this is what Colin does. And it’s pretty incredible.

Yesterday’s launch was the “Secret Session”, one of a number of warm-up events designed to set the scene before the real conference kicked off today. And this is what we ended up doing – launching a balloon with a mannequin’s head attached. Here’s the head (with the orange GPS device exposed) next to a map displaying the ‘expected’ path the device was going to take.

After an hour’s drive out of Camden, Colin checks that the cameras are all switched on and working, and the GPS device has a fix.

Once all the electrics are go, time to dig out the helium and inflate the balloon.

After a final set of checks, and a short wait for the wind to die down, Colin releases his icy grip.

Going, going… Gone.

If all goes to plan, over the next two-and-a-half hours the balloon will capture pictures and video as it rises to approximately 100,000 feet. At that point the balloon should burst and the device will fall back to earth. The fall alone will take about half-an-hour. Colin will then head off and try to track it down, based on the co-ordinates transmitted by the GPS embedded in the mannequin’s forehead.

Who said science was boring?

FrontlineSMS @ National Geographic Live!

Date: Friday October 29th, 2010
Venue: National Geographic, Washington DC
Moderator: Benjamin Shaw
Speakers: Saleem H. Ali, Ken Banks, Jerry Glover, Kakenya Ntalya

“Meet four gifted individuals recognized by National Geographic for making a difference early in their careers. This season’s Emerging Explorers Salon, moderated by Benjamin Shaw, executive producer for the weekly radio talk show National Geographic Weekend, features transformative ideas that are influencing the world. Scientist Saleem H. Ali promotes a pragmatic, inclusive form of environmentalism. Mobile technology innovator Ken Banks developed software that enhances the communications ability of people without access to the Internet. Agro-ecologist Jerry Glover uses biodiversity to improve food security. Activist Kakenya Ntaiya, in the face of daunting obstacles, founded the first primary school for girls in her region of Kenya”.

Further details, and tickets for this public event, are available on the National Geographic website.

Taking the social mobile “taste test”

“After all is said and done, a lot more will be said than done” –
Unknown author

Twitter has been abuzz lately with fascinating snippets of advice on how to succeed, how not to fail, what makes a good social venture, what makes a good mobile project or how to be a successful social entrepreneur. Of course, it’s easy to say these things, and even easier to repeat mantras and slogans which fit a popular or emerging philosophy. Who could argue, for example, that “users should be put first”?

Sadly, when all is said and done, the reality is that it’s still much easier to ignore the advice and go do your own thing your own way, rather than doing things the right way.

The best way to get a sense of the true philosophy – the DNA – of a project is to see if it passes a “taste test”. This is particularly true in mobile, where almost all initiatives claim to have engaged or active communities, or to empower, to put users first, or to have been ‘born’ in the field. The question is: Does the rhetoric actually match the reality? In an age where more and more projects are coming under increasing scrutiny, ensuring they are properly positioned is crucial.

It’s quite easy to determine whether or not a tool is going to be of any use to an end user (an NGO in this case), or whether you’d need a medium to high degree of technical literacy to make use of it (in which case you might argue that the tool was more developer-focused). For some time I’ve used the concept of the “social mobile long tail” to graphically represent this.

In short, tools in the red area are technically and financially out-of-reach of many grassroots NGOs, many of whom sit in the green space. Tools at the higher end of the graph are generally more complex, server-based systems which require a high degree of technical competence, and often the Internet, to set up and use. Tools in the lower end are simple, low-cost, need few technical skills, work on easily available hardware, don’t require the Internet, and are easy to install and run. Tools in the green space can be quickly adopted and replicated – within hours – whereas tools at the other end need much more planning, i.e. more people and more lead time, and most likely a degree of training.

So, how might we determine where a tool should be placed on the “social mobile long tail”? There are likely many measures and metrics, but I’d say these are a few of the more obvious ones the user would be principally concerned with:

  • Does the project have a user-facing, NGO-friendly website?
  • How technical is the language on the site?
  • Is there an easily accessible, open, visible user community?
  • How easy is the software to find, download and install?
  • Will it work on widely available hardware and software in the places where it will be used?
  • Can the user independently deploy the tool if they want to?

For some time I’ve wondered whether it would be worth scoping out the mobile landscape and plot available tools along the tail. Not only would it satisfy my general curiosity, but it could be immensely valuable to an NGO community which still largely struggles to understand the mobile technologies they believe – and hope – they should be using.