Building mobile applications for social good

“If you were thinking of designing or building a website, you’d be in luck. If you were thinking of writing a suite of financial management tools, you’d be in luck. If you were even thinking of creating the next big video game, you’d be in luck. Visit any good bookstore and the selection of self-help books and “how-to” guides leave you spoilt for choice. 

Unlike the plethora of self-help guides on the more established topics, if you were looking to do something with mobile phones you’d likely have mixed results. There are plenty of books available extolling the virtues of Java, Python, Ruby, Ruby on Rails, C++, Symbian, Android and just about any other development environment or platform out there. Combine that with the growing field of mobile UI (user interface) design and you’d think that pretty much everything was covered. But there is one thing missing, although you’d probably only notice if you’re one of a growing number of developers turning their attention to the developing world”.

I’m talking about a guide on “Building Mobile Applications for Social Good“. Although just a start, this article – written for The Testing Planet – in part aims to fill that gap. At conferences and seminars I often talk about our experiences developing FrontlineSMS, and the thinking and fieldwork behind it, but until now much of this wasn’t particularly well captured in written form in a single place.

A PDF of the “Building Mobile Applications for Social Good” article is available via the kiwanja website here [2 Mb]. A PDF of the full edition of this month’s Testing Planet is available on their website here.

The Testing Planet is a magazine produced by The Software Testing Club and its community members. The magazine is published in print, ebook, Kindle, PDF and web format. You can follow them on Twitter at @testingclub

Further reading
Check out an earlier article – “Mobile Design. Sans Frontieres” – co-written with friend and colleague Joel Selanikio, and the wider “Mobile apps development” category in this blog.

Unpicking the (offline) mystery of the mask

In an age where you can find answers to almost anything with the click of a mouse, it can come as something of a surprise when what might seem like a simple bit of research comes to an abrupt, premature end.

Back in 2004 I came across a strange-looking mask in a South African craft market. It immediately caught my eye and looked very different from the many others on sale. I bought it, packaged it up and brought it home. Before I’d even unpacked my bag my research began. I knew it wasn’t an original, but was curious to find out more about the people who might have made these decades or centuries earlier. These people, it turned out, were the Kwele of Equatorial Africa.

“With their slit eyes that elegantly curve to the temples, Kwele masks are readily identifiable. Looking at the subtly refined forms, the mild concave shapes, and especially the graceful heart-shaped face, one might be tempted to assume it to be a classic form of African sculpture. Strangely, this is not so, although art enthusiasts and specialists have admired these works for decades”

Art of the Kwele of Equatorial Africa (Louis Perrois)

Ironically, the search for my replica mask lead me to an auction which had an authentic piece for sale. Although unable to compete with hardened collectors, I had two things in my favour. Firstly, the piece was about as far from ‘museum quality’ as you could get, and secondly very little was known about where it was originally collected from and when. These two criteria are often high on the priority list for professional collectors. Few were interested, giving me a chance to snap it up.

The mask is incredible because of its condition – eaten away by the ravages of time, chewed at by insects, damaged during ceremonial use. Driven by curiosity, what I’ve managed to find out about the mask is this. It was most likely collected by Swedish traveller (and prolific African art collector) Jan Olof Ollers in the late 1930’s. Some reports say he may have been a missionary. He travelled widely and built his collection over a thirty-five year period, but then sold a large part of it – over 1,000 pieces – at a Sotheby’s London auction in 1973 before emigrating to Canada. For some reason he kept hold of the Kwele mask, possibly because of its ‘poor’ condition, or maybe because it was one of his favourites. Jan Ollers died in Toronto in 2001, and with him many of the answers I’ve been seeking today.

Much about the mask remains a mystery. Where was it collected? When? Did Jan Ollers collect it? If not, who did? What would it have been used for? What kind of mask is it? Although listed as an owl mask, other owl masks that I’ve found are round, and don’t have the large ‘wings’ (or are they ears?) that this one does. I do know that a number of Kwele ceremonial masks were based on the dreams of their makers, who were visited by forest spirits in their sleep. Was this one of them? If so, what was the dream? What’s the significance of the wings (or ears)?

However much I’d love answers to these questions, my chances look bleak. Maybe it’s best left this way. In a world where we can find answers to almost everything, a little wonder and mystery might be a good thing…

The Networked Society Forum. In tweets.

“Information and Communication Technology (ICT) is changing the way we live and learn faster than ever before. At NEST – The Networked Society Forum in Hong Kong – we gathered ICT leaders, world-renowned professors, top politicians and inspirational global leaders to discuss: How ICT can shape the future of learning for everyone, everywhere?”

I’ve just returned from a whirlwind visit to Hong Kong attending NEST, an event organised by Ericsson to explore how the technology industry can contribute to, and promote, the development sector. This meeting – which may turn into an annual event – focused specifically on education. It was high-level, attended by the CEO’s of many of the top technology companies around the world. I was fortunate to be invited to represent the non-profit sector.

As I’ve done before at conferences in Aspen and Oxford, here’s another “in tweets” post which hopefully gives a flavour of some of the topics under discussion. (You can click on the images to link to the original tweet).

Context: The CEO of Ericsson, Hans Vestberg, sets the scene in his opening remarks. Mobile phones, whilst very personal devices, have a much broader collective impact when considered part of a global ‘network’. The potential of this ‘networked society’ formed the basis of NEST 2011.

Context: Jeffrey Sachs, Director of The Earth Institute at Columbia University, echoes what many in the ‘mobile-for-development’ community believe. Note his use of the word instrument, not solution.

Context: Some of the greatest contributions to the morning session forced delegates to challenge their assumptions. Just because we were talking about education didn’t mean we had to accept there would always be a role for teachers, or text books. In the digital future, assume nothing.

Context: Something I’ve long called for, as a sector we should be more willing to focus efforts on initiatives that are working – rather than continually chasing the next big thing. Let’s find examples of successes in our field, and let donors and government see that technology can make a positive impact.

Context: If you’ve not come across Sugata Mitra’s work then take a look. A proponent of “self learning”, Sugata forced many attendees to challenge their assumptions on everything from education to qualifications, including the question here (for which no-one seemed to have an answer).

Context: One of my comments from the floor. It’s important that we don’t over-hype the role technology can play in the wider education debate. There are many problems that need tackling – financial, cultural, geographical – and ICT cannot help bridge them all.

Context: What do we mean by “education”? What do we mean by “qualification”? Add to that – what do we mean by “developing”? All countries are constantly in stages of development, surely?

Context: One of my comments from the floor. Many delegates believed that key learning needed to happen in schools. I don’t think it does.

Context: If it turns out that technology is able teach better than people, then we should let it. Teachers may not be part of the solution.

Context: In his closing keynote, President Clinton reminded us to keep it real. Despite the progress and potential for modern technology to solve some of the bigger challenges, there is still much to be done. We’re not there yet – by a long way.

Ericsson will be releasing videos, interviews and other materials over the coming weeks. Keep an eye on the Forum website for more.

Delivering on your values

I’m just back from my first visit to Harvard University where FrontlineSMS was presented with the 2011 Curry Stone Design Prize. The award ceremony on Monday was followed by a seminar on Tuesday, co-hosted by Nicco Mele and Ethan Zuckerman.

Our beliefs, values and approach come out strongly in this five minute video, put together by the organisers. FrontlineSMS is more than just a piece of software, and I’m equally as proud of the roots and ethos of FrontlineSMS as I am of the tool itself. (You can also watch this video on our community site).

I’ve been involved in international development in one form or another for the past 18 years, and have seen at first hand things that have worked, and things that haven’t. There’s much that’s wrong in the sector, but also a lot that’s right, and for me personally FrontlineSMS embodies how appropriate and respectful ICT4D initiatives can be run, both on a personal and professional level. There’s very little I’d do differently if I started it all over again.

As I wrote earlier this month after news of our Curry Stone Design Prize broke:

Over the past few years FrontlineSMS has become so much more than just a piece of software. Our core values are hard-coded into how the software works, how it’s deployed, the things it can do, how users connect, and the way it allows all this to happen. We’ve worked hard to build a tool which anyone can take and, without us needing to get involved, be applied to any problem anywhere. How this is done is entirely up to the user, and it’s this flexibility that sits at the core of the platform. It’s also arguably at the heart of it’s success.

These core values, built up over six years, remain central to our work. Here’s just a few:

Each and every one is important to us: Putting users ahead – and at the heart – of everything we do, striving for a positive interaction with anyone who comes into contact with our work, aiming to inspire others whilst respecting a diversity of views, always reaching for better, fostering a positive “anything is possible” attitude, making sure we continue to put people – and their needs – ahead of the aspirations of the tech community, managing expectations both internally and for our users, and finally – constantly reminding ourselves why we do what we do.

As we continue to grow as an organisation, maintaining and reinforcing these values will be an increasingly important part of not only who we are, but who we become.

ICT4D postcards: The story so far

A couple of weeks ago I sent out an open invitation for people to contribute to the “ICT4D Postcards Project“. The idea was to gather a collection of postcards from people working in international development who had a technology theme – or influence – in their work. Postcards have been coming in since, and I thought it would be a good idea to post a few up here, ahead of the full collection which will be posted online in the coming weeks.

In short, a postcard consists of a photograph and short narrative which explains why the image is important – or how it relates – to that person’s work. The idea is to go beyond usual explanation and website narrative to reveal more personal insights and motivations of the people who work in our field.

Here’s a selection of five which have come in so far. In no particular order.

Jonathan Donner. Kigali, 2003 | Website | Twitter

In 2003, mobile phones were just appearing in Rwanda. Penetration was just 1.5 per 100 people (1.5%) then. It is over 33% now. I organized some studies to ask microentrepreneurs about how they were using their new phones. Everyone was quite accommodating, letting us ask details about each of the last 10 calls recorded on the phones call log. Though we learned a lot about business processes and productivity, our data also demonstrated just how intertwined these phones had already become into daily life – two-thirds of the calls were with friends and family. I suspect these trends still hold.  At this moment, the interviewer (Nicole K. Umutoni) was probably looking back at me and wondering why I was taking this picture.  Now we know!

Jan Chipchase. Lagos, 2011 | Website | Twitter

That your and my cultural sensibilities about what is appropriate is irrelevant. That there are many ways to extend the internet – and that those that make the effort to do so, show us where the value is. That everything can, and will eventually be remixed.

Linda Raftree. Cameroon, June 2010 | Website | Twitter

This picture is taken on top of a large rocky hill during a workshop in Ndop, Cameroon. I love the young man’s rasta hat and the delicate lavender colored felt flower in the girl’s hair, the tender manner that they are learning together to film, and how the camera helps them see themselves and their surroundings in new ways. Up on that rock in the middle of the fields, breeze blowing under the giant sky, watching two young people teach other; the reminder that I am transient in this line of work and do not matter much in the larger scheme of things was strong, beautiful and comforting.

Erik Hersman. Liberia, 2009 | Website | Twitter

“ICT4D” represents a mental roadblock. A term that brings as much baggage with it as a sea of white SUVs, representing the humanitarian industrial complex’s foray into the digital world. It means we’re trying to airlift in an infrastructure instead of investing in local technology solutions. Like the SUVs, it’s currently an import culture that will not last beyond the project’s funding and the personnel who parachuted in to do it.

Heather Underwood. Kenya, 2011 | Website | Twitter

In August, 2011, I visited several health clinics in Kenya to determine the feasibility of using digital pen technology to enhance paper health forms. This photo was taken in a rural clinic in Mangalete. The woman using the digital pen is filling out a partograph – a paper tool used to monitor and detect prolonged or abnormal labors. She simply picked up the pen and started showing me how to properly fill out the form. When the pen’s audio suddenly informed her that she had crossed the alert line and should consider transferring the patient, her surprise and immediate understanding of the quality assurance and training benefits of this tool were incredibly gratifying. This interaction highlighted one of my core beliefs about ICT4D: big problems can often be addressed with simple solutions.

If you’re interested in taking part there’s still time. I’ll need the following:

1. A photo (high resolution if possible) – one you’ve taken, please. All it needs to qualify is to have a technology theme – radio, mobile phone, computer, solar lamp and so on.
2. Details of where it was taken and the year (if you remember).
3. A short description of what it is, and why it means something to you. Keep it short – think back of a postcard! We want personal stories – how you connect with the picture – not just a description of what it is.
4. A link to your website, blog or Twitter handle (or all three) so I can point people back to you and your work.

You can email all of this to