Cometh the hour. Cometh the technology.
For NGOs and developers alike, the ICT4D space can be a tough nut to crack. While NGOs generally struggle to find the tools they need to meet their particular needs, developers face the opposite problem – getting their tools into the hands of those who need them the most. Attempts to connect the NGO and developer communities – physically and virtually – continue to this day with varying degrees of success. There is no magic bullet.
Of course, bringing together the two parties in one place – community website, conference room or chat room – is only a small part of it. Getting them to understand each others needs, often over a technologically-fuelled chasm, can be another. While one side may approach things from a “technology looking for a problem” angle, NGOs often have it completely the other way round.
One of the earlier attempts to join the non-profit/developer dots took place in February 2007 in the boldly titled UN Meets Silicon Valley conference, where the United Nations met up with a bunch of Silicon Valley companies to explore how technology and industry could bolster international development. Lower-profile events also began to emerge around that time, often in the form of ‘user generated conferences’ such as BarCampAfrica (held in 2008) which aimed to:
… bring people, institutions and enterprises interested in Africa together in one location to exchange ideas, build connections, re-frame perceptions and catalyse action that leads to positive involvement and mutual benefit between Silicon Valley and the continent of Africa
Having worked for many years in the non-profit sector, particularly in developing countries, I’ve seen at first-hand the kind of challenges many face, and their frustration at the lack of appropriate ICT solutions available to them. I’ve also been on the developer side of the fence, spending much of the last six years developing and promoting the use of FrontlineSMS. Unfortunately, despite what you might think, seeing the challenge from both perspectives doesn’t necessarily make finding a solution any easier. Getting FrontlineSMS, for example, into the hands of NGOs has become slightly easier over time as more people get to hear about it, but it’s been largely a reactionary process at a time I’d much rather have been proactive. No magic bullet for me.
Sadly, for every ICT solution that gains traction, many more don’t even see the light of day. While you may argue those that failed probably weren’t good enough, this isn’t always the case. Take Kiva as a case in point. In the early days Matt and Jessica Flannery were regularly told by ‘experts’ that their idea wouldn’t work, that it wouldn’t scale. They didn’t give up, and today Kiva is a huge success story, connecting lenders – you and me – to small businesses in developing countries the world over. Since forming in late 2005 they have facilitated the lending of over $200 million to hundreds of thousands of entrepreneurs in some of the poorest countries in the world.
A key turning point for Kiva was their decision to switch from business plans to ‘action’ plans, getting out there and building their success from the ground up. Some of us would call this “rapid prototyping”, or “failing fast”. Whatever you choose to call it, it’s an approach I firmly believe in. In places like Silicon Valley getting it wrong isn’t seen as a bad thing, and this encourages a “rapid prototyping” culture. Sadly the story is very different in the UK.
Some projects – Kiva and FrontlineSMS among them – are based on experiences gained in the field and the belief that a particular problem can be solved with an appropriate technological intervention. Of course, before any ICT4D solution can succeed there has to be a need. It doesn’t matter how good a solution is if people don’t see the ‘problem’ as one that needs fixing. In the case of Kiva, borrowers were clearly in need of funds, yet lenders lacked access to them. With FrontlineSMS, grassroots non-profits were keen to make use of the growing numbers of mobile phones among their stakeholders, but lacked a platform to communicate with them. These two initiatives worked because they were problems that not only found a solution, but a solution that was appropriate and one that was easy to deploy.
The ICT4D space is exciting and challenging in equal measure, and by its very nature practitioners tend to focus on some of the most pressing problems in the most challenging parts of the world. Whether it’s a natural disaster, a stolen election, human-wildlife conflict, a crushed uprising or a health epidemic, elements of the ICT4D community spring into action to either help co-ordinate, fix, or report on events. Interestingly, it can sometimes be the events themselves which raise the profile of a particular ICT solution, or the events themselves which lead to the creation of new tools and resources.
In 2006, Erik Sundelof was one of a dozen Reuters Digital Vision Fellows at Stanford University, a programme I was fortunate enough to attend the following year (thanks, in large part, to Erik himself). Erik was building a web-based tool – “inthefieldonline” – which allowed citizens to report news and events around them to the wider world through their mobile phones. This, of course, is nothing particularly new today, but back then it was an emerging field and Erik was at the forefront. During the final weeks of his Fellowship in July 2006, Israel invaded Lebanon in response to the kidnapping of one of their soldiers. Erik’s tool was picked up by Lebanese civilians, who texted in their experiences, thoughts, hopes and fears through their mobile phones. The international media were quick onto the story, including CNN. Erik’s project was propelled into the limelight, resulting in significant funding to develop a new citizen journalism site, allvoices, which he ran until recently.
In a similar vein, it took a national election to significantly raise the profile of FrontlineSMS when it was used to help monitor the Nigerian Presidential elections in 2007. The story was significant in that it was believed to be the first time civil society had helped monitor an election in an African country using mobile technology. As the BBC reported:
anyone trying to rig or tamper with Saturday’s presidential elections in Nigeria could be caught out by a team of volunteers armed with mobile phones
Although FrontlineSMS had already been around for over eighteen months at that time, its use in Nigeria created significant new interest in the software, lead to funding from the MacArthur Foundation and ended with the release of a new version the following summer. The project has gone from strength to strength since.
One of today’s most talked-about platforms also emerged from the ashes of another significant event, this time the troubles following Kenya’s disputed elections in late 2007. With everyday Kenyans deprived of a voice at the height of the troubles, a team of African developers created a site which allowed citizens to report acts of violence via the web and SMS, incidents which were then aggregated with other reports and displayed on a map. Ushahidi – “witness” in Kiswahili – provided an avenue for everyday people to get their news out, and news of its launch was widely hailed in the mainstream press. The creation of Ushahidi is a textbook study in rapid prototyping and collaboration.
The interesting thing about all these projects is that they all proved that they worked – i.e. proved there was a need and developed a track record – before receiving significant funding. Kiva got out there and showed that their lending platform worked before major funders stepped in, just as FrontlineSMS did. And Ushahidi put the first version of their crowdsourcing site together in just five days, and have reaped the benefits of having that early working prototype ever since. If there is a lesson to learn here then it would have to be this – don’t let a lack of funding stop you from getting your ICT4D solution off the ground, even if it does involve “failing fast”.
Of course, not everyone can rely on an international emergency to raise the profile of their project or big idea, and it wouldn’t be wise to bet on one ever happening, either. But when it does, an obvious lack of a solution to a problem often rises to the surface, creating an environment where tools which do exist – whether they are proven or not – are able to prosper for the benefit of everyone.