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Posts from — June 2012

The death of a town centre.

The vast majority of my work over the past ten years has been focused specifically in the developing world. Various countries across Africa, in particular, were destinations for most of my travel and research. I’ve had an incredible time quenching a thirst for knowledge going all the way back to the early 1990′s when I first took an interest in international development.

Of course, if the target of your sole interest is overseas, and several thousand miles away at that, then it’s an obvious struggle to continually spend time in the field. Since the birth of Henry Banks last summer I’ve been spending less and less time away from home. This, fortunately for me, has coincided with a recent transition from day-to-day involvement in FrontlineSMS, and a move to a new project which I’ve been slowly working on for a couple of years – Means of Exchange – which has roots much closer to home.

This has a few advantages, the main one being that the fundamental problem I’m hoping to address – how we build tools to promote economic resilience among local communities – is (sadly) everywhere around me.

Even when I’m on holiday.

The small Finnish town close to where we’re staying is not alone in experiencing something similar to many other towns around the world – the death of the High Street. This has nothing to do with the current economic crisis and more to do with town planning, but the effects are devastating on local shops and the sense of community. Only on market days do the streets now come alive. The ‘action’ is now a mile down the road in not one, but two mega-shopping centres.

There’s something quite strange about walking through a town centre on a fine, early afternoon and being one of only a handful of people around. Locals do see what’s happening, but for many it’s too late. For the town centre to come alive again, and for people to begin supporting local shops again, and meeting up in the square again, people are going to have to mobilise and, more importantly, want it to happen. A community-lead revival – and this is what that needs – must be lead by the community.

It remains to be seen what will happen here, but many people back home in the UK do have the drive, passion, desire and commitment to rebuild their local communities, and my belief is that appropriate technologies can play a major part in promoting that revival.

I’m in if you are.

June 29, 2012   14 Comments

From text messaging to economic resilience

Three weeks ago we announced that I was stepping down from day-to-day operations at FrontlineSMS to hand over to a new senior management team. It’s clear from the success of the global launch of version 2 of the software over the past week that FrontlineSMS is in safe hands, and the reworked software, outreach and launch were all handled by the team with little involvement from me. It was great to see all their hard work come together, and I congratulate everyone on a job extremely well done. \o/

Photo: Laura W Hudson

As I mentioned in my recent post, I’ll remain involved with the project and will continue to support innovation and entrepreneurship in the developing (and developed) world, will continue to write about technology and Africa, and will continue with mentoring and speaking. The ICT4D and social innovation fields continue to fascinate and inspire me as much as they did all those years ago when I started out, and I’ll remain involved as long as I continue to add value.

Introducing “Means of Exchange”

So, what else will I be working on? Well, for the past two years I’ve been taking an increasing interest in economic resilience, particularly how technology might help buffer local communities from global economic downturns. Ironically, since I started my research the world has entered a period of growing economic uncertainty. The causes – although fascinating – don’t so much interest me, more the response at local, grassroots level.

As we all know, in times of hardship people tend to become increasingly innovative. As Greeks have found themselves with less and less cash in their pockets, many have turned to bartering. It’s how communities react to economic shocks that I’ll be focussing on, and how tools like bartering, swapping, LETS schemes and local currencies are applied and deployed in response.

We pay too little attention to the reserve power of the people to take care of themselves. We are too solicitous for government intervention, on the theory, first, that the people themselves are helpless, and second, that the government has superior capacity for action. Often times both of these conclusions are wrong

Calvin Coolidge

It’s only when things go wrong that we question the systems which regulate, control and dominate our lives. We enter 2012 at a time of great economic uncertainty. Millions of people around the world have lost jobs, homes, businesses, independence and purpose. Millions more face growing uncertainty and insecurity. Many hard working people have been hard hit. In the greater scheme of things they’re simply collateral damage in the rebalancing of a larger, broken world economic system.

While it’s impossible for most of us to remove ourselves entirely from the world economic system, there is a lot we can do to lessen our dependence on it. Funnily enough it’s something our ancestors managed to do pretty well. It’s called self-sufficiency.

For the majority of people, self-sufficiency conjures up images of grow-your-own vegetables on village allotments, but more meaningful economic self-sufficiency is possible if people are creative in how they earn, trade and share with one another. As money has taken over as our primary means of exchange, other more traditional methods have been lost.

What we’ve been left with is an economic system we have little control over, a loss of community and a drift away from the consumption of locally produced goods and services.

But all is not lost. This can be halted, and by using the very technologies which enable us to take part in a globalised society, it can be reversed. If you’re interested in learning more about methods of economic self-sufficiency, or you’re interested in tools and resources to make it happen, then Means of Exchange is for you.

Firstly, the website will focus on how emerging, everyday technologies can be used to democratise opportunities for economic self-sufficiency, rebuild local communities and promote a return to local resource use.

Secondly, if they don’t already exist, we’ll build you the tools so you can make it happen wherever you are. Our first flagship “app” will be released within the next few weeks.

To keep up-to-date with new releases and latest news, check us out via:

See you on the other side.

June 18, 2012   41 Comments

Closing mobile’s data divide

Good mobile data is hard to come by. Much is either speculative, out of date or – if based on more recent research – expensive. And what is freely available is often spread far and wide across the Web. If you’re into mobiles for development then today your life is set to become a lot easier with the launch of “Mobile and Development Intelligence” (MDI), a new open data platform from the GSM Association which aims to “educate and unite all who want to harness the power of mobile for good”.

A key objective of MDI is to help increase investment and activity in the mobile for development field, and in turn amplify the social, economic and environmental benefits the technology can bring. That positive impact has already touched a wide range of development sectors from education and health to financial services, government transparency and democracy, and agriculture. With mobile phones now in the hands of the very people the development community have historically tried to help – billions of them, and counting – exciting new opportunities have emerged. According to the GSMA:

The mobile phone’s ubiquity is uniquely well-placed to drive economic and social development in emerging markets. Investments in the mobile and development sectors are rising yet there is limited data on which to base these decisions. MDI is designed to bridge this information gap.

These gaps include:

  • The lack of data for business cases, product strategies and programmes
  • Limited visibility of organisations and communities
  • Limited understanding of the impact of mobiles on development
  • Fragmentation of platforms and limited cross-sector convergence

In line with these challenges, MDI aims to provide:

A freely accessible, online repository of data and analysis
MDI will aggregate, cleanse and categorise data from multiple internal and external sources into a single, centralised data repository. Users will have the ability to manipulate, visualise and export the datasets (below: the ratio of total mobile connections to total population, 2009-2011).

Visibility of organisations, products and services and community
MDI will provide an online directory where users can access information about organisations and their products, services and initiatives. It will provide the “who, what, where and how”.

Clarify the impact of mobile on development
Develop impact pathways for each specific sector to find and map evidence of socio-economic benefit, and host impact metrics from other GSMA departments e.g. the impact of mobile on GDP.

Thought leadership on technology convergence
Working outwards from user needs to design common platforms to deliver them.

Future functionality will include an investor hub, document repository, online community and coverage maps making MDI a one-stop shop for NGOs, international NGOs, government departments and the private sector interested in leveraging the power of mobile technology for development.

You can visit the MDI site here.

Congratulations to the GSMA team, partners ThoughtWorks and PwC, and investor the Omidyar Network.

June 13, 2012   117 Comments

Back at National Geographic

I was no different to many other children my age, taking every opportunity to get my hands on a National Geographic magazine and flicking through each colourful page in wonder and amazement. I’d get most of mine cheap from jumble sales back then – I can afford to buy them full price these days – but that sense of fascination remains.

Thirty years on and I find myself back in Washington DC attending my second National Geographic Explorers Symposium. I’ve packed quite a lot in over those thirty years – school building in Zambia, hospital building in Uganda, a degree in Social Anthropology, carrying out biodiversity surveys in Uganda, running a primate sanctuary in Nigeria, various trips and visits to a host of other countries, most on the African continent and, of course, the development of FrontlineSMS.

It was 2003 that my career took its most significant turn when I started working in mobile, and until very recently FrontlineSMS took up most of my time. It was that work which caught the eye of the panel at the National Geographic Society, culminating in my Award in 2010. I’m back again this year to moderate a panel, help mentor the 2012 Class of Emerging Explorers, and share news of my growing relationship with the Society.

It’s not every day that you find yourself randomly sharing a lift with people behind some of the most famous discoveries of our time. This is a very special place, and it’s always a huge honour to be here. If you’d told me thirty years ago that I’d be walking these corridors today, I’d never have believed you.

June 11, 2012   9 Comments

Back to the Future: Seventeen things you might not know about FrontlineSMS

This post was first published on the FrontlineSMS website last October to celebrate six years since the software’s launch. This week the FrontlineSMS team – which now spans three continents – are preparing for the release of the latest version. Launch events are being held in the US, UK and Kenya. Further details are available here.

With this, and our transition announcement a couple of weeks ago, it felt like a good time to reflect on the early days of the software. Thanks to the great support of our online community, users, staff, donors, bloggers and the media, FrontlineSMS today is well known throughout the wider ICT4D world. But it wasn’t always that way. Here’s that post in full.

In late October 2005, an early beta – “proof-of-concept” – version of FrontlineSMS was released to the world. It took just ten months for the idea to shape itself into the early stages of what you see today. In this, the second and last of our sixth birthday celebration posts (you can read the first here), we dig deep into our email archives and reveal some of the more interesting early – and perhaps surprising – moments of the project.

The idea for FrontlineSMS was conceived in early 2005 with the help of several field trips to South Africa and Mozambique, a bottle of beer and “Match of the Day”. All is revealed in this fun, short National Geographic video made in 2010:

The very first email which specifically references FrontlineSMS was sent on 6th March, 2005 at 0853 to register the domain name.

Prior to that the working title was “Project SMS”. The first email to reference “Project SMS” was sent on Wednesday 26th January, 2005 at 12:02. In it, the entire concept was described in just 963 words with an initial estimated budget of just £2,000 ($3,000).

Factoring in equipment and other costs, personal gifts totaling £10,000 were secured on 16th March, 2005 from two former Vodafone directors.

“The potential for FrontlineSMS is very exciting, and I am very much looking forward to working on the project. The potential impact for conservation and development is considerable.” – Email from me to one of the supporters, 3rd May, 2005.

Preparation for the project officially got underway with the purchase of equipment totaling £1,476.09 on 22nd May, 2005:

One month later the timeline for the project was laid out. FrontlineSMS was delivered bang on schedule. From an email on 22nd June, 2005:

“I will begin working on the specification over the next couple of weeks, and will then get stuck into the initial programming phase during August. I have allocated that whole month to FrontlineSMS. As per the original timeline, July will be preparation, and August to September development time, so by October we should have something to trial.”

August 2005: The Beta version of FrontlineSMS was developed on this kitchen table in Finland. In the absence of any other images, the forest view from the window was used as the main banner for the first FrontlineSMS website later that month.

News of FrontlineSMS was first revealed to the media in an interview with the Charity Times [PDF] in August, 2005. Software development was briefly paused on 26th August so that the first FrontlineSMS website could be hastily put together ahead of the article’s release.

“I have very high hopes that FrontlineSMS is really going to open the door to SMS technology to the wider NGO community” – Email to World Wildlife Fund, who were interested in trailing the software. 2nd September, 2005.

On 29th September, 2005 FrontlineSMS was presented for the first time at an internal event at Fauna & Flora International in Cambridge, UK:

On 5th October, 2005, to celebrate its imminent launch, FrontlineSMS buys up 200 pixels on the Million Dollar Homepage, a site which has since gone down in Internet folklore. (Read more on this here).

Email, 6th October, 2005: “Google now gives us around 80 results when searching for FrontlineSMS”. Today the number is well over 100,000.

Email to supporters, 31st October, 2005: “The FrontlineSMS texting system is now ready for trial”. These nine words signaled our official launch exactly six years ago today.

Email dated 14th November, 2005 from the MacArthur Foundation: “The MacArthur Foundation’s Technology Grants Committee is always looking for innovative applications of technology for the NGO sector. I’d love to have a chat with you about your application if you have the time”. Two years later MacArthur would become the first donor to make an investment in FrontlineSMS with a $200,000 grant. This funded a major rewrite and a new website in 2008.

14th November, 2005: 160 Characters are the first mobile-focused news site to announce the release of FrontlineSMS.

15th November, 2005: We receive an email enquiry from Kubatana, a Zimbabwean civil society organisation. Days later FrontlineSMS had its first official implementation. Kubatana still use FrontlineSMS today.

Today, with fifteen staff over three continents, users in over 80 countries across 20 different non-profit sectors, and over 25,000 downloads, the rest – as they say – is history…  \o/

June 10, 2012   17 Comments

Innovation: Beyond technology.

Last week we made one of the most important announcements in the near-seven year history of FrontlineSMS. As I hinted in my “Rolling Stones School of Management Innovation” post last December, I only felt able to take the project to a certain level and that it required different people with a different set of skills to move it to the next. Last week, with that internal transition complete, we announced that I’d be stepping aside to concentrate on other things, and FrontlineSMS would move forward in fresh hands.

Laura Walker Hudson and Sean Martin McDonald will now drive the project forward as CEO’s of our US Foundation and UK Community Interest Company respectively. You can read their thoughts on the transition, and what they have planned, in their follow-up post here.

Many wonderful messages of support flooded in in the form of Tweets, direct messages, blog comments, emails and – of course – text message. The transition announcement was amazingly well received and the response overwhelmingly positive. Many people commented that the move was “incredibly brave” and “must have been difficult” but as I mentioned in the announcement, I felt it was neither. As I said then, I’ve always maintained that it’s just as important to be aware of your limitations as your strengths, and stepping aside in these circumstances is the clearest indication I can give that I do.

There haven’t been many transitions like this in the m4d or ICT4D worlds that I know of, and if that’s the case it reinforces our commitment to not only be innovative with technology but innovative organisationally, and to also always act in the best interests of the project rather than ourselves. FrontlineSMS, as with many other ICT4D projects, is bigger than one person. I’m excited to see where FrontlineSMS goes from here, and I’ll follow and support it in my new capacity as Chairman of the Board with the same commitment and enthusiasm as I did from my one bedroom flat in Cambridge, or VW Camper at Stanford.

Alongside the congratulatory messages a few people wished me luck and said they hoped to still see me on the innovation, technology, mobile or African scene. Well, they will. I’m not retiring, just handing over the reins at FrontlineSMS. I’ll continue to write, blog and speak about technology, innovation and social change, and maintain a focus on Africa as I’ve done for the past twenty years.

What’s next

As for what’s next, I’m excited that over the past few months I’ve been increasingly drawn into the wider world of innovation and entrepreneurship beyond my technology roots – speaking the other week at the Ashoka/Ben & Jerry’s ”Join Our Core” event, for example, and next month spending time with BMW executives in Munich.

My writing has also started to gain traction beyond the news sites and journals which dominate our discipline, with a short guest piece in Wired Magazine last month. I’m also planning my first book which will focus on “reluctant innovation“, due out later this year. And I’m doing an increasing amount of mentoring with organisations such as Pop!Tech, National Geographic and the Unreasonable Institute, something that aligns perfectly with my long-standing commitment to “give back”.

Project-wise I have a long list of new ideas I’ll be working on. One is just a few weeks away from being ready, so I’ll save the official announcement for then. But in the spirit of my efforts with FrontlineSMS, the overarching focus of my work will continue to centre around how we best apply modern technology for social benefit, both in the developed and developing world. If anything, it’s the additional focus on the developed world which represents the biggest shift in my thinking.

In an effort to stay innovative and relevant, large companies are often encouraged to reinvent themselves. There’s no reason why this shouldn’t apply to individuals, too. The ICT4D sector has shifted focus considerably since I started out all those years ago. When the time is right, there’s no reason why some of the people in it shouldn’t do the same, either.

Further reading
ClearlySo featured our transition on their blog. You can read their excellent commentary here.

June 5, 2012   52 Comments