In search of an ICT4D mantra

In many sectors of international development it’s hard to imagine how you’d have much impact if you weren’t out in the field. After all, teachers want to be in-class. Doctors want to be in-clinic. And conservationists want to be in-situ. There’s only so much any of them can do when they’re not. Getting ‘stuck in’ is largely what it’s all about.

So why are so many ICT4D professionals happy to work remotely? And why does much of the ICT4D sector not find that odd?

In an article due to be published this week on BBC Future, I write about how technology has ‘democratised development’ and that there are “likely more people working on solving social and environmental problems in the world today than ever before in human history”. The spread of mobile technology and the Internet has made all of this possible. These are exciting times, make no mistake.

But  just because these tech-based opportunities have literally come to us in the comfort of our own homes, we mustn’t kid ourselves into believing that we don’t need to make any effort to lay the groundwork to our apps and ideas by getting out and spending time in the field. Just because the very technologies we use, by their very nature, allow us to work at-a-distance – remotely – that doesn’t mean we have to. If that doctor, or teacher, or conservationist could do their work without stepping into that Malawian clinic, or Lusaka classroom or Namibian national park, would they? I doubt it.

Last night I caught sight of a tweet from Tony Roberts. Although it sounds like something an anthropologist (or philosopher) might say, it perfectly describes an approach the ICT4D sector might like to adopt.

The beauty of the Internet, and the spread of mobile technology, is that anyone anywhere can quickly develop and distribute a mobile-based solution to a social or environmental problem, and start picking up users immediately. The technology is in place, and the distribution channel is there. All that’s needed are good, solid ideas and a drive and passion to fix a problem somewhere – and, let’s face it, there are plenty of those. All-in-all, the barriers to entry are lower than they’ve ever been.

But they’re so low we end up with a different problem.

For the doctor, teacher or conservationist, understanding the context of their patient, student or endangered species is critical for the work they do if they’re to do it well. With few exceptions, they can only get that by spending time in the field. This isn’t perceived to be the case for a programmer or coder. The result? A majority of apps written in isolation which have little chance of success.

Maybe that doesn’t matter. With the barriers to entry so low the cost of building and distributing these apps is minimal. The fact that so many people are taking an interest in fixing things should be encouraging enough. But there’s no doubt that spending time with your users, understanding their context, discussing what they need and then building a tool based on all of those things gives you the greatest chance of success.

Further reading
Social mobile: Myths and misconceptions
Mobile applications development: Observations
Rethinking Schumacher.

Smart mobs, flash mobs. Meet cash mobs.

A couple of months ago I wrote about my new initiative – Means of Exchange – which focuses 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. It’s been a busy few months, culminating in the launch of our first project this week. And here it is.

You’ve probably heard of smart mobs, or at least flash mobs. Welcome to the brave new world of cash mobs.

Cash mobbing takes its name from “flash mobbing”, a craze which started way back in 2003 in Manhattan, New York. In a flash mob, a group of people mobilise over social media and arrange to meet in a predetermined place. According to Wikipedia, when they get there they “perform an unusual and seemingly pointless act for a brief time, then disperse, often for the purposes of entertainment, satire, and artistic expression”. Flash mobs were themselves inspired by “smart mobs”, a term coined by Howard Rheingold to describe a group that, contrary to the usual connotations of a mob, “behaves intelligently or efficiently because of its exponentially increasing network links”.

Continuing the theme, a “cash mob” takes place when a group of people arrange to meet at a local shop or store. When they get there, instead of dancing, singing or carrying out other “pointless acts”, they spend a predetermined amount of money. Cash mobs are generally organised by people who enjoy the fun, excitement and novelty of a cash mob, or others who are concerned about the plight of local businesses and want to do something to help.

A number of websites have sprung up over recent months encouraging people to cash mob their local stores, and a number of Facebook groups and Twitter feeds have been created to support their efforts. So far, people have either been given a few pointers and then told to go and figure out the social media bit for themselves, or they’ve been asked to propose local venues to local group ‘owners’ to choose from. We think people want to create their own cash mob, not settle for someone else’s, and they want to be able to seamlessly push it out through their existing social media, not fiddle around creating new accounts. So we built Cash Mobbers.

To coincide with the launch of the Cash Mobbers website we’ve organised what we believe to be London’s first cash mob at an independent bookshop in Hackney this Thursday (9th August).

Further details are available, naturally, on the Cash Mobbers website.

If the idea of driving business back to smaller, locally owned shops and stores is something that appeals to you, there’s a few things you can do:

1. Tweet about this post or the Cash Mobbers site to help spread the word
2. Follow @CashMobbers on Twitter
3. Tweet about the London cash mob, and “Like” the event
4. Let any friends in or around London know about it
5. Organise your own cash mob. Find full details and pointers here

My ethos with Means of Exchange remains the same as it has with much of my work over the years. The main objective is to build and gather a suite of engaging tools to help people help themselves, whenever they’re ready. Sometimes that can take a while, but I’m in no hurry. After all, build it, and they will come…