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Category — Anthropology

Indigenous and ingenious: The roots of mobile banking in Africa

In Ghana, it’s popularly known as susu. In Cameroon, tontines or chilembe. And in South Africa, stokfel. Today, you’d most likely call it plain-old microfinance, the nearest term we have for it. Age-old indigenous credit schemes have run perfectly well without much outside intervention for generations. Although, in our excitement to implement new technologies and solutions, we sometimes fail to recognise them. Innovations such as mobile banking – great as they may be – are hailed as revolutionary without much consideration for what may have come before, or who the original innovators may have been.

The image of traditional African societies as predominantly “simple hunter-gatherer” is more myth than truth. The belief that Africa had little by way of economic institutions and processes before the arrival of the Europeans is another. As Niti Bhan pointed out during a fascinating “Life is Hard” presentation at the Better World By Design Conference a couple of years ago, many rural communities today are familiar with concepts such as loans, barter, swap, trade, credit and interest rates, yet the majority remain excluded from the mainstream modern banking system and have never heard of things like ATMs, banks, mortgages or credit cards. It’s not that people don’t understand banking concepts – it’s just that, for them, things go by a different name.

In Kenya, as few as one in 10 people may have a bank account, but that doesn’t stop many of them from using a number of trading instruments or running successful businesses. Technology can certainly help strengthen traditional trading practices, and we know this because when technology is made available, the users are often the first to figure out how to best make it work for them. Mobile technology is today showcasing African grassroots innovation at its finest.

Africans are not the passive recipients of technology many people seem to think they are. Indeed, some of the more exciting and innovative mobile services around today have emerged as a result of ingenious indigenous use of the technology. Services such as “Call Me” – where customers on many African networks can send a fixed number of free messages per day when they’re out of credit requesting someone to call them – came about as a result of people ”flashing” or “beeping“ their friends (in other words, calling their phones and hanging up to indicate that they wanted to talk). A lot of interesting research on this phenomenon has been carried out by Jonathan Donner, an anthropologist working at Microsoft Research. Today’s more formal and official “Call Me”-style services have come about as a direct result of this entrepreneurial behavior.

The concept of mobile payments did, too.

Researchers have for some time been observing the behavior of users in developing countries, seeking to identify the next big thing. As Jo Best recently put it, many of these ideas spring from “the fertile mind of some user who wanted to do something with a mobile that their operator hadn’t provided yet.”

Tapping into these fertile minds is a fascinating business, something that Jan Chipchase (formerly of Nokia, now with Frog Design) is famous for. Some of Jan’s earlier observations identified emerging mobile payment-style services long before the mobile operators, or even the ICT4D community, had even thought of them. The mantra “build it and they will come” seems alive and well in the African mobile context.

Whilst many traditional development approaches generally introduce alien ideologies and concepts into developing countries – sometimes for the better, often for the worst – today’s emerging mobile services are very much based on a model of indigenous innovation. Take M-Pesa, the much-touted Kenyan mobile money transfer service developed by Vodafone and the U.K. Department for International Development, as an example. Increasing numbers of African users were already carrying out their own form of money transfers through their mobiles long before any official service came into being. SENTE, from Uganda, is one of the better known indigenous systems (M-Sente is now the name of Uganda Telecom’s official mobile money service).

What M-Pesa has done is formalise and scale this kind of activity and bring it fully to market. Its impact has been spectacular, with around 17 million subscribers now using the service, and 50% of Kenya’s entire GDP expected to pass through the platform over the next twelve months. But what services such as these, rolling out in increasing numbers of African countries, have done to earlier “indigenous” systems – mobile-based, such as SENTE, or more traditional microfinance solutions, such as susu, tontines or chilembe – is not so clear, although the latter were most likely well on the decline long before mobile phones came on the scene.

Many indigenous economic systems still exist today where they haven’t been wholly replaced by modern financial structures or technologies. In “Africa Unchained,” George Ayittey states his belief that future African economic prosperity lies in traditional systems and practices:

“Women traders can still be found at most markets in Africa. They still trade their wares for profit. And in virtually all traditional markets today, bargaining over prices is still the norm — an ancient tradition. Traditional African chiefs do not fix prices. And it is this indigenous economic system, characterised by free village markets, free trade and free enterprise that Africa must turn to for its economic rejuvenation.”

It’s likely that many people would argue strongly against Ayittey on this, believing that progress across the African continent is based on embracing change and the new world economic and technological order. It’s an active and fascinating debate. Whichever side of the fence you’re on, all of this does raise one important question.

Should technology solutions aimed at the developing world, and mobile solutions in particular, seek to build on and enhance indigenous, traditional activities – economic or otherwise – or, where necessary, is it okay just to replace and lose them?

That isn’t the only question, either. How does the introduction of emerging mobile services shift the balance of power in traditional African societies? Will women, for example, remain as economically active participants in the new mobile-powered world, or will men take more control? Do mobiles narrow or widen gender inequalities? Is technology exacerbating the gap between the haves and have-nots, or is it truly proving as transformational as we all believe or hope?

Very few businesses would willingly throw out all of their processes and procedures in order to implement a new IT system, however good it may be. The more astute ICT solutions providers know this and, wherever possible, aim to allow seamless integration of any new technology into their clients’ workplaces and working practices. Doesn’t it make sense that we should take the same approach with indigenous societies and seek to build on existing procedures and traditions, and not just assume that a new, modern solution is better and replace everything that went before?

It’s a fine balancing act and one people are still trying to figure out. The irony could be that while growing numbers of social scientists are turning to technology to help preserve and document disappearing cultures, the same technologies may be contributing to their ultimate decline.

September 3, 2012   240 Comments

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…

November 22, 2011   8 Comments

When in Rome. Or Africa.

Whenever I find myself in front of a group of students, or young people aspiring to work in development, I’m usually asked to share one piece of advice with them. I usually go with this: Get out there while you can and understand the context of the people you aspire to help. As you get older the reality is that it becomes harder to travel for extended periods, or to randomly go and live overseas.

In the early days of ICT4D and m4d – and development more broadly – it may have been seen as a luxury to understand the context of your target users (many solutions were seen as “universal”, after all). Today I’d say it’s become a necessity.

In my earlier days I did a lot of travel, mostly to and around Africa. (One thing I regret never managing to do was walk across the continent, something I started tentatively planning a few years ago). As our organisation has grown and my role within it changed, I spend more time today travelling to conferences giving talks than actually doing the work. My last major piece of extended fieldwork (i.e. longer than a week) was back in the summer of 2007 when I spent a month in Uganda consulting with Grameen’s fledgling AppLab.

There’s more to it, though, than just “getting out there”. What you learn, sense, pick up and appreciate about the place you’re in and the people you’re with largely depends on the kind of traveller you are. The truth of the matter is you’ll rarely get a real sense of a place staying for just a few days in the capital city behind the walls of a four or five star hotel. Quite often the more you get out of your comfort zone the more you learn.

I’ve been hugely fortunate to have lived and worked in many countries – mostly in Africa – since I set out to work in development almost twenty years ago. And during that time I’ve developed quite a few “travel habits” to help me get the most out of my time there.

Here’s my Top 15:

1. Stay in a locally-owned or run hotel (or even better, guest house).
2. Spend as much time as possible on foot. Draw a map.
3. Get out of the city.
4. Check out the best places to watch Premiership football.
5. Ignore health warnings (within reason) and eat in local cafes/markets.
6. Buy local papers, listen to local radio, watch local TV, visit local cinemas.
7. Use public transport. Avoid being ‘chauffeured’ around.
8. Take a camera. Take your time taking pictures.
9. Go for at least a month.
10. Visit villages on market days.
11. Spend time in local bookshops, libraries and antique/art shops.
12. Read up on the history and background of where you’re going. Buy a locally-written history and geography book.
13. Be sure to experience the city on foot, at night.
14. Wherever you are, get up for a sunrise stroll. It’s a different, fascinating (and cooler) time of day.
15. Don’t over-plan. Be open to unexpected opportunities.

Finally, if you’re looking for advice on what to take on a trip to Africa, good friend Erik Hersman (aka WhiteAfrican) has an excellent post here.

Additional suggestions

Rebecca Harrison (@rhrsn on Twitter):
16. Seize any opportunity to visit homes, especially at meal times.

August 27, 2011   53 Comments

Anthropologists in a Global Village

Social anthropology was a discipline I was fortunate to stumble into when I headed to university way back in 1996. My main motive for going was to read Development Studies, but at Sussex you couldn’t study it as a single subject. Choices for a second ranged from English Literature to Spanish to Geography. I rather casually picked anthropology.

If I were to be honest, for much of the first year I struggled. I never could get my head around the intricacies of “Kinship, Gender and Social Reproduction”. It wasn’t until we shifted focus in the second year towards applied anthropology that it all began to fall into place. Grounding the discipline in the problems and challenges of ‘modern’ life helped frame how useful, relevant and outright interesting it could be. By the time I graduated my main two pieces of work had focused on the role of anthropologists in the creation of conservation areas and national parks, and language death (including attempts to “revive” threatened languages such as Manx and Jerriais).

When people first come across our work they usually hone straight in on the “anthropology” in the strapline. Many people seem genuinely fascinated by what anthropologists could ever be doing working in mobiles-for-development, or ICT4D more broadly. It’s a good question. This is how I answered in a recent interview with National Geographic (this is one of a number of possible answers):

How are anthropologists exploring the enormous impacts of technology in the developing world?

Today, with markets saturated in the ‘developed world’ – if we can call it that – manufacturers are increasingly turning their attention to the two billion or so consumers left on the planet who don’t yet own a phone. Many of these people sit at the “bottom of the pyramid” (BOP) as economists like to call it, and many have very different needs from a mobile phone.

Manufacturers looking to build devices for the BOP need to very carefully consider price, which is often a crucial factor for someone with very limited disposable income. They might also need to consider literacy levels, or technical ability, perhaps re-working the user interface on the phone to make it easier to use.

They might also need to consider building phones which can take multiple SIM cards, since many people in the developing world regularly switch between different networks before making calls to take advantage of special deals. And they might need to think about providing security and privacy features on the phone which allows it to be shared between family members, something else which is very common in developing countries.

Understanding what these users might need or want from a phone needs time in the field, and researchers need to immerse themselves in the consumer, their lives and their phone usage patterns. Often it’s simply a case of patient, participant observation rather than just going in asking a bunch of questions, and anthropologists are particularly well suited to this kind of work.

Back in the summer of 2008 I was approached by researchers from the Department of Anthropology at the University of North Texas. They were working on a book chapter which looked at how anthropologists were contributing to the development of technologies that addressed the challenges of globalisation. Their focus was principally on consumer uses of technology, not organisational, and how anthropologists were melding theory and practice in the technology space, or “Global Village”.

After much work, that book – “Applying Anthropology in the Global Village” – is about to hit the shelves. For anyone interested in how anthropology can be usefully applied in the modern world, this is a must-read. kiwanja’s early work which lead to the development of FrontlineSMS is featured in the chapter on “Localising the Global in Technology Design”.

A comment from one of the reviewers sums up the book’s contribution well:

Once in a generation comes a shift in the practice of anthropology, or perhaps a shift in our perspective on the place of practice in the discipline and in the world.  Here is a harbinger of such change – the book we have all been waiting for – taking us to the cutting-edge of an anthropological practice that is ‘globalised’, hybridised with other disciplines, technology-infused, and on the go 24/7. A remarkable collection, this volume provides prospective and retrospective views of the agglomerative power of anthropology in the halls of global practice – influencing policy on global climate change, gendering our knowledge of mobility around the world, explaining the reason for technology ‘grey markets’ in developing nations, revealing the concept of ‘plastic time’ and so much more. It will challenge what you thought you knew about ‘applied anthropology’

Although nothing as grand as a book, there are a few posts here covering anthropology and it’s increasing relevance in the ICT4D/m4d sector. There’s a general introduction here, a few additional resources here and an anthropology ‘category’ here.

If you’re interested in working in ICT4D and would rather focus on the “D”, you could do a lot worse than study anthropology. This book could well be the perfect place to start.

August 23, 2011   43 Comments

The dollar-a-week “mobile challenge”

Some people go on long walks. Some climb mountains. Others run marathons or go for weeks without smoking, drinking alcohol or watching television. There are many ways to raise money for charity these days, although many don’t have a direct connection with the area of focus of the charity itself. Even less put the fundraiser in the shoes of the target audience the charity’s very existence seeks to help.

Trying to live off a couple of dollars a day is an exception. Starting yesterday, thousands of people across the UK started doing just that – living off £1 (approximately $2) a day for a total of five days. That needs to cover all their food and drink needs. According to Live Below The Line, they’re doing this to:

get a better understanding of the challenges faced by people living in extreme poverty, and to raise funds for crucial anti-poverty initiatives

One friend who will be shortly joining the challenge is Laurie Lee, Deputy Director of Policy & Advocacy at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. You can follow Laurie’s progress on Twitter, along with Live Below The Line’s own updates. There can be few better ways of helping people understand the challenge hundreds of millions of people around the world face than to put them in a similar position or predicament.

So, it got me thinking… I wonder what the equivalent challenge might be in the mobiles-for-development sector?

Some time last year we passed a critical point in the history of mobile when more people on the planet started owning one than not. Projected penetration and ownership rates vary, but within the next year or two we’ll be over the five billion mark, which is quite incredible.

Of course, ownership alone doesn’t tell the whole story. The hundreds of millions of people having to eek a living off a couple of dollars a day are not only trying to buy food and water for them and their families. They’re also trying to save to send their kids to school, to buy medicine, to keep a roof over their heads. In the context of their phone ownership, they also need to find extra cash to keep their phone charged, and to keep it topped up, usable and functional. There is already growing evidence which highlights the tough decisions mobile owners are having to make when balancing a restricted household budget.

So, what would an equivalent “$2 a day” challenge look like for mobile? Well, for a start we’d have to calculate the average telecommunications spend for an average mobile owner in a developing country. Without specific data to hand, I’m going to take a stab at $1 per week. If I were to cancel my mobile contract today and move to pre-pay, how would I manage with that kind of budget, and what decisions would I have to make on a daily basis before hitting “Send”, “OK” or “Dial” on my phone?

Let me take another stab at some of the things I’d likely have to do.

Service costs
For the first time I’d need to read up and make sure I fully understood all of the price plans and offers from each of the mobile operators in the UK. Right now I have no idea, because I’ve never needed to know. If I’m to maximise my $1 per week I need to know under which conditions which operator will be cheapest.

SIM choice
I’d need to go out and acquire one SIM card for each of those operators, and get used to swapping it in and out on a regular basis before making calls, sending texts, tweeting, checking emails, and so on in order to maximise my budget. Ideally I’d have a phone which takes multiple SIM cards to make this all slightly less painful, only they’re not available where I live.

Configuration
Assuming I’m able to access the Internet and can afford to (see “Web challenges” below), whenever I do switch SIM cards I’d need to learn how to change the WAP/Web configuration settings on the phone (which are network dependent). This can be a challenge at the best of times, and even more so for less technical users.

Web challenges
Assuming my phone and SIM are data enabled, I’d be able to access the Internet. Only problem is I have very little idea what the costs would be. Right now, with my generous browsing allowance, I can pop onto Twitter or read the news, but if I had to pay for each page view or chunk of downloaded data, how would I know what the costs are ahead of time? Again, I’d need to make a conscious decision whether or not I could afford the luxury, and confusion over data costs could easily (and quickly) be the death of me.

My friends and family network
I’d need to make sure I knew which network each friend and family member were on, so I’d know which SIM to switch to before making a call, or texting (same-network calls or texts are cheaper in many countries). And with many of these contacts also likely having multiple SIM cards, I’d need to be confident that I could manage a complex address book.

To call, tweet, text – or not call, tweet or text?
Before making a call, or sending an SMS, I’d need to make a conscious decision whether or not I could afford it, and weigh up any cost with the anticipated benefit. Gone would be the days of having the luxury of thousands of minutes and texts to ‘waste’ away.

Battery
I’d need to put aside a few pence per week to cover the cost of charging (electricity isn’t free), depending on how much I used the phone. If charging costs were prohibitive then I’d need to make sure my phone was off when I didn’t need it (or wasn’t expecting a call) in order to maximise the time between charges.

Flashing and beeping
If I did need to contact someone urgently, and assuming I was okay with them being burdened with the call cost, I could “flash” or “beep” them (ring their phone a couple of times, and hang up and wait for a call back). Since there’s no real culture of this where I live, I’m not sure if it would work, and if the person I was calling was also short of credit, we could have a stalemate. (For an excellent article on the culture of flashing and beeping, check out this Jonathan Donner article).

Calling codes
For short, regular messages – “I’m at work okay”, “I’ve got the shopping” or “Leaving now” – I’d possibly need to devise a system where I could ring a recipient phone and use a set number of rings (or sequence of missed calls) to relay the message. I’d need to come up with a range of “survival strategies” in order to protect my phone credit.

Regardless of how well I did, one thing is abundantly clear – me and my phone would have a very different kind of relationship than we do today, and I’d certainly have to be a lot better organised than I am now. Both of those could, of course, be seen as a good thing.

If anyone else has any other “survival strategies” I’ve missed, please let me know (there are bound to be many). Either way, this would be a fascinating exercise, and well worth a try if anyone’s interested in putting themselves in the shoes of many mobile phone owners throughout the developing world.

May 3, 2011   35 Comments

National Geographic: Interview

The following interview“Solving eco challenges with grassroots messaging” - was given to the National Geographic website last autumn. It’s republished here after it turned out to be one of the most comprehensive to date – covering everything from the role of anthropology in mobiles-for-development, the environmental impact of mobile phones and the thinking behind FrontlineSMS. If you’re after a general overview of kiwanja’s work and work ethic, this is the best place to start.

“National Geographic Emerging Explorer Ken Banks is an anthropologist, conservationist, and mobile technology innovator who built a communications platform to empower grassroots organizations throughout the developing world. FrontlineSMS solves critical communication problems by enabling cell phone users to exchange mass message information without access to the internet – or even constant electricity.

His kiwanja.net organization strives to provide nonprofits around the globe with the mobile technology tools to enact meaningful change.

Ken Banks Interviewed by Brian Handwerk

How are anthropologists exploring the enormous impacts of technology in the developing world?

Today, with markets saturated in the ‘developed world’ – if we can call it that – manufacturers are increasingly turning their attention to the two billion or so consumers left on the planet who don’t yet own a phone. Many of these people sit at the “bottom of the pyramid” (BOP) as economists like to call it, and many have very different needs from a mobile phone.

Manufacturers looking to build devices for the BOP need to very carefully consider price, which is often a crucial factor for someone with very limited disposable income. They might also need to consider literacy levels, or technical ability, perhaps re-working the user interface on the phone to make it easier to use.

They might also need to consider building phones which can take multiple SIM cards, since many people in the developing world regularly switch between different networks before making calls to take advantage of special deals. And they might need to think about providing security and privacy features on the phone which allows it to be shared between family members, something else which is very common in developing countries.

Understanding what these users might need or want from a phone needs time in the field, and researchers need to immerse themselves in the consumer, their lives and their phone usage patterns. Often it’s simply a case of patient, participant observation rather than just going in asking a bunch of questions, and anthropologists are particularly well suited to this kind of work.

You’ve written about the environmental impact of four billion phones in “The Mobile Revolution’s Hidden Cost“. On the positive side, how can mobile technology help us find solutions to the world’s eco problems or help make our use of the world more sustainable?

Interestingly enough I started out my career in mobile working for a conservation organization -Fauna & Flora International – back in 2003. A couple of far-sighted individuals there were beginning to ask these very questions.

Mobile technology is proving increasingly useful to conservationists and environmentalists around the world. In addition to bringing down the cost of traditionally expensive animal tracking initiatives (which relied largely on satellite technology), mobile phones are also being used to provide alerts to communities living on the edges of national parks, helping mitigate against human/wildlife conflict. Phones and PDAs can be used in the field as data collection tools, replacing note pads and allowing teams of researchers to gather and share data simultaneously. Photos can be taken of incidences of poaching and transmitted to the Internet, or evidence of chemical or oil spills recorded with a specific location and then uploaded to a map.

On the consumer side of things, people can now check their carbon footprint or monitor their energy use via their mobile phone, or verify that products in shops are being produced sustainably. People can even look up details of a fish they’re about to order in a restaurant and check its conservation status. A project I worked on some years ago, called wildlive!, was designed to try to connect people with conservation projects through their phones, and provided images, animal sounds, conservation-themed games, and live news and field diaries to subscribers.

In short, mobile phones can have a positive impact both in the field in the hands of people doing the conservation work, or in the hands of the general public interested in keeping up-to-date and informed on environmental issues. But there’s a lot more we can do with the increasing numbers of always-on, always-connected mobile devices people are carrying around with them today.

What led to the birth of FrontlineSMS?

FrontlineSMS, which takes up the bulk of my time these days, was the first independent kiwanja.net initiative, and its roots are in conservation, funnily enough. I was working in Bushbuckridge, an area which straddles Kruger National Park in South Africa, helping with a Fauna & Flora International project.

One element of the Kruger work was to try and identify a system which South African National Parks (SANParks) could use to send text messages to Bushbuckridge community members. The authorities wanted to re-engage people into the conservation effort, keep them updated on park matters, ask their opinions on decisions which would impact them, arrange meetings, send wildlife alerts, and so on. Part of my role was to identify a system they could use to do this. After a considerable search, though, I could only find mass messaging tools which worked off the Internet. Back in 2004, it wasn’t possible to just jump on the Internet around Kruger National Park, so all of these solutions proved totally inappropriate.


Photo of women queuing for water in Bushbuckridge. By Ken Banks

It wasn’t until a year later that the idea of creating a mass messaging system which ran off a laptop computer and attached mobile phone came to me. By sending and receiving the messages through the phone, the need for the Internet was removed. It really is very simple, but at the time nothing like this existed. I had a hunch that there were likely many organizations out there that wanted to send messages to people in places where there was no Internet, so I raised a small amount of money and bought a laptop, some manuals, some phones and modems and cables, and spent five weeks over the summer of 2005 writing a prototype of FrontlineSMS on a kitchen table in Finland. I built a website for it, and in October that year released it to the world. What’s happened since has been pretty amazing.


Photo of a typical FrontlineSMS set-up. By Ken Banks

You had thoughts about how people might use FrontlineSMS, but it’s designed as a tool for people to create their own applications. What cool things have people done that really surprised you?

When you consider its conservation roots, the number of different areas where NGOs have applied the software has been staggering.

In Aceh, UNDP and Mercy Corps have used FrontlineSMS to send market prices and other agricultural data to smallholder rural coffee farmers. In Iraq it is being used by the country’s first independent news agency – Aswat al Iraq – to disseminate news to eight countries, and in Afghanistan it is helping keep NGO fieldworkers safe through the distribution of security alerts. In Zimbabwe, the software has been used extensively by a number of human rights organizations including Kubatana.net, and in Nigeria and the Philippines it helped monitor national elections. In Malawi, FrontlineSMS has generated considerable interest in the m-health sector where a project started by Josh Nesbit, a Stanford University student, is helping run a rural healthcare network for 250,000 people. That project has since become an organization of its own, FrontlineSMS:Medic.

FrontlineSMS was used by bloggers in Pakistan during the recent state of emergency to get news safely out of the country, and in the recent Azerbaijani elections it helped mobilize the youth vote. It is being used in Kenya to report breakages in fences caused by elephants, and is now running the Overseas Filipino Workers (OFW-SOS) emergency help line, allowing workers to receive immediate assistance in case of personal emergency. It has also been deployed in the DRC as part of the Ushahidi platform to collect violence reports via SMS, and been used by Grameen Technology Centre in Uganda to communicate with the Village Phone network. Projects in Cambodia and El Salvador have used it to help create transparency in agricultural markets, and Survivors Connect is using it in a number of countries to run anti-trafficking reporting systems among vulnerable communities.

All of this activity is user-driven and user-dictated. FrontlineSMS provides the tools necessary for people to create their own projects that make a difference. It empowers innovators and organizers in the developing world to achieve their full potential through their own ingenuity.

Why the focus on small grassroots organizations? They lack funds, staff, and technology, but what are their advantages?

The majority of my early conservation and development work, going back to 1993, was with small, local NGOs. It became very clear to me that many were punching well above their weight in terms of how much they delivered versus the resources and funding they had. At the same time, much of this work was going largely unnoticed. Why, for example, would you ever get to hear about some community project in Zambia working to empower women?

For the past 17 years, I’ve lived and worked in many African countries, and remain focused on the grassroots side of things to this day. It’s a place where much of the latest high-tech gadgetry we develop and promote has little chance of working due to a lack of the Internet, funding, technical expertise, and so on.

If you asked me to describe them in general terms, I’d say most grassroots organizations are generally small, extremely dedicated, run low-cost high-impact interventions, work on local issues with relatively modest numbers of local people, and are staffed by community members who have first-hand experience of the problems they’re trying to solve. What they lack in tools, resources, and funds they more than make up with a deep understanding of the local landscape – not just geographically, but also the language, culture, and daily challenges of the people. This is crucially important and is something often overlooked.

Is your ultimate vision one of providing the tools to let one person make a positive change in his or her own corner of the world?

Absolutely. We need to build tools which allow anyone with a passion to see it out, to promote it and share it and make a success of it. Let’s not forget, global environmental and social issues aren’t just the concern of large (or small) non-profits or activist groups – we’re all concerned about them. If someone watches a National Geographic program in their bedroom on seal hunting and feels compelled to campaign against it, for example, they should have access to all the tools necessary to campaign and help put a stop to it. For that, we need to make media tools easy to use, accessible, low-cost, and so on.

When we talk about sustainability, we need to also think about human sustainability. If we’re to have any chance of ongoing success with some of the more pressing problems of our time, then we need to attract the brightest young minds to the field and give them all the support they need to keep them there. Empowerment isn’t just something we do in a distant land. There’s plenty we can be doing on our own doorstep. It’s a different kind of empowerment, but that doesn’t make it less valuable.”

Further information
Watch a 15 minute video of a presentation made at National Geographic in Washington DC (June 2010)

February 13, 2011   21 Comments

Spreading the “Mobile Message”

Over the past year or so, it’s become increasingly clear to us that we need to take the “mobile message” out of its technology silo and make it more available – and accessible – to a wider audience. This was the thinking behind our regular series on PC World, and is the thinking behind a new series we’re launching today in collaboration with National Geographic.

The “Mobile Message” is aimed at a broad audience, but most importantly people who would never likely visit a mobile-specific site. Recent talks at Communicate – aimed at conservationists – and Nat Geo Live! – aimed at the general public – have convinced us even more that we need to stop just talking among ourselves and take the message out to more mainstream, broader audiences.

According to the first “Mobile Message” posted today:

“Over the next few months we will delve into the human stories behind the growth of mobile technology in the developing world. We’ll take a closer look at the background and thinking behind FrontlineSMS, and hear from a number of users applying it to very real social and environmental problems in their communities. We will also hear thoughts and insights from other key mobile innovators in the field, from anthropologists to technologists to local innovators.”

You can read the rest of the introductory post on the National Geographic website here.

December 8, 2010   22 Comments

Restricted mobility

On my travels it’s not unusual for me to find a dozen or more Village Phone operators in a single village. It’s also not unusual to find them with pretty-much the same phone, quite often the same price plan, and the same signs and posters. And just to rub it in, their shops and kiosks are often the same colour, too. Standing out from the competition can be quite a challenge in an environment like this, but it can be done.

Making a phone call on a Village Phone can hardly be called a private affair. First of all you’re likely standing out in the open, the phone owner usually hangs around a couple of feet away, and children crowd around because that’s what children do. In an attempt to break the mould – and gain a little competitive advantage – this Village Phone operator decided that customers should be allowed to put some space between her, the children and their private conversation. So her customers can take the phone ‘away’ somewhere where it’s a little more private. To stop them running off with it, she attaches a length of wire which leads back into her shop. Simple, but clever.

Maybe the wire could double up as an aerial extension for places with poor reception (now there’s one for Nokia to consider, or Motorola in this case)?

Sometimes, living in a wired world can have its advantages…

Further reading
Unplanned adolescence“, a Fast Company article on what happens to Village Phone operators when local mobile ownership increases (and my response to that), and “Africa’s grassroots mobile revolution – A traveller’s perspective“, a photo essay I wrote a couple of years ago for ‘Vodafone receiver’

August 24, 2010   33 Comments

Anthropology: Taking it mobile

Anyone taking more than a passing glance at the kiwanja.net website shouldn’t need long to figure out my four key areas of interest. I’ve always maintained that if your ideal job doesn’t exist then you have to create it, and being able to combine my passions for technology, anthropology, conservation and development is for me – through kiwanja.net – that dream job.

Saying that, it doesn’t go without its challenges. Putting aside the difficulties faced by the global conservation and development communities, most of my thinking today centres around the sometimes uncomfortable tension between appropriate technology and the mobile phone, and the potential role of applied anthropology in helping us understand what on earth is going on out there. We can’t always rely on Indiana Jones, Hollywood’s answer to anthropology, to get us all the answers.

Last month in the May/June edition of World Watch Magazine, John Mulrow wrote one of the best articles to date on mobile phones and appropriate technology, and this month an anthropology-focused article came to my attention via a Tweet from John Postill, a Media Anthropologist from Sheffield Hallam University in the UK. The role of anthropologists in mobile happens to be the second thing that challenges me, not because I don’t think they have a role – I’ve long argued they do – but because of the difficulties in finding both solid anthropological studies and meaningful numbers of anthropologists working in the field.

Although I majored in anthropology at Sussex University, I’m never quite sure what “doing anthropology” really looks like, and what you need to do to “become” an anthropologist. I don’t think just having studied it at university is enough. I’ve had numerous discussions with anthropologists at a number of universities on how my anthropology training may or may not influence my work, and was recently interviewed for a forthcoming book on the role of anthropologists in the ICT4D field. I’m really looking forward to reading more when that comes out, and I’ll no doubt blog about it, too.

So it was with great interest – and relief – that I came across a post on the wonderful “Mobile Livelihoods” blog last week which had taken a long, hard look at what anthropologists are doing in the mobile/phone field, and what they’re researching/writing about. I’m regularly contacted by students asking for help, and this makes everyone’s life so much easier. Kudos to Francisco and John for putting the hours in. You can read their post – which contains a list of 96 journal articles and details of how they categorised them - here.

Three articles of particular interest are available here (all in PDF format). Thanks to Francisco for kindly selecting them and sending them over:

  • Horst, H., & Miller, D. (2005). From Kinship to Link-Up: Cell phones and Social Networking in Jamaica. Current Anthropology, 6(5), 755-778
  • Tenhunen, S. (2008). Mobile Technology in the Village : ICTs, culture, and social logistics in India. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute(14), 515-534
  • Barendregt, B. (2008). Sex, Cannibals, and the Language of Cool: Indonesian tales of the phone and modernity. The Information Society, 24(3), 160-170

One thing that surprised me was the number of papers they found written by ‘professional’ anthropologists, which totalled just six (three of those are above). I guess that’s another challenge within the wider challenge – defining what a professional anthropologist is in the context of the mobile/technology field. Maybe we’ll tackle that another time…

Some useful/interesting anthropology resources:

Discover Anthropology [Website]
worldwise development [Website]
Mobile Livelihoods [Blog]
Anthropologist About Town
[Blog]
media/anthropology [Blog]
EASA Media Anthropology Network [Website, Mailing list]
The Cellphone: An Anthropology of Communication [Book]
Anthropology’s Technology-driven Renaissance [Article]

Please post a comment, or get in touch with your own favourites, and I’ll add them to the list (thanks to those who already have!).

May 8, 2010   31 Comments

CNN on anthropology and innovation

CNN

“As trained observers of how people in a society live, ethnographers can help companies figure out what people need and then work with designers to meet those needs with new (or more often tweaked) products and services. In a world in which ever more people are using technology products on a daily basis, such skills are increasingly in demand. For ethnographers, anthropologists, and other social scientists, the upshot can be intriguing work around the globe”

Read more about the role of field-based research and anthropology in the identification and design of mobile tools, products and services in this latest CNN article. There’s more in our PC World column, published last July. And an interesting new course in Digital Anthropology at University College London in the UK.

Interesting times. Get out in the field, or study anthropology. That seems to be the message.

October 22, 2009   22 Comments