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Category — Appropriate technology

m4d: The fun is over. Time to get tough?

I’m all for discussion and debate, and I’ve taken part in my fair share over the past eleven years. But I’m now beginning to wonder if, after all this time, everything we could have said has been said. The fact we’re still talking about the same handful of challenges and issues implies that very little, if anything, has changed where it matters – on the ground. Have we really made so little progress?

I’ve been thinking about this for a while, but it wasn’t until the recent Guardian Activate conference that the scale of the problem finally drove home.

It’s worth mentioning that I wasn’t at the event this year, but I did follow from a distance. To be honest, sometimes it’s better to listen and reflect from the outside, and as my train hurtled towards London it became increasingly obvious that much of the early conversation followed a similar pattern to many of the other technology-for-good conferences I’d attended over the years.

If, about a decade ago, we’d listed all of the questions, unknowns, problems and challenges faced by the ICT4D community, it would probably have looked something like this:

  • How do we replicate and scale?
  • How do we measure impact?
  • How do we stop the reinventing of wheels?
  • How do we avoid being ‘technology-lead’?
  • How do we break out of our silos?
  • What is our business/sustainability model?
  • Is open source a help or a hindrance?
  • How do we maximise the opportunity mobile brings?

If we made the same list today, it would probably look something like this:

  • How do we replicate and scale?
  • How do we measure impact?
  • How do we stop the reinventing of wheels?
  • How do we avoid being ‘technology-lead’?
  • How do we break out of our silos?
  • What is our business/sustainability model?
  • Is open source a help or a hindrance?
  • How do we make sense of the countless pilots taking place?

The only difference is the last one. We’ve gone from not really knowing what to do with mobile phones to a position of everyone everywhere trying to solve something with them, whether or not they’re the right tool for the job. It’s still a problem, but arguably a more serious one.

These questions – and many others like them – might keep academics in work, but they’re serious issues for practitioners, too. Project owners and tools developers are rarely clear on their positions on open source, or scale, or their interpretation of ‘appropriate technology’. Among other things this leads to confusion and unnecessary competition (yes, the non-profit world is competitive). I attempted to put a stop to some of this in a post called “Our “social mobile” line in the sand” way back in May 2009, without success. I wonder if the time is right for someone to try again?

None of us surely want to sit in yet another conference, gathering or workshop and hear the same things over and over again, but that’s often what we do. And more often than not we pay good money for the privilege. Messages I personally don’t want to hear again include:

“We need to stop talking in silos”
“Projects need to build for scale from the outset”
“We need to stop reinventing wheels”
“We need more collaboration”
“We need to become sustainable”
“We need to embrace failure”
“Mobile technology has huge potential”

Can’t the m4d community come together and fix some of this? Create a code of conduct, a directory of terms and meanings, a set of best practice? With the billions of dollars funding mobile projects the world over, can’t we siphon a little off and create an overarching set of guidelines that projects and donors adhere to? Almost everything we see out there has been funded by someone, so if only the donors seriously tried to grapple with the problem – and got strict with what they funded – we’d almost certainly make serious progress.

Some of this stuff isn’t difficult. Take the problem of silos. Most of the events where this comes up are silos themselves. How can someone stand up at a mobile health conference packed with only people who use mobile phones and only for health, and say we should stop talking in silos? How about a mobile health practitioner attending an agriculture conference, instead? Or one focussing on human rights? Don’t tell me mobile health projects can’t learn something from non-mobile agriculture? If, as we constantly hear, innovation and opportunity happen in unexpected places, we need to put ourselves in them a little more, as Tim Smit suggested at the Emerge Conference in 2010.

Perhaps as a sign of things to come, mentions of mPesa are increasingly banned at meetings I attend. If we have to use the same example of a successful mobile money project over and over again, doesn’t that say something about the state of mobile money?

I was recently asked what progress I thought we’d made since I wrote “Technology’s new chance to make a difference” for the Guardian in January 2012. In the areas of best practice, adopting more appropriate technology and mainstreaming ICT4D, sadly I had to admit very little. As I wrote three years earlier:

I spent the best part of my university years critiquing the efforts of those who went before me. Countless others have done the same. Looking to the future, how favourably will the students and academics of tomorrow reflect on our efforts? If the next thirty years aren’t to read like the last then we need to re-think our approach, and re-think it now

The development sector is hardly awash with success. The m4d community have a great chance to buck the trend. The big question is, will we?

Further reading
An inconvenient truth?

July 29, 2013   6 Comments

An inconvenient truth?

Exactly ten years ago this month I was preparing for my first ever piece of work in mobile, two years of work which would lead to the development of an innovative conservation service in 2003 – wildlive! – and the release of one of the earliest reports [PDF] on the application of mobile technology in conservation and development in 2004. A lot has happened since then, not least an explosion in interest, buzz, excitement – and, yes, hype – and a sense that mobile can be the saviour of, well, everything. Back then you’d likely be able to fit everyone working in mobile-for-development (m4d) into a small cafe. Today you’d need at least a football stadium. m4d – and it’s big brother, ICT4D – have become big business.

Not that I needed more proof of mobile’s status at development’s top table, earlier this week I attended Vodafone’s “Mobile for Good” Summit in London. It was a high-profile affair, and an extremely upbeat one at that. I left with mixed feelings about where m4d is headed.

My five takeaways after a day of talks, debates and demonstrations were:

1. Everyone is still excited by the potential of mobile
2. The same projects surface over and over again as proof mobile works
3. Mobile is still largely seen as a solution, not a tool

4. It’s up to the developed world to get mobile working for the poor
5. The top-down mindset is alive and well

Suffice to say, all of these conclusions troubled me as I sat on the train home.

I’ve been thinking for some time about the future of m4d, and how far we’ve got over the past ten years or so. I’ve written frequently about the opportunities mobile technology offers the development community, and my fears that we may end up missing a golden opportunity (see Time to eat our own dog food?” from March 2009). I’ve long been a champion of platforms, and understanding how we might build tools for problem owners to take and deploy on their own terms. Yes, we should provide local entrepreneurs and grassroots non-profits with tools – and where appropriate and requested, expertise – but we shouldn’t develop solutions to problems we don’t understand, we shouldn’t take ownership of a problem that isn’t ours and we certainly shouldn’t build things thousands of miles away and then jump on a plane in search of a home for them.

But this is still, on the whole, what seems to be happening. And this, I’m beginning to believe, is rapidly becoming ICT4D’s “inconvenient truth”.

A fulfilled future for ICT4D (of which m4d is an increasingly dominant part) is not the one I see playing out today. It’s future is not in the hands of western corporates or international NGOs meeting in high-profile gatherings, and it’s not in our education establishments who keep busy training computer scientists and business graduates in the West to fix the problems of ‘others’. The whole development agenda is shifting, and my prediction for the future sees a major disconnect between what ‘we’ think needs to be done, and what those closest to the problems think needs to be done. Call it “disruptive development“, if you like. As I told the Guardian in an interview earlier this month:

The rise of homegrown solutions to development problems will be most crucial in future. That means African software developers increasingly designing and developing solutions to African problems, many of which have previously been tackled by outsiders. This, I think, will be the biggest change in how development is ’done’

I’m not the only person to be saying this. Many good friends working at the intersection of African development and technology have been doing the same for some time. The real change, and the big difference, is that it’s finally happening. A message which was previously given in hope, a message that was previously given out of an inherent belief that there was a better, more respectful and appropriate way of doing things, is now becoming reality. ICT4D is changing, and the balance of power is changing with it.

FrontlineSMS has always spoken to an approach I’ve long believed in, one where users are empowered to develop solutions to their own problems if they so wish. There are many reasons why FrontlineSMS continues to work – the decision of the new Management Team to shift software development to Nairobi is one of the more recent ones. But fundamentally it’s about what the platform does (and doesn’t do) that really resonates with innovators, entrepreneurs, non-profits and problem owners across the developing world. As the Guardian put it in the recent article, “As open-source technology for mobile platforms, innovations like FrontlineSMS are essentially a blank canvas for grassroots organisations to apply to any local context”.

That local context is becoming increasingly vibrant as university students across Africa graduate with Computer Science and Business Management degrees; as innovation hubs spring up across the continent meeting a growing, insatiable demand for places to meet, work and network with like-minded problem solvers and entrepreneurs; and as investors launch funds that show they’re starting to take young African tech startups seriously.

This activity hasn’t escaped big business. Google, IBM, Microsoft, Nokia, Hewlett Packard and Samsung have been opening offices across the continent, snapping up much of the talent in the process (ironically often at the expense – and despair – of locally-based NGOs). But while technology businesses take note and develop local capacity that enables them to develop more appropriate local solutions, the broader development ‘community’ seem trapped in an older mindset of technology transfer.

Technology transfer, of course, is big business – there’s no shortage of donor money out there for projects that seek to implement the latest and greatest proven Western innovations in a development context, and there are countless tens of thousands of jobs that keep the whole machine running. A lot has to change if the development community is to face up to all its new realities, yet it’s looking more likely that the destiny of the discipline lies in the hands of the very people it originally set out to help.

So, if the future of ICT4D is not university students, NGOs or business graduates devising solutions in labs and hubs thousands of miles away from their intended users, what is it?

Well, how about something a little more like this?

It seems rather obvious to put a local technology entrepreneur on a bus and have him chat to a rural farmer, but imagine what might be possible if this approach became the “new ICT4D”, not that the entrepreneur or the farmer would see it as that, or ‘development’ at all. You can see more of the fascinating TV series which linked local technologists to local problems on the TVE website. There’s a lot that’s right with this approach, particularly if you consider what would usually happen (hint: it involves planes).

I’m not usually one for making predictions but it is that time of year, after all, and it is my ten year anniversary in mobile. So here’s a biggie.

Development is changing, powered by accessible and affordable liberating technologies and an emerging army of determined, local talent. A local talent that is gradually acquiring the skills, resources and support it needs to take back ownership of many of its problems – problems it never took original ownership of because those very skills and resources were not available.

Well, now they are. The ICT4D community – education establishments, donors and technologists among them – need to collectively recognise that it needs to ajdust to this new reality, and work with technologists, entrepreneurs and grassroots non-profits across the developing world to accelerate what has become an inevitable shift. Or it can continue as it is, and become increasingly irrelevant. “Innovate or die” doesn’t just apply to the technologies plied by the ICT4D community. It applies to the ICT4D community itself.

[This post was edited down and republished in the Stanford Social Innovation Review in January 2013 here].

Further reading
m4d: The fun is over. Time to get tough?

December 12, 2012   129 Comments

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.

August 27, 2012   53 Comments

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.

March 27, 2012   55 Comments

Accidental appropriate technologies

#1: The Amazon Kindle

While growing numbers of people in the development sector get increasingly excited at the potential of tablet computing for health, agriculture, education and other development activities, it’s the Amazon Kindle that’s been exciting me recently. The irony is, without really trying, Amazon have built something which more closely resembles an appropriate technology than other organisations who have specifically gone out to try and build one.

So, what makes the Kindle so special?

  1. It’s light, relatively rugged, and mobile
  2. Ten days reading time on one charge
  3. One month ‘standby’ time between charges
  4. Solar panel cover option removes the need for mains charging
  5. Built-in dictionary and thesaurus
  6. Display can be read in bright sunlight
  7. Internal storage for up to 200 books
  8. No need for the Internet once books are loaded
  9. Text-to-speech for illiterate/semi-literate users
  10. Costs continue to come down
  11. Remote delivery of books and materials (local wi-fi permitting)

Of course, I’m not the first person to notice this. A year or two ago the highlight of an ICT4D conference I attended was a short video showing children in West Africa using Amazon Kindles. I’ll never forget how they interacted with the devices, and what having access to one meant to them and their hopes of an education. Not many technologies give us these little glimpses of magic.

Imagine, all the books a child would ever need to see them through their basic education, all packed into a ~$100 device.

The people behind that video were from Worldreader.org, an organisation whose mission is to “make digital books available to all in the developing world, enabling millions of people to improve their lives”.

We often say in mobiles-for-development that today most people in the developing world will make their first phone call on a mobile, and have their first experience of the Internet on one, too. Perhaps children, in the not-too-distant future, will have their first experience of reading on an e-reader?

January 30, 2012   88 Comments

What if Apple worked in ICT4D? Reflections on the possible

“Two weeks ago, I was staying at a working dairy farm sixty kilometers north of Bogotá, Colombia. I was fiddling around with my iPad when one of the kids that worked in the stables came up to me and started staring at it. He couldn’t have been more than six years old, and I’d bet dollars to donuts that he had never used a computer or even a cellular telephone before (Colombia has many attractions. The vast pool of illiterate poor is not one of them)

Curious, I handed him the device and a very small miracle happened. He started using it. I mean, really using it. Almost instantly, he was sliding around, opening and closing applications, playing a pinball game I had downloaded. All without a single word of instruction from me”

Michael Noer, “The Stable Boy and the iPad

Two questions scream out at me when I read this. Firstly, what would happen if Apple turned a fraction of its attention to ICT4D? And secondly, why don’t Apple work in ICT4D? In a sector where so many tools and solutions seem to fail because they’re too complex, poorly designed, unusable or inappropriate, who better to show us how it should be done than the masters of usability and design?

The answer to the second question is a little easier to answer than the first. As Walter Isaacson pointed out in his recent biography, Steve Jobs felt he could contribute more to the world by ‘simply’ making brilliant products. He seemed to have little time for philanthropy, at least publicly, and his laser focus meant he saw almost everything other than Apple’s mission as a distraction. Ironically, had he decided to give away some of his ballooning wealth, he’d most likely have funded programmes working in nutrition and vegetarianism, not technology, according to Mark Vermilion (who Steve Jobs hired back in 1986 to run the Steven P. Jobs Foundation, which he was destined to shut down a year later).

Had Steve Jobs decided to pursue his Foundation, and had he decided to fund technology-based initiatives in the developing world, how well might he have done, and what might Apple have been able to contribute to our discipline?

Here’s five initial thoughts on where an Apple approach to ICT4D might be different – or problematic.

1. Consult the user

One of the central tenets of ICT4D is to consult the user before designing or building anything. In business, at least, Apple don’t do this. They certainly didn’t speak to Colombian farm children, yet they managed to intuitively build something that worked for the six year old Michael Noer met. As Steve Jobs famously said:

Our job is to figure out what users are going to want before they do. People don’t know what they want until you show it to them. That’s why I never rely on market research. Our task is to read things that are not yet on the page

An Apple ICT4D project would unlikely spend much time, if any, speaking with the target audience, an approach entirely at odds with the one we champion right now.

2. Customer vs. beneficiary

Apple would see people as customers, and they’d be carrying out what they’d see as a commercial transaction with them. This approach would mean they’d have to build something the customer wanted, and that worked (and worked well). Since it would have to sell, if successful it would by default be financially sustainable. Part of the problem with the largely subsidised ICT4D “give away technology” model is that no-one is ultimately accountable if things don’t work out, and regular business rules do not apply.

3. Open vs. closed

The ICT4D community is entrenched in an open source mindset, almost to the extent that closed solutions are scorned upon. Steve Jobs was a strong believer in controlling all aspects of the user experience, all the way from hardware through to software. To him, closed systems were better “integrated” and open systems “fragmented”:

What is best for the customer – integrated versus fragmented? We think this is a huge strength of our system versus Google’s. When selling to people who want their devices to just work, we think integrated wins every time. We are committed to the integrated approach. We are confident it will triumph over Google’s fragmented approach

There is no evidence in ICT4D, I don’t believe, which points towards more success for open solutions vs. closed (however you define success), yet open remains dominant. An early Apple success might give us pause for thought.

4. Time for the field

Although Paul Polak doesn’t work in ICT4D, he is one the biggest proponents of “getting out into the field to understand the needs of your customer”. In his long career he’s interviewed over 3,000 people earning a dollar or less a day to better understand their needs – and the market opportunity. In this short video he talks about the process of spending time in rural villages, talking in depth with villagers, and identifying opportunities for transformative impact.

Apple wouldn’t see the need to do this because they wouldn’t consider the needs of dollar-a-day customers as being any different to anyone else. They’d consider their intuitive design and user interface to be non-culturally specific. People, everywhere, want simple-to-use technologies that just work, regardless of who they are.

5. Appropriate technology

Apple’s product line hardly fits into the appropriate technology model – they’re expensive, power-hungry and the devices are reliant on a computer (via iTunes) as their central controlling “hub”. The systems are also closed, blocking any chance of local innovation around the platform. How Apple tackle this – yet maintain their standards of excellence in design and usability – would probably turn out to be their biggest challenge.

Although it hasn’t happened yet, a post-Steve Jobs Apple might yet develop a philanthropic streak. If they did they could easily turn to their friends at frog design (now branded Frog) for help. Frog, who worked closely with them in the early days of the Macintosh range, have recently worked with a number of ICT4D initiatives and organisations, including Project Masiluleke and UNICEF.

Apple have already reinvented the music and publishing industries. With the talent, capital and resources available I’d bet my bottom dollar on them reinventing ICT4D if they chose to. Steve Jobs liked to “live at the intersection of the humanities and technology”, and that’s exactly the place where ICT4D needs to be.

January 24, 2012   116 Comments

Caught on camera [phone]

They say a picture paints a thousand words, and that may be the case. But if they cost the earth or you don’t have permission to use them, they end up painting nothing much at all.

When my mobile ‘career’ kicked off in 2003 with multiple research trips to South Africa and Mozambique, I took the opportunity to start taking and collecting mobile- and technology-related photos. Back then people were beginning to take an interest in the impact of mobile phones on the African continent, and NGOs were looking to use photos on websites or in project proposals, newsletters and presentations. On top of that, people were just generally curious about what was going on.

kiwanja Mobile Gallery

That collection now stands at over 150 photos, and covers everything from people around the world texting or making calls to pictures of shops, signs, mobiles themselves and other interesting examples of mobile entrepreneurship in action. The images are free to use – with citation – by non-profits or any other organisation seeking to profile the social impact of mobile technology. Visit the kiwanja Mobile Gallery for the full gallery of images, and for details on how to credit their use.

January 17, 2012   13 Comments

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.

November 10, 2011   15 Comments

Rethinking socially responsible design in a mobile world

“The Curry Stone Design Prize was created to champion designers as a force for social change. Now in its fourth year, the Prize recognizes innovators who address critical issues involving clean air, food and water, shelter, health care, energy, education, social justice or peace”.

Yesterday was an exciting day for us as we announced FrontlineSMS had won the prestigious 2011 Curry Stone Design Prize. This award follows closely on the heels of the 2011 Pizzigati Prize, an honourable mention at the Buckminster Fuller Challenge and our National Geographic “Explorer” Award last summer. It goes without saying these are exciting times not just for FrontlineSMS but for our growing user base and the rapidly expanding team behind it. When I think back to the roots of our work in the spring of 2005, FrontlineSMS almost comes across as “the little piece of software that dared to dream big”.

With the exception of the Pizzigati Prize – which specifically focuses on open source software for public good – our other recent awards are particularly revealing. Last summer we began something of a trend by being awarded things which weren’t traditionally won by socially-focused mobile technology organisations.

Being named a 2010 National Geographic Emerging Explorer is a case in point, and last summer while I was in Washington DC collecting the prize I wrote down my thoughts in a blog post:

On reflection, it was a very bold move by the Selection Committee. Almost all of the other Emerging Explorers are either climbing, diving, scaling, digging or building, and what I do hardly fits into your typical adventurer job description. But in a way it does. As mobile technology continues its global advance, figuring out ways of applying the technology in socially and environmentally meaningful ways is a kind of 21st century exploring. The public reaction to the Award has been incredible, and once people see the connection they tend to think differently about tools like FrontlineSMS and their place in the world.

More recently we’ve begun receiving recognition from more traditional socially-responsible design organisations – Buckminster Fuller and Clifford Curry/Delight Stone. If you ask the man or woman on the street what “socially responsible design” meant to them, most would associate it with physical design – the building or construction of things, more-to-the-point. Water containers, purifiers, prefabricated buildings, emergency shelters, storage containers and so on. Design is so much easier to recognise, explain and appreciate if you can see it. Software is a different beast altogether, and that’s what makes our Curry Stone Design Prize most interesting. As the prize website itself puts it:

Design has always been concerned with built environment and the place of people within it, but too often has limited its effective reach to narrow segments of society. The Curry Stone Design Prize is intended to support the expansion of the reach of designers to a wider segment of humanity around the globe, making talents of leading designers available to broader sections of society.

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, 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:

We trust our users – rely on them, in fact – to be imaginative and innovative with the platform. If they succeed, we succeed. If they fail, we fail. We’re all very much in this together. We focus on the people and not the technology because it’s people who own the problems, and by default they’re often the ones best-placed to solve them. When you lead with people, technology is relegated to the position of being a tool. Our approach to empowering our users isn’t rocket science. As I’ve written many times before, it’s usually quite subtle, but it works:

My belief is that users don’t want access to tools – they want to be given the tools. There’s a subtle but significant difference. They want to have their own system, something which works with them to solve their problem. They want to see it, to have it there with them, not in some “cloud“. This may sound petty – people wanting something of their own – but I believe that this is one way that works.

What recognition from the likes of the Curry Stone Design Prize tells us is that socially responsible design can be increasingly applied to the solutions, people and ecosystems built around lines of code – but only if those solutions are user-focused, sensitive to their needs, deploy appropriate technologies and allow communities to influence how these tools are applied to the problems they own.

Further reading
FrontlineSMS is featured in the upcoming book “Design Like You Give a Damn 2: Building Change From The Ground Up”, available now on pre-order from Amazon.

October 5, 2011   19 Comments

Appropriate technology: Lessons from nature

“Our life is half natural and half technological. Half-and-half is good. You cannot deny that high-tech is progress. We need it for jobs. Yet if you make only high-tech, you make war. So we must have a strong human element to keep modesty and natural life”

Nam June Paik, Artist (1932 – 2006)

There’s a saying in the technology world which asks “What would Google do?”. When I’m confronted with a problem, I’d rather ask “What would nature do?”. Why? Well, if you believe Google have the answer then you’re immediately assuming that modern technology – in some shape or form – is the solution. More often than not that’s the wrong place to start.

I recently sat on a panel at the Aspen Environment Forum which focused on the use of social media in the environmental movement. (You can watch the video here, or read my summary of whole the event here). Many people had already made their minds up that Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and so on were ‘the’ answer, before really thinking through what they were really trying to do, what their message was, or who the different audiences would be. That’s also the wrong place to start.

Asking what nature might do immediately pulls us away from looking for a modern, high-tech solution and more towards a simpler, low-tech (and potentially more appropriate and sustainable) one. It also encourages us to think entirely out-of-the-box.

So, if you were to ask “What might nature do?”, what kind of solutions might you come up with which you otherwise might not have?

1. Elephants

Some of my earliest mobile work back in 2003 was in Southern Africa where I was asked to help understand and apply modern communications technology to local conservation efforts. One of the bigger problems people were trying to tackle back then was human-elephant conflict – elephants ‘encroaching’ on farmland and destroying livelihoods literally overnight. In response, some farmers resorted to poisoning or shooting elephants. Not a good conservation outcome.

All kinds of modern technology solutions were proposed, and many trialled, to try and solve the problem. Electric fences, RFID tagging, sensors and live-GSM-tracking among them. Few proved as successful as hoped, or particularly replicable or affordable.

So, what might nature do?

It turns out that elephants run a mile when they encounter bees. According to this BBC article, early research in Kenya indicates hives can be a very effective barrier, so much so that 97% of attempted elephant raids were aborted. Where satellites, RFID tags and mobile phones failed, humble honey bees might just be the answer.

2. Pigeons

Each summer, as tennis players battle it out on the lawn courts at Wimbledon, the authorities do battle trying to stop pigeons interfering with play. All manner of modern technology is available to deter birds – lasers and radio controlled aircraft to gas guns and ultrasound emitters. Again, each have varying degrees of success and many can be expensive.

What would nature do?

Wimbledon’s answer doesn’t involve anything more high-tech than a bird of prey. A few laps by Rufus around the tennis courts are enough to scare the hardiest of pigeons away. No batteries – or lasers, or sound emitters – required. Simple, sustainable and replicable.

3. Wasps

You’d be forgiven for thinking that the grandly-named “Waspinator” was a little black box with wires, buttons and flashing lights. No doubt there have been attempts to develop high-tech wasp deterrents in the past, but the Waspinator isn’t one of them. In fact, if you saw one you’d likely be a little disappointed. This particular solution looks like nothing more than a brown paper bag. But don’t be fooled – nature has very much influenced its development.

According to the website:

The Waspinator is a fake wasps nest. Wasps are very territorial and will aggressively defend their nest against wasps from another colony. When a foraging wasp sees another wasps nest it will rapidly leave the area for fear of being attacked by the nest’s defenders.

Wasps have a very long range of vision and when they see a Waspinator they think it’s an enemy wasps nest and quickly leave the area for somewhere safer, leaving the area around the Waspinator completely free of wasps

It couldn’t be simpler. And no moving parts (if you exclude the wasps).

So, drawing on these examples, what five lessons does nature teach us?

1. Understand the context of your target audience/user.
2. Use locally available materials wherever possible.
3. Low-tech is not poor-tech.
4. Keep it simple.
5. The answer is likely already out there.

Next time we look to develop a technology solution to a problem, we might be best asking what nature might do before turning to the likes of Google, or any high-tech solution provider for that matter. Mother Nature usually knows best.

August 18, 2011   48 Comments