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?

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.

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.