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Category — Appropriate technology

Mobile technology and the last mile

Since our founding in 2003, kiwanja.net has been primarily focused on serving the needs of the smaller, local, grassroots NGO community. FrontlineSMS is testament to that approach – a low-tech, appropriate technology which works on locally available hardware and without the need for NGOs to employ the services of teams of technical experts. We haven’t got everything right, and FrontlineSMS remains a work in progress, but we’re excited about where we are, how we got here and where we’re headed.

We were recently approached by Philip Auerswald, Editor of “innovations“, to write an article on that journey, and our approach to mobiles-for-development. The result was a tri-authored piece by three members of the FrontlineSMS team – Sean McDonald, Flo Scialom and myself. A PDF of that article – “Mobile technology and the last mile” - is available here.

About “Innovations”:
“The journal features cases authored by exceptional innovators; commentary and research from leading academics; and essays from globally recognized executives and political leaders. The journal is jointly hosted at George Mason University’s School of Public Policy, Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, and MIT’s Legatum Center for Development and Entrepreneurship”.

Many thanks to Phil and the “Innovations” team for inviting us to contribute.

June 21, 2011   46 Comments

Mobile as exploration

It was early evening, 14th October, last year. I’d just received the email completely out of the blue. I’d had a long day in London, and was staying over for an early start the following morning. The email was from National Geographic, and it carried news that I’d been named an “Emerging Explorer“. Of course, I thought it was spam.

Because the nomination and selection process for these Awards are entirely confidential, I still don’t know to this day who nominated me. Not only that, but I also had to get my head around what on earth my work had to do with exploration. The email wasn’t spam, after all.

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.

The Awards were made during “Explorers Week” in Washington DC in June. You can watch my 15 minute presentation (above), or read a short blog post of thoughts from the start of the week. We’ve also recently begun a new series on the National Geographic website – “Mobile Message” – designed to help spread the word on what mobile technology means for the developing world.

It was a huge honour to be the first mobile innovator to be named a National Geographic Emerging Explorer. With the incredible progress being made by many other friends and colleagues, I’m confident I won’t be the last…

December 22, 2010   35 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

Video: Mobile Phones for Development

Date: Monday 20th September, 2010
Venue: London School of Economics
Speakers: Dr Jenny Aker, Ken Banks, Dawn Haig-Thomas
Chair: Diane Coyle

IGC Growth Week 2010 Public Discussion

“Mobile phones have the potential to contribute significantly to economic growth in the developing world, in both the private and public sector. From improving market information for fish traders in Lake Victoria, to enabling medical outreach services in rural South Asia, the mobile is a versatile and adaptable tool. What impact can mobiles have on those previously excluded from financial services and communications networks? Which policies will help turn the promise of mobiles into real benefits for the poorest people?

This session, moderated by Diane Coyle, OBE, of Enlightenment Economics, features a panel of researchers and practitioners sharing ideas and experience from the field, discussing a range of case studies from literacy and conditional cash transfer programs in Niger to SMS-based communications for rural hospitals in Malawi”.

Jenny Aker is assistant professor of development economics at The Fletcher School of International Affairs, Tufts University.

Ken Banks is the founder of FrontlineSMS and kiwanja.net.

Dawn Haig-Thomas is director of the GSM Association Development Fund.

Further details of the event, including an audio version of the discussion, are available on the London School of Economics website.

October 10, 2010   38 Comments

FrontlineSMS at The Feast ’09

I’ve always maintained that the greater the distance between an ICT4D ‘problem’ and the problem solver, the greater the chance of failure. The difficulty here is that quite often the problem and the resources available to fix it are in different places, and available to the wrong people.

While ‘we’ – those who rarely fully understand the problem – have easier access to the technology and funding, those who do more fully understand it don’t. This is why the current proliferation of local innovation and IT-focused business hubs across Africa is so exciting and has so much potential.

More via this short edited five minute talk I gave last year at The Feast in New York. Further in-depth thoughts on who might be best placed to run ICT4D and mobile-for-development (m4d) projects, check out this recent blog post, “Dissecting “m4d”: Back to basics“.

September 6, 2010   23 Comments

The rise of “user-experienced” innovation

Around the time of two recent talks – Thinking Digital in Newcastle (UK) and National Geographic (Washington DC) – much of the world’s tech media was focused on Apple. Both the iPad and iPhone 4 had hit the shelves in relatively quick succession, and many people were marvelling at the latest innovations from California.

To the everyday man and woman on the street, cutting-edge innovation has rarely been so tangible. Sure, the technology behind motor vehicles or aircraft has advanced rapidly in recent years, but often what makes these things clever is either hidden out of sight – a new fuel injection system in a car, or a new kind of braking system, for example – or they’re not things many of us would ever get to interact with – such as the latest fly-by-wire controls of an aircraft cockpit.

The staggering advance in the consumer electronics world has changed all that, and we’re now holding mobile phones in the palm of our hand which are infinitely more powerful than the computers which took man all the way to the moon and back. These devices are changing the way we live, and the way we interact with each other and our environment. Consumer electronics are particularly relevant in interaction terms because their primary purpose is to allow us to interact with them. Thanks to advances in the technologies behind mobile phones, tablet computers, gaming consoles and television among many others, cutting edge technological innovation has come to every individual man and woman on the street. It’s got personal.

That said, we’re living in interesting times. The rate of innovation is unprecedented. What we’ve seen happen with mobile technology in the last five years alone is beyond incredible, and you sense the rate of innovation is only speeding up. This may be in part down to the fact that these devices have both a hardware – device – component, and a software – usability – component, meaning there are twice the number of opportunities to innovate.

What I’ve been sensing lately, however, is a growing ‘backlash’ – for want of a better word – and a desire to build what are seen as purer, more sustainable, locally sourced, culturally relevant technology-based solutions. Although you could argue a certain romanticism in the approach, the fact of the matter is that most technologies being pushed out by the electronics industry remain relevant to only a small percentage of the global population. It’s not only down to cost either, although that’s a large part of it. It’s also down to the fact that many of these devices just don’t work in places without high-speed data networks and/or a mains supply to charge them nightly. Many people just don’t have that.

I’m writing this on a flight home from Washington DC, and have just watched a programme which featured a water-powered lift. The idea is brilliantly simple. The lift – which runs up a steep cliff – harnesses the power of the nearby river and uses gravity, one of the oldest and most sustainable of energy sources, to pull one of two carriages upwards while the other drops.

It’s such a simple but effective piece of engineering that if it broke you’d likely be able to find someone locally who could figure out how to fix it. That’s clearly been the case since it began operating 120 years ago.

The likes of IDEO, Catapult Design, IDE and D-REV are household names to anyone interested in designing and building “for the other 90%”, and I’m a big fan of the approach. I’ve been also been a big fan of the appropriate technology movement for some time, and am excited to be speaking at the “Small Is…” festival later this year. The irony is that despite all of this I work in a high-tech world which is about as far away from much of the appropriate technology work ethic as it could be. John Mulrow in World Watch Magazine recently wrote a great article about the relationship between mobile technology and appropriate technology, but for me many questions remain.

Our world is becoming increasingly dependent on information and communications technology and many local, indigenous, traditional ways of designing, building and doing are slowly being replaced, and in many cases lost, forever. I’m not entirely sure if that represents progress or not.

August 10, 2010   41 Comments

Rethinking innovation

Last week I had the incredible opportunity to talk about our work with FrontlineSMS at the National Geographic Explorers Symposium in Washington DC. A big part of what we do is to try and take the mobile message to an entirely new audience, and to help people re-think what innovation means in the developing world, using mobile technology as our lead.

It’s great to see such a revival of interest in appropriate technology, something I first became a fan of at University way back in 1997. As a sign of this growing interest, World Watch recently published one of the best and most comprehensive articles to date on “mobile technology as an appropriate technology”. You can read about that here, and it is well worth a look.

There are, of course, increasing examples of innovative applications of technology, particularly in the field of renewable energy and particularly in the developing world. Two recent and favourite examples are the solar-powered light bulb and the energy-harvesting football, both of which I’m a big fan of – not necessarily in the technology itself (although it is pretty neat), but in the approach.

Solar-powered light?

When I first heard about this I wasn’t sure if I’d read it right. A solar-powered light bulb? Well, the Nokero N100 is a solar LED bulb which can be left outside in direct sunlight during the day. This charges up its internal battery which then gives you up to four hours of light at night. It’s a brilliantly simple idea, and one which has huge potential in developing countries. Not only could it solve significant lighting issues for many households, but it also has positive health implications (replacing kerosine lamps) and, of course, potential benefits to the environment. More on the the Nokero N100 here.

Kid-powered football?

This was an instant favourite because of its sheer simplicity and brilliance. It’s not a million miles away from the Play Pumps concept, harvesting the ‘wasted’ energy of childrens’ play to generate electricity. While children kick the ‘soccket’ football around, it harvests the kinetic energy generated by the ball’s movement. A short ten minute kick-around charges an internal battery which can later power an LED bulb for up to four hours. There’s more on Soccket in this New York Times article by good friend Jim Witkin.

I don’t know about you, but I think we could do with these kinds of innovation everywhere.

June 15, 2010   64 Comments

Rethinking Schumacher

Ever since I came across Fritz Schumacher’s “Small is Beautiful” at University back in 1997, I’ve been a close follower of the appropriate technology movement. Although for many appropriate technology is associated with ploughs, stoves and farming implements, for some time I’ve been thinking about how it applies to the work we do with mobile. I tackled this in a PC World article a couple of years ago, and more recently in a blog post on how appropriate “cloud-based” mobile solutions are in a world where so many people are yet to be reliably connected to the web.

Now the World Watch Institute have taken the discussion a step further in an excellent article in the May/June edition of their magazine. In it, John Mulrow argues that, if carried out appropriately, Schumacher’s original concept of local initiatives, local ownership and local innovation can be applied to today’s mobile world, despite mobile phones being a technology often designed, developed and controlled from the ‘outside’. This is one of the best articles yet on mobile vs. appropriate technology, and is well worth a read.

“Think Mobile, Act Local” is available as a PDF here.

April 7, 2010   68 Comments

Mobile meets health on the margins

The timing of this article could not have been better, given the discussions last week on the merits of mobile-based “cloud computing” and the clarification of our position a couple of days later. Despite advances in mobile devices and data connectivity, the need for mobile tools to also be able to work in less than optimal conditions is still as strong and as relevant as ever, as this use of FrontlineSMS by Telecoms Sans Frontiers in Nicaragua shows us all too well.

TSF – No Bugs In This Software That Fights Disease
(re-printed with the kind permission of SatNews.com)
November 5th, 2009

“Since the beginning of October, Nicaragua is facing a huge rise of dengue cases, which has become a major public health concern in the country. The Health Ministry of the Central American nation (Minsa) has a crisis unit (SILAIS) which currently focuses its activities in response to both the dengue and H1N1 plagues. An Internet monitoring system has previously been set up to control the health situation in the country; nevertheless access to computer is often difficult in some regions where only few health centers are equipped.

TSF and FrontlineSMS TrainingDue to this serious situation, and the necessity to improve the collection of information, TSF, in collaboration with PATH (an international non-profit organisation that aims at enabling communities worldwide to break longstanding cycle of poor health) is reinforcing SILAIS’ capacities in Information and Communications Technologies.

In order to monitor the spread of the dengue in Managua and to conduct mobile health actions, TSF has been implementing for the first time a very innovative system based on a widespread, cheap and solid technology, GSM.

To set up the program, TSF uses FrontlineSMS software. Developed by a TSF partner NGO, FrontlineSMS is free, open source software that turns a laptop and a mobile phone into a central communications hub. Once installed, the program enables users to send and receive text messages with large groups of people through mobile phones. Thus, GSM technology is used to reach as many geographical zones as possible to control health issues in those areas. The server in SILAIS is connected with the 32 health units in Managua.

Each health unit has been delivered a mobile phone by TSF, so that they can send different kinds of information through SMS to the server. Hospital and health centers fill in predefined forms from their mobile phones and send them by SMS to SILAIS. Designed by PATH and the SILAIS, those forms provide data about the classic and hemorrhagic dengue cases, about the H1N1 2009 ones and the need for medicines when the stock nearly runs out. Once the forms received, the server stores information and puts them in databases in order to facilitate statistical analysis, on Excel format for example.

TSF provides two-way communication to health units enabling SILAIS to receive a daily report and gather messages from the health units and will have an updated situation in each center. At the meanwhile, SILAIS will also be able to communicate important information to them through SMS (such as an alert or a warning about coming meetings for example) or give them automatic answers to predefined questions sent by the health units.

Image courtesy Telecoms Sans Frontiers

By providing communication links between health structures and the SILAIS, TSF will allow the Health Ministry to have more accurate information about the diseases spread within Managua and quickly survey and assess the needs in affected areas. TSF helps health professionals use advanced methodologies such as smart phones and open-source software. Mobile devices are great tools to track and transmit crucial data in order to detect an epidemic threat at an appropriate time. Through this program, TSF participates in strengthening health systems in Nicaragua.

Following the installation of the system, on October 24th, TSF organized training for all the beneficiaries of the project. The health units and SILAIS staff were trained on the application’s functionalities and available services”.

For a related article on FrontlineForms, the FrontlineSMS data collection tool used by TSF for the project, go here.

November 9, 2009   32 Comments

Our “social mobile” line in the sand

The depth and range of discussion generated by my last post on “the cloud” and “appropriate technology” may have come as something of a surprise, but one thing is clear. There’s a great deal of misunderstanding around the topic, particularly with people who are either developing or promoting tools based on the very technology I was challenging. The only way to avoid this kind of confusion is to spell out our positions clearly, and I made this point in that very same post. So how do we move on from here?

Well, we need to set out our positions clearly as a marker in the sand for future discussion. So, let me go first. To clear up any present and future confusion, here’s the official FrontlineSMS / kiwanja.net position on what I consider five key “mobile tools for development” areas – location in the “long tail”, scaling, replication and growth, open sourcing and access to “the cloud”.

1. Who are your target audience?

Some time ago I butchered Chris Anderson’s “long tail” concept and adapted it for mobile. It seemed like the best way of categorising the different focus areas for mobile tools – high-end for larger organisations down to low-end for small grassroots ones. Here’s what I came up with.

Social Mobile Long Tail, kiwanja.net

The basic rationale behind the diagram is this. Tools in the red area are technically and financially out-of-reach of many grassroots NGOs, many of whom sit in the green space. Tools at the higher end of the graph are generally more complex, server-based systems which require a high degree of technical competence, and often the Internet, to set up and use. Tools in the lower end are simple, low-cost, need few technical skills, work on easily available hardware, don’t require the Internet, and are easy to install and run. Tools in the green space can be quickly adopted and replicated – within hours – whereas tools at the other end need much more planning, i.e. more people and more lead time, and most likely a degree of training.

Note: There is no right or wrong or good or bad place on the tail. There are just different places

From its early beginnings in South Africa in 2004, FrontlineSMS has been totally focused on grassroots NGOs in the green space, an area which I believed back then was heavily underserved (and to a large degree still is). We’re not particularly interested in big users such as international NGOs or government departments. So if our tool isn’t considered right for the kinds of big projects they’re likely to be running, then that’s fine with us.

I wonder where the other social mobile tools would place themselves on the tail?

2. What is your position on scaling?

Believe it or not, not everyone wants to build tools that can grow into large centralised solutions, which is how many people seem to define scale. No one is ever going to run a nationwide election monitoring campaign running into millions of text messages using a single laptop, cable and mobile phone. FrontlineSMS is based on “horizontal scaling”, gained by an increase in the numbers of individual users with their own systems. In other words, a hundred systems in a hundred clinics serving 10,000 people each, rather than one system adapted and “scaled up” to serve a million. We’re happy and comfortable with this approach, as are our target audience of grassroots NGOs.

3. How does it replicate and grow?

Growth is based on patience, and a “pull” rather than “push” approach, i.e. awareness-raising and then letting NGOs decide if they want to try out the tool or not. Those that do then go and request it from the website. Everything is driven by the end user, who needs to be independently motivated to download and use the tool. There is no need for us to be involved at any stage, so no-one flies anywhere and no-one does any training – note that the approaches of FrontlineSMS:Medic and FrontlineSMS:Credit may be different – and no-one tries to “sell” FrontlineSMS to anyone. The solution is designed to allow users to do everything themselves. No core FrontlineSMS implementations are driven by us, and none are our projects. Use is replicated by users sharing experiences, talking about their use of the tool to others, and growing numbers of champions who are either building their own solutions around FrontlineSMS, or bloggers and researchers who write about its use and impact.

4. What is your position on open sourcing?

Again, from the very beginning we have been unashamedly focused on our end user – NGOs in developing countries seeking easy-to-deploy mobile tools. Our end users are not programmers, coders or technical developers, and few if any of our FrontlineSMS user base would have any idea what to do with source code. We decided that we would focus on the open source community once we believed we had something worth working with, and that time is about now. In between working on everything else, we plan to launch a developer community soon. That all said, there are already a number of developers bolting on new functionality to the core FrontlineSMS platform, and 90% of the code is already available online and accessible through SourceForge.

5. Does access to “the cloud” matter?

Cloud image courtesy versacevistas.wordpress.com

FrontlineSMS only came about four years ago because of a critical lack of tools that allowed for group messaging without the need for the Internet. Building a tool which is able to operate in Internet-free zones has therefore been central to our thinking since the very beginning, and continues to this day. Beyond basic messaging, FrontlineSMS can make use of an Internet connection when and where available – messages can be forwarded via email, or posted to websites, for example (that’s the functionality Ushahidi takes advantage of) – but no Internet is not a show stopper for us. And as time moves on and connectivity does improve, we’ll be ready. We’re adding picture messaging in the next couple of months (for example), and other web-based features are in the pipeline. We are not anti-Internet, but realistic when it comes to its availability and reliability.

So, that’s our line in the sand. If anyone else has a mobile tool – or is working on a mobile tool – I’d encourage them to clear up any possible confusion and write a post outlining their thinking in these five areas. The alternative is more confusion, and more false arguments and comparisons.

I know I’d love to know the thinking behind more social mobile tools, and going by the reaction earlier this week, it looks like I’m not the only one. Now is a good-a-time as any to join the conversation.

Read responses and “lines in the sand” from:

FrontlineSMS:Credit
FrontlineSMS:Medic

(As of 20th December, no other mobile tools providers have responded, which is a shame. May the confusion and misrepresentation continue…)

November 5, 2009   40 Comments