In celebration of an approach less travelled

I’m in San Francisco this week on a surprise trip to collect an award for a product I designed and built over a decade ago. The fact the early work of FrontlineSMS is still being recognised twelve years on speaks volumes to the approach, and the impact it had – not only in the hands of users themselves, but also in the minds of others looking to apply technology for social good. It struck a chord with an emerging narrative that said we should build appropriate tools that genuinely empowered the people closest to the problem, and that our job was, if anything, to build those tools, hand them over and then get the hell out of the way. If you look at the tweets from the many ICT4D and social innovation conferences today, this remains an approach popular within our sector.

But while tweeting and speaking are one thing, doing is another. Sure, for me this week should be about celebration, but I remain frustrated with a sector which claims to be hungry for learning, and hungry to scale ‘ what works’, yet very little of what made FrontlineSMS successful has been made use of in any meaningful way. This is not just disappointing on a professional level, but a personal one, too.

Nothing quite matches the energy and excitement of grassroots organisations building out their own ideas and solutions off the back of a platform you’ve created. The idea that you might stop what you’re doing and others will continue the work is something we should all aspire to. In the global development sector we call this ‘sustainability’. Yet, how often do we see it?

Nothing quite matches the organic growth that becomes possible when you build genuinely open, empowering platforms. I’m immensely proud of the way our users embraced it, and equally proud of the smart, young innovators such as Josh Nesbit and Ben Lyon who were drawn to our work, and whose early efforts with FrontlineSMS:Medic and FrontlineSMS:Credit lead to the creation of two incredibly exciting and innovative organisations in Medic Mobile and Kopo Kopo. Kevin Starr once told me that he was fascinated by how FrontlineSMS had become an incubator for so many other ideas and initiatives. Sadly I’m not sure what I can point to today that does anywhere near the same thing.

While we were clearly doing something right, funding remained a constant struggle, and the lessons we were learning and sharing were falling on deaf ears. Only two studies of note examined the impact and approach of FrontlineSMS – a paper by Medic Mobile, and a brilliant chapter in Bits and Atoms written by Sharath Srinivasan. For a project which had such a high profile, and one that powered grassroots interventions in over 170 countries, the lack of interest in trying to understand what truly made it succeed is a huge disappointment. After all, as a sector we’re hardly blessed with success stories of initiatives that scale. From what I can tell, the sector is just too busy chasing the next big thing at the expense of existing opportunities right under its nose.

When I look around today, I still see tools being built far away from the problem with little understanding of the users or their context (except for the odd trip some projects take so they can tick the ‘HCD’ box). Challenges and competitions are the new big thing, with entries voted up or down like a beauty competition by others with little idea of the problem or those effected by it. You don’t stop someone on the street and ask for medical advice, so why do the same with an idea to solve a medical problem in a developing country? I recently wrote about the madness of innovation challenges here.

So, as I attend the awards ceremony this coming weekend I’ll quietly thank all those unsung heroes who helped turn FrontlineSMS into the breakthrough story that it first became all those years ago. And I’ll continue to hope that we can be brave enough as a community to work through many of the problems hindering our ability to build yet more tools that genuinely put the power to change in the hands of those who need it most. Unfortunately, experience tells me to not hold out too much hope. 

One last throw of the dice.

I’ve always found the global development system frustrating. It was the 1980’s when it first got my attention, with suffering and extreme poverty dominating my daily news feed. The Ethiopian famine in 1985 was the turning point, forcing me to seriously question why a sector awash with money and resources could have so little visible impact (and when it does, how it struggles to effectively communicate the change). While I still don’t have all the answers I think I know a lot more about what needs to be fixed.

A depressing reality struck me the other week as I pulled together a collection of my most popular blog posts for a new eBook. It dawned on me that I’ve been writing about the same stuff for over a decade. Some of my posts from 2007 apply just as much today, if not more. And that’s depressing. Seriously depressing.

I’ve always been my biggest critic and I constantly question whether anything I’ve done, or currently do, has or is making any kind of meaningful difference out there. Sure, I’ve spent the best part of my working life trying to figure out how I can contribute to a solution to some of the social and environmental problems that deeply trouble me, but because I’ve spent so long doing it doesn’t mean I’ve achieved anything. I wrote about this recently, too.

Tonight I watched a TED talk, provocatively titled “Poverty isn’t a lack of character; it’s a lack of cash“. It was wonderfully argued and delivered, and beautifully challenged many of the assumptions that underly global development policy and practice. In his talk, Rutger also highlighted a solution to a poverty reduction programme that actually worked but has since been largely ignored – the basic minimum income. (This is something I’ve seen time and time again in my work on the technology side of development (often called ICT4D), in that when ideas emerge that seem to actually work for unexplained reasons the wider sector decides not to adopt or support them. For a sector that constantly demands new and innovative solutions to everything, it’s perplexing.

With so much still to be done, I wonder whether I’m going to see the change that’s needed in my lifetime. I’ve been fortunate in my career, and have had wonderful support throughout. But the question I’m beginning to ask myself now is this. If there was just one thing I could work on for the next ten years – one thing I could throw myself at and have the greatest impact – what would that be?

I wonder.

The end of a golden age of discovery?

Exactly six years ago this week I was in Washington DC to collect the Pizzigati Prize for Software in the Public Interest, and award given each year to an individual who has created or led an effort to create an open source software product of significant value to the non-profit sector and movements for social change. While the Prize came in a golden spell for me and my work, I wonder if that golden age of discovery in our wider sector – which I was privileged to be a part of – is now over?

When Livingstone, Stanley and Speke set out on their voyages of adventure across Africa, their objective was not only discovery but to show the impossible was possible – that you could penetrate into the heart of Africa – the ‘Dark Continent’ – and live to tell the tale. Although later discoveries and adventures still roused public and press interest (and awards and recognition for the individuals involved) for many that early raw, frontier period was gone, never to return.

Bushbuckridge, South Africa (2003). A frontier of mobile exploration. Photo: Ken Banks

When I look back through the 15-year history of kiwanja.net, much of the first few years felt like a period of raw expectation and raw exploration. It was a bit of a Wild West. Nobody really knew what would work, how it might work, or who it might benefit. Most people weren’t even aware of the early signs of what was to famously become the ‘mobile revolution’. Back then, innovation wasn’t a word thrown around casually, you could have put everyone working in mobile-for-development into a local cinema, and there wasn’t such a thing as best practice. For me and many of those around me, it felt like those early days for Livingstone, Stanley and Speke. It felt like we were making trails that others might follow, but we didn’t know where they would lead, if anywhere, and what we might learn.

My early work, without any doubt, felt like it came in a golden age. It felt like we were forging a path – one centred around the use of SMS in conservation and development – where no-one else had been before. Like those early Africa explorers, interest and fascination among the public and press was high. And because of it, the project grew and awards and recognition came. Over a six year period multiple fellowships, awards and prizes arrived, along with considerable amounts of funding for FrontlineSMS which, for a while, seemed to be everywhere. You could try anything, safely in the knowledge that it was unlikely anyone else had tried it before.

In the true spirit of adventure, in 2010 I had the huge privilege of being named a National Geographic Emerging Explorer. At the time it felt like a very bold move by the Selection Committee. Almost all of the other Emerging Explorers were either climbing, diving, scaling, digging or building, and what I do hardly fits into your typical adventurer job description. But as I think about it today, as I write this post, in a way it does. As mobile technology continued its global advance, figuring out ways of applying the technology in socially and environmentally meaningful ways was a kind of 21st century exploring. Since 2010 a number of other friends and colleagues have gone on to be named Emerging Explorers whilst working in the technology sector, continuing a trend at National Geographic of reframing exploration in a digital age.

Today – as I reflect on this, the later stages of my career – my time is increasingly spent helping others cut their own route, and sharing stories of those who succeed. Today we have more tools than ever at our disposal to help solve the social and environmental problems around us – perhaps too many – but despite this the golden age feels over. Our field has become professionalised, and with it we have lost a lot of the magic.

In reality, all that has really changed is that frontiers have shifted. Maybe I just prefer the one I lived through all those years ago.