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Category — FrontlineSMS

How “Designing with the end user” undermines ICT4D best practice

After years of near-invisible end users, it’s promising to see the beginnings of ‘end-user recognition’ in much of ICT4D‘s emerging best practice. It looks like we’ve made a big stride forward, but we’re not where we need to be yet, despite making all the right noises. To a great extent, we’re still saying one thing and doing another.

The international development sector, which includes the ICT4D community, is famously uncoordinated. That’s no surprise to many of the people who work in it. You would hope that, at least if the wrong things were being done they’d be being done in a coordinated way, but that’s rarely the case. Haiti is a great case in point, where “a confused aid effort‘ has only added to the difficulties. You’d be right to ask why so many people continue to live in tents nearly five years after the earthquake.

Very recently, the Narrative Project – which I blogged about here – included a call for “a co-ordinated development sector”. It also made the point that independence and self-reliance, i.e. people in the developing world solving their own problems, should be key development objectives. And that people need to believe they can make a difference. This is good to hear, but they’re empty words if ‘best’ practice continues to undermine it.

You could argue that “designing with the user” is a sensible approach – it’s certainly better than designing without them – but is it taking us closer to an end-game of “people in the developing world solving their own problems”? It may if you’re working with them to build a tool or platform which they, and other communities elsewhere, can then take and subsequently deploy on their own terms to solve whatever problem they see fit, in whatever way they decide, without the ‘solution’ provider needing to be involved.

To me, “Design with the user” makes more sense to a local solutions developer, who can simply jump on a bus to go and work with them. But it doesn’t for the overseas solutions developer, for example the student group designing an ICT4D intervention as part of their design thinking course. Local empowerment can only genuinely happen if it’s local people helping local people. So what we need to do is work towards a place where that can happen. “Allowing the user to design” is that place.

The truth of the matter is that far too many ICT4D projects are still initiated from the outside. When I initially launched FrontlineSMS in 2005, the platform was squarely designed to allow local people to conceive, design and run their own projects. The only outside help they needed was for someone to provide something that allowed them to do that. It really isn’t rocket science.

Yet, despite its successes, it still seems to be a model, and an approach, in the minority.

I worry that people who read, study and follow the “Design with the end user” mantra might feel more than ever that they’re doing the right thing, but they’ll simply be reinforcing the outside-in, top down approach without realising it. “Design with the end user” is a step in the right direction, but it’s not the end of the journey, and we shouldn’t kid ourselves that it is.

September 21, 2014   4 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   130 Comments

The innovation conundrum

When I started out trying to understand the complexities of international development well over 15 years ago, one thing struck me. The trick, I was often told, to increase chances of funding was to apply a liberal sprinkling of the words gender, scalable or sustainable into any project proposal. Donors apparently liked those words, however they were used.

I’m beginning to wonder if the same thing is happening today with the word innovation.

For organisations seeking to deploy technologies to put right social wrongs, innovation is the hottest date in town. If the solutions themselves are not described as “innovative” then often the organisations behind them are. Innovation hubs have sprung up across the developed and the developing world, seeking to create the perfect environment for innovation. There are books galore extolling the virtues of innovation in three, four or five steps, or how we might foster cultures of innovation. If only it were that easy.

Over the past few days I’ve read three separate articles, all of which touch on different aspects of the innovation phenomenon. They’re interesting on their own, and collectively, as examples of the various debates currently taking place. As with all things “development” (which is the hat I wear as I write this) there’s as much discussion about what things mean as there is real-world activity.

Harvard Business Review

On the Harvard Business Review blog, good friend Bright Simons focuses on the cost of innovation, and argues that low-GDP countries and smaller businesses are in danger of falling into an “innovation poverty trap” while their richer counterparts ride off into the distance. Cost may indeed be a barrier, but it would be wrong to assume that if we provided every resource you could possibly wish for that people would suddenly become innovative. Money doesn’t make you innovative, although for innovative individuals and companies it arguably helps. Some bigger companies have fallen from their perch at the height of their success, crucially at a time when they had peak resources available to innovate, including money. Take Nokia as a more recent example. (For more on why big companies fail, see the excellent “Innovators Dilemma” by Clayton Christensen).

Stanford Social Innovation Review

In the Fall 2012 volume of the Stanford Social Innovation Review, Christian Seelos and Johanna Mair argue that innovation should not be the holy grail, and that instead “it is time to move from innovation as an ideology to innovation as a process”. In particular, they argue that a relentless focus on innovation as an outcome can undermine an organisation’s appetite for experimentation. This is particularly true when that experimentation may have a high chance of failure:

Although productive innovation does not always translate into desired outcomes or impact, systematic learning and building of a knowledge base about what works and what does not constitutes an important indicator for an organisation’s ability to innovate

Failing to recognise this carries a number of risks:

Glorifying innovation as the solution to social and environmental needs and problems has led to well-intended efforts to increase the population of social innovators and entrepreneurs. This certainly has its merits but it has come with a detriment to investments in established social sector organisations that operate at scale and that create value mainly through incremental improvements

The rampant rate of innovation in the commercial sector has provided risk and opportunity in equal measure for the non-profit world. The ICT4D toolbox is a lot bigger than it was two or three years ago, but as I like to point out in my numerous talks on appropriate technology, many of these new tools don’t yet work in the places where the need is greatest. Donors sometimes fuel the frenzy by their willingness to fund the next big thing, leaving us with ‘innovative’ projects such as “iPads for Africa” (this is one I made up a couple of years ago, but it may now exist in some form). Although these projects may look great in the glossy pages of an annual report, and sound incredibly disruptive, they look less compelling on the ground (where they largely fail).

Organisational Capacity to Innovate

The Rockefeller Foundation recently launched organizational capacity to innovate, a new website based on the findings of ”Learning from Experimentation: Sustaining Innovation to Achieve Impact” (available as a PDF here). They focus on the importance of seeing social innovation as an outcome rather than a tool, and an ongoing process rather than a single moment of inspiration. Two organisations are used as case studies in the report – our very own FrontlineSMS, and Circle of Blue - both seen as good examples of building capacity for continuous innovation through experimentation. The report is particularly interesting because it covers organisational innovation as much as technological innovation. As I’ve written before, organisations themselves need to innovate (business models, organisational structures, funding, leadership, messaging, and so on).

Creative Advantage list over a dozen definitions of “innovation” on their website, and therein lies the problem. We need to be careful we don’t overuse the term to the point of it becoming meaningless, and that when we do we’re clear about what kind of innovation we’re talking about.

Further reading
Since drafting this post, the Stuff Expat Aid Workers Like blog has published a more critical, tongue-in-cheek critique of the development community’s emerging obsession with innovation. You can read their “#182 Innovation Tourette’s” post here.

November 25, 2012   71 Comments

Back to the Future: Seventeen things you might not know about FrontlineSMS

This post was first published on the FrontlineSMS website last October to celebrate six years since the software’s launch. This week the FrontlineSMS team – which now spans three continents – are preparing for the release of the latest version. Launch events are being held in the US, UK and Kenya. Further details are available here.

With this, and our transition announcement a couple of weeks ago, it felt like a good time to reflect on the early days of the software. Thanks to the great support of our online community, users, staff, donors, bloggers and the media, FrontlineSMS today is well known throughout the wider ICT4D world. But it wasn’t always that way. Here’s that post in full.

In late October 2005, an early beta – “proof-of-concept” – version of FrontlineSMS was released to the world. It took just ten months for the idea to shape itself into the early stages of what you see today. In this, the second and last of our sixth birthday celebration posts (you can read the first here), we dig deep into our email archives and reveal some of the more interesting early – and perhaps surprising – moments of the project.

The idea for FrontlineSMS was conceived in early 2005 with the help of several field trips to South Africa and Mozambique, a bottle of beer and “Match of the Day”. All is revealed in this fun, short National Geographic video made in 2010:

The very first email which specifically references FrontlineSMS was sent on 6th March, 2005 at 0853 to register the domain name.

Prior to that the working title was “Project SMS”. The first email to reference “Project SMS” was sent on Wednesday 26th January, 2005 at 12:02. In it, the entire concept was described in just 963 words with an initial estimated budget of just £2,000 ($3,000).

Factoring in equipment and other costs, personal gifts totaling £10,000 were secured on 16th March, 2005 from two former Vodafone directors.

“The potential for FrontlineSMS is very exciting, and I am very much looking forward to working on the project. The potential impact for conservation and development is considerable.” – Email from me to one of the supporters, 3rd May, 2005.

Preparation for the project officially got underway with the purchase of equipment totaling £1,476.09 on 22nd May, 2005:

One month later the timeline for the project was laid out. FrontlineSMS was delivered bang on schedule. From an email on 22nd June, 2005:

“I will begin working on the specification over the next couple of weeks, and will then get stuck into the initial programming phase during August. I have allocated that whole month to FrontlineSMS. As per the original timeline, July will be preparation, and August to September development time, so by October we should have something to trial.”

August 2005: The Beta version of FrontlineSMS was developed on this kitchen table in Finland. In the absence of any other images, the forest view from the window was used as the main banner for the first FrontlineSMS website later that month.

News of FrontlineSMS was first revealed to the media in an interview with the Charity Times [PDF] in August, 2005. Software development was briefly paused on 26th August so that the first FrontlineSMS website could be hastily put together ahead of the article’s release.

“I have very high hopes that FrontlineSMS is really going to open the door to SMS technology to the wider NGO community” – Email to World Wildlife Fund, who were interested in trailing the software. 2nd September, 2005.

On 29th September, 2005 FrontlineSMS was presented for the first time at an internal event at Fauna & Flora International in Cambridge, UK:

On 5th October, 2005, to celebrate its imminent launch, FrontlineSMS buys up 200 pixels on the Million Dollar Homepage, a site which has since gone down in Internet folklore. (Read more on this here).

Email, 6th October, 2005: “Google now gives us around 80 results when searching for FrontlineSMS”. Today the number is well over 100,000.

Email to supporters, 31st October, 2005: “The FrontlineSMS texting system is now ready for trial”. These nine words signaled our official launch exactly six years ago today.

Email dated 14th November, 2005 from the MacArthur Foundation: “The MacArthur Foundation’s Technology Grants Committee is always looking for innovative applications of technology for the NGO sector. I’d love to have a chat with you about your application if you have the time”. Two years later MacArthur would become the first donor to make an investment in FrontlineSMS with a $200,000 grant. This funded a major rewrite and a new website in 2008.

14th November, 2005: 160 Characters are the first mobile-focused news site to announce the release of FrontlineSMS.

15th November, 2005: We receive an email enquiry from Kubatana, a Zimbabwean civil society organisation. Days later FrontlineSMS had its first official implementation. Kubatana still use FrontlineSMS today.

Today, with fifteen staff over three continents, users in over 80 countries across 20 different non-profit sectors, and over 25,000 downloads, the rest – as they say – is history…  \o/

June 10, 2012   17 Comments

Innovation: Beyond technology.

Last week we made one of the most important announcements in the near-seven year history of FrontlineSMS. As I hinted in my “Rolling Stones School of Management Innovation” post last December, I only felt able to take the project to a certain level and that it required different people with a different set of skills to move it to the next. Last week, with that internal transition complete, we announced that I’d be stepping aside to concentrate on other things, and FrontlineSMS would move forward in fresh hands.

Laura Walker Hudson and Sean Martin McDonald will now drive the project forward as CEO’s of our US Foundation and UK Community Interest Company respectively. You can read their thoughts on the transition, and what they have planned, in their follow-up post here.

Many wonderful messages of support flooded in in the form of Tweets, direct messages, blog comments, emails and – of course – text message. The transition announcement was amazingly well received and the response overwhelmingly positive. Many people commented that the move was “incredibly brave” and “must have been difficult” but as I mentioned in the announcement, I felt it was neither. As I said then, I’ve always maintained that it’s just as important to be aware of your limitations as your strengths, and stepping aside in these circumstances is the clearest indication I can give that I do.

There haven’t been many transitions like this in the m4d or ICT4D worlds that I know of, and if that’s the case it reinforces our commitment to not only be innovative with technology but innovative organisationally, and to also always act in the best interests of the project rather than ourselves. FrontlineSMS, as with many other ICT4D projects, is bigger than one person. I’m excited to see where FrontlineSMS goes from here, and I’ll follow and support it in my new capacity as Chairman of the Board with the same commitment and enthusiasm as I did from my one bedroom flat in Cambridge, or VW Camper at Stanford.

Alongside the congratulatory messages a few people wished me luck and said they hoped to still see me on the innovation, technology, mobile or African scene. Well, they will. I’m not retiring, just handing over the reins at FrontlineSMS. I’ll continue to write, blog and speak about technology, innovation and social change, and maintain a focus on Africa as I’ve done for the past twenty years.

What’s next

As for what’s next, I’m excited that over the past few months I’ve been increasingly drawn into the wider world of innovation and entrepreneurship beyond my technology roots – speaking the other week at the Ashoka/Ben & Jerry’s ”Join Our Core” event, for example, and next month spending time with BMW executives in Munich.

My writing has also started to gain traction beyond the news sites and journals which dominate our discipline, with a short guest piece in Wired Magazine last month. I’m also planning my first book which will focus on “reluctant innovation“, due out later this year. And I’m doing an increasing amount of mentoring with organisations such as Pop!Tech, National Geographic and the Unreasonable Institute, something that aligns perfectly with my long-standing commitment to “give back”.

Project-wise I have a long list of new ideas I’ll be working on. One is just a few weeks away from being ready, so I’ll save the official announcement for then. But in the spirit of my efforts with FrontlineSMS, the overarching focus of my work will continue to centre around how we best apply modern technology for social benefit, both in the developed and developing world. If anything, it’s the additional focus on the developed world which represents the biggest shift in my thinking.

In an effort to stay innovative and relevant, large companies are often encouraged to reinvent themselves. There’s no reason why this shouldn’t apply to individuals, too. The ICT4D sector has shifted focus considerably since I started out all those years ago. When the time is right, there’s no reason why some of the people in it shouldn’t do the same, either.

Further reading
ClearlySo featured our transition on their blog. You can read their excellent commentary here.

June 5, 2012   52 Comments

Building mobile applications for social good

“If you were thinking of designing or building a website, you’d be in luck. If you were thinking of writing a suite of financial management tools, you’d be in luck. If you were even thinking of creating the next big video game, you’d be in luck. Visit any good bookstore and the selection of self-help books and “how-to” guides leave you spoilt for choice. 

Unlike the plethora of self-help guides on the more established topics, if you were looking to do something with mobile phones you’d likely have mixed results. There are plenty of books available extolling the virtues of Java, Python, Ruby, Ruby on Rails, C++, Symbian, Android and just about any other development environment or platform out there. Combine that with the growing field of mobile UI (user interface) design and you’d think that pretty much everything was covered. But there is one thing missing, although you’d probably only notice if you’re one of a growing number of developers turning their attention to the developing world”.

I’m talking about a guide on “Building Mobile Applications for Social Good“. Although just a start, this article – written for The Testing Planet – in part aims to fill that gap. At conferences and seminars I often talk about our experiences developing FrontlineSMS, and the thinking and fieldwork behind it, but until now much of this wasn’t particularly well captured in written form in a single place.

A PDF of the “Building Mobile Applications for Social Good” article is available via the kiwanja website here [2 Mb]. A PDF of the full edition of this month’s Testing Planet is available on their website here.

The Testing Planet is a magazine produced by The Software Testing Club and its community members. The magazine is published in print, ebook, Kindle, PDF and web format. You can follow them on Twitter at @testingclub

Further reading
Check out an earlier article – “Mobile Design. Sans Frontieres” – co-written with friend and colleague Joel Selanikio, and the wider “Mobile apps development” category in this blog.

November 29, 2011   80 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

Invite: Curry Stone Design Prize Ceremony

In just over a weeks time I’ll be heading back to the US to collect the Curry Stone Design Prize on behalf of FrontlineSMS. This is an exciting (and interesting) award for us for a number of reasons. You can read more of my thoughts on that here, and check out our official prize page here.

The Prize Ceremony is being held at the Harvard Graduate School of Design on 7th November, and it’s open invitation. If you’re interested in coming along drop the organisers an email. Details below.

October 27, 2011   8 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

Rewarding open source for social good

Do you know a software developer building open source tools with the potential to positively impact communities around the world? If you do – or you are one – then read on.

The Tides Foundation is now accepting nominations for this year’s Pizzigati Prize. The Antonio Pizzigati Prize for Software in the Public Interest annually awards a $10,000 cash grant to one individual who has created or led an effort to create an open source software product of significant value to the nonprofit sector and movements for social change.

The 2012 winner will be announced in April at the Nonprofit Technology Network annual conference in San Francisco. Each year, starting in 2006, the Pizzigati Prize has accepted nominations for talented and creative individuals who develop open source software products that demonstrate impressive value to the nonprofit sector. Tides welcomes nominations from both developers and the nonprofits who work with them.

Earlier this year I had the honour of picking up the Pizzigati Prize in Washington DC on behalf of everyone at FrontlineSMS. According to the Pizzigati jury, we’d managed to:

create software that speaks directly to the reality that millions of people globally have only simple mobile phones and no access whatsoever to the Internet. The software they developed turns mobile phones into grassroots organizing tools for everything from mobilizing young voters to thwarting thieving commodity traders.

The 2010 Pizzigati Prize winner, Yaw Anokwa, led the development on Open Data Kit, a modular set of tools that’s helping nonprofits the world over on a wide variety of battlefronts, from struggles to prevent deforestation to campaigns against human rights violations.

“Open source software developers like these fill an indispensable role”, explained Tides Chief of Staff Joseph Mouzon, a Pizzigati Prize judge and the former Executive Director of Nonprofit Services for Network for Good. “The Pizzigati Prize aims to honor that contribution – and encourage programmers to engage their talents in the ongoing struggle for social change”.

The Pizzigati Prize honors the brief life of Tony Pizzigati, an early advocate of open source computing. Born in 1971, Tony spent his college years at MIT, where he worked at the world-famous MIT Media Lab. Tony died in 1995, in an auto accident on his way to work in Silicon Valley.

Full details on the Pizzigati Prize, the largest annual award in public interest computing, are available online.

Please nominate, share or enter as appropriate. Good luck!

September 23, 2011   32 Comments