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Category — FrontlineSMS

Innovative philanthropy and the quest for unrestricted funding

“In the real world, if you were to invest in a company you thought would make you a tidy profit, you wouldn’t tell the senior management they had to make a product of your choosing, restrict the number of vehicles they purchased, or expand operations into a new country. Why should we do any differently in the social sector? Why not simply invest – fund – on the basis of return in the form of impact? Isn’t that the point?”

Kevin Starr, Stanford Social Innovation Review

Just as Kevin Starr “stumbled into philanthropy”, I stumbled into running an organisation. I’ve been fortunate to meet Kevin on a number of occasions, and we have a fair bit in common. For a start, we ended up in places we weren’t expecting, and we’re both graduates of the School of Learning by Doing. Although this approach can be painful at times, you often find yourself stumbling across answers you wouldn’t have if you’d followed a more traditional, established route. There’s a danger if all you ever do is stay in your comfort zone.

(I remember talking to my mother back in November 2002 when I’d just been offered my first piece of mobile consultancy. I was supposed to build a conservation portal on Vodafone live! but had never done anything with mobile before (very few people had back then). I accepted the gig, although I had absolutely no idea if I’d be able to deliver. A simple fear of failure drove me on over the proceeding twelve months).

Kevin has largely figured it out for himself, too (in between extended bouts of surfing) and the end result – the work of the Mulago Foundation – is as inspiring as it is simple. If you’ve not seen his Pop!Tech talk from last year, do yourself a favour and check it out.

In short, the Mulago Foundation looks for “the best solutions to the biggest problems in the poorest countries”. These projects need to answer four quite simple questions:

  1. Is it needed?
  2. Does it work?
  3. Will it get to those who need it?
  4. Will they use it correctly when they get it?

None of this is rocket science, of course, but it’s what comes after a project answers with four “Yesses” that you might argue was most innovative. Mulago provide unrestricted funding, the holy grail of fundraising. Funding is provided based on a vision, and a path to scale, and it’s down to the organisation to decide how best to spend the funds to achieve that. The rationale is really quite simple. As Kevin puts it:

If you don’t think an organization is smart enough to use your money well, don’t give them any

We’ve been very fortunate to have received critical – essential – funding for FrontlineSMS over the past four years (for the first two it was largely self-funded). Grants from a number of donors have enabled us to continually develop and build on what we started in 2005. The end result? A piece of software in use today in over a hundred countries, driving a dizzying array of projects.

Of course, there’s little use in developing such a useful piece of software if the organisation behind it isn’t able to survive and thrive in tandem. And this is one of the biggest challenges facing many organisations in the non-profit world, not just those focusing on mobile. Rightly, in most instances, there’s a growing expectation that NGOs need to figure out how to live without donor money, but that’s easier said than done (something I’ve also written about before).

About half-a-dozen donors can rightly lay claim to being a key part of the FrontlineSMS story, but when it comes to our organisational development there’s – so far, at least – just the one.

In the past 18 months there have been massive changes in how we go about our business. With roots in camper vans and kitchen tables, today we have offices in London and Nairobi, with another opening soon in Washington DC. We’ve gone from one person to around ten – with a dedicated developer team based in the iHub in Nairobi – and a single US Foundation to a UK-based Community Interest Company and a sub-branch in Kenya. We’re well on the way to resolving complex governance issues, appointing a Board and developing a number of exciting non-donor income streams, not to mention new mobile-based social change tools. A majority of this work has been orchestrated by an excellent senior management team, with Laura Walker Hudson driving things from the UK and Sean McDonald doing the same for us in the US.

Project-based funding is still a critical part of our growth and development strategy, but all of this has happened thanks to the fantastic support of the Omidyar Network who, like Mulago, fully appreciate the value of also providing unrestricted funding to their grantees. The Omidyar Network’s investment criteria is based on five key areas. According to their website:

  • Alignment. We look for organizations aligned with our mission of creating opportunity for people to improve their lives. We seek for-profit companies and nonprofit organizations that use innovative, market-based approaches within our investment areas.
  • Impact. We identify organizations that intend to develop new markets or industries, influence policy or practices among existing institutions, alter public perception, or demonstrate the power of business to create social and financial returns. Ideal partners will inspire further entrepreneurial activity in their field.
  • Potential for scale. We look for organizations with significant growth potential, with the ability to scale operations and develop new markets. We ask for-profits to have the potential for a highly successful business model and nonprofits a path toward operational sustainability.
  • Leadership. We invest in management teams with a proven track record in their field of operation and an ability to articulate a clear vision and strategy, reinforced by a viable business plan. The organization must practice exemplary governance with operational efficiency and controls, transparent practices, and disciplined financial planning.
  • Innovation. We seek organizations that employ creative, entrepreneurial strategies to accomplish their goals. Investees may disrupt the status quo, establish a new business paradigm, or pioneer services for untapped markets.

If you need living proof of what a strategy like this looks like, check out Omidyar‘s and Mulago‘s impressive grant portfolios. You can also follow Omidyar on Twitter.

There is much talk of innovation in the technology arena but less, it seems, on innovation in philanthropy. Thank goodness this is beginning to change. We are, after all, all in this together.

August 31, 2011   69 Comments

Anthropologists in a Global Village

Social anthropology was a discipline I was fortunate to stumble into when I headed to university way back in 1996. My main motive for going was to read Development Studies, but at Sussex you couldn’t study it as a single subject. Choices for a second ranged from English Literature to Spanish to Geography. I rather casually picked anthropology.

If I were to be honest, for much of the first year I struggled. I never could get my head around the intricacies of “Kinship, Gender and Social Reproduction”. It wasn’t until we shifted focus in the second year towards applied anthropology that it all began to fall into place. Grounding the discipline in the problems and challenges of ‘modern’ life helped frame how useful, relevant and outright interesting it could be. By the time I graduated my main two pieces of work had focused on the role of anthropologists in the creation of conservation areas and national parks, and language death (including attempts to “revive” threatened languages such as Manx and Jerriais).

When people first come across our work they usually hone straight in on the “anthropology” in the strapline. Many people seem genuinely fascinated by what anthropologists could ever be doing working in mobiles-for-development, or ICT4D more broadly. It’s a good question. This is how I answered in a recent interview with National Geographic (this is one of a number of possible answers):

How are anthropologists exploring the enormous impacts of technology in the developing world?

Today, with markets saturated in the ‘developed world’ – if we can call it that – manufacturers are increasingly turning their attention to the two billion or so consumers left on the planet who don’t yet own a phone. Many of these people sit at the “bottom of the pyramid” (BOP) as economists like to call it, and many have very different needs from a mobile phone.

Manufacturers looking to build devices for the BOP need to very carefully consider price, which is often a crucial factor for someone with very limited disposable income. They might also need to consider literacy levels, or technical ability, perhaps re-working the user interface on the phone to make it easier to use.

They might also need to consider building phones which can take multiple SIM cards, since many people in the developing world regularly switch between different networks before making calls to take advantage of special deals. And they might need to think about providing security and privacy features on the phone which allows it to be shared between family members, something else which is very common in developing countries.

Understanding what these users might need or want from a phone needs time in the field, and researchers need to immerse themselves in the consumer, their lives and their phone usage patterns. Often it’s simply a case of patient, participant observation rather than just going in asking a bunch of questions, and anthropologists are particularly well suited to this kind of work.

Back in the summer of 2008 I was approached by researchers from the Department of Anthropology at the University of North Texas. They were working on a book chapter which looked at how anthropologists were contributing to the development of technologies that addressed the challenges of globalisation. Their focus was principally on consumer uses of technology, not organisational, and how anthropologists were melding theory and practice in the technology space, or “Global Village”.

After much work, that book – “Applying Anthropology in the Global Village” – is about to hit the shelves. For anyone interested in how anthropology can be usefully applied in the modern world, this is a must-read. kiwanja’s early work which lead to the development of FrontlineSMS is featured in the chapter on “Localising the Global in Technology Design”.

A comment from one of the reviewers sums up the book’s contribution well:

Once in a generation comes a shift in the practice of anthropology, or perhaps a shift in our perspective on the place of practice in the discipline and in the world.  Here is a harbinger of such change – the book we have all been waiting for – taking us to the cutting-edge of an anthropological practice that is ‘globalised’, hybridised with other disciplines, technology-infused, and on the go 24/7. A remarkable collection, this volume provides prospective and retrospective views of the agglomerative power of anthropology in the halls of global practice – influencing policy on global climate change, gendering our knowledge of mobility around the world, explaining the reason for technology ‘grey markets’ in developing nations, revealing the concept of ‘plastic time’ and so much more. It will challenge what you thought you knew about ‘applied anthropology’

Although nothing as grand as a book, there are a few posts here covering anthropology and it’s increasing relevance in the ICT4D/m4d sector. There’s a general introduction here, a few additional resources here and an anthropology ‘category’ here.

If you’re interested in working in ICT4D and would rather focus on the “D”, you could do a lot worse than study anthropology. This book could well be the perfect place to start.

August 23, 2011   43 Comments

Putting data integrity on the map

We were excited to join colleagues and friends in Washington, DC, on Tuesday 9th August to release the first edition of our “User Guide on Data Integrity”, a tool that will help FrontlineSMS users around the world better understand the flow of information into and out of the platform, the risks and vulnerabilities to that data, and simple ways they can mitigate those risks.

Review by Cathryn Paine reposted from the FrontlineSMS blog

To kick off the discussion around the new guide, we hosted a panel discussion at Johns Hopkins’ School of Advanced International Studies, where FrontlineSMS’ Sean McDonald joined Jon Gosier of metaLayer, Development Seed’s Paul Goodman, and Internews Vice President for New Media Kathleen Reen, who moderated the event. This research effort, based on FrontlineSMS user input and research by Kristina Lugo and Carol Waters, focused not on mobile system security, a critical issue better addressed by others, but more on the ways that contextualized program design and implementation can improve data quality and reduce user risk. Above all, we learned through the process, context is key. Understanding the needs and norms of the target population, and the goals of the project itself, is vital in determining the proper tools and approach to designing a FrontlineSMS workflow that can achieve those goals.

The panel discussion centered on these key points, especially the role that stakeholders play in the reliability and integrity of project data. Issues from misinterpretation, to unconscious bias, to lack of corroboration can creep into an improperly designed data collection effort, polluting the entire dataset in the process. To mitigate these threats, Jon emphasized focusing on localization and usability in project design—understanding the users or beneficiaries of a project is the best way to minimize human error and maximize data integrity.

Paul Goodman during a project planning session, sketching out project workflow which includes FrontlineSMS use. Photo credit: Paul Goodman

Paul contextualized these points with insights from mobile projects in Haiti and Benin, focusing on the process of implementing new technologies—from design to training to implementation. Particularly, the panel discussion focused on assuming that program data would be made public, in an effort to design projects that achieve important goals while minimizing risks associated with data sharing or system compromise.

Throughout the conversation, the discussion kept coming back to the importance of user-focused, context-aware approaches and resources in ICT projects. No matter how complicated the technology, an informed and engaged community of project staff and participants is really the best tool for safeguarding quality data. All in all, a great discussion that we hope to keep going through the forum and ongoing interactions!

You can download a PDF of the FrontlineSMS User Guide on Data Integrity here.

August 11, 2011   32 Comments

Joining the UK Africa Delegation

This week represents something of a first for us as we head to Africa as part of a UK business delegation lead by David Cameron, the British Prime Minister. Also in attendance is Lord Green, the Minister for Trade and Investment, and Andrew Mitchell, Secretary of State for International Development, along with a number of prominent business leaders from across the UK.

This trip is exciting for a number of reasons. Firstly, it represents the beginnings of a closer working relationship with government, something we’ve been keen to explore for some time. Secondly, in a visit dominated by big business, it gives us the perfect opportunity to demonstrate what the non-profit sector in the UK has to offer, and highlight many of the exciting developments – and potential – of mobile technology for social good across the African continent:

Africa has always been key for us. Our work is all about technology innovation, and how mobile phones can help solve some of Africa’s bigger problems. As the developers of FrontlineSMS, a piece of free text messaging software used across the continent, our key objective as part of the delegation is to foster closer relationships with the private sector and government, and understand how we can best support local innovation and entrepreneurship in the mobile sector. It remains an area with huge potential

Tonight we’re in Lagos, Nigeria after spending the first full day in Johannesburg and Pretoria. The South African leg of the trip kicked off with breakfast meetings with South African business leaders, followed by a short audience with David Cameron and Jacob Zuma and a quick photo opportunity. An official Press Conference was the final act of the morning, held by both leaders at the government building.

Events back home have lead to the cancellation of the visits to Rwanda and Southern Sudan – a real shame – so we’ll be heading home tomorrow (Tuesday) after lunch meetings with a number of Nigerian politicians. The BBC posted an article earlier today on the Africa visit, and the pressure the Prime Minister is under to return to London.

July 17, 2011   8 Comments

The Rolling Stones School of Management Innovation

What do the Rolling Stones and FrontlineSMS have in common? Not much, you might think. Well, they’re not users, they’re a little better-off than us and they’re considerably more famous. But there is something a little more subtle we share with them – management innovation.

In his autobiography – “Life” – published last year, Keith Richards describes the evolution of The Rolling Stones‘ management. Three quite distinct individuals played key roles in getting the band to where they are today. From an article last November in The Week magazine:

“First up was Andrew Loog Oldham – described as an oddity of the London music scene – who successfully branded The Stones as the “dirty, snarling and mean” antidote to the then clean-cut Beatles. Then came Allen Klein, a lawyer expert in negotiating with record companies. Finally, there was Prince Rupert Lowenstein, a private banker with no roots in the music industry, who professionalised the outfit – establishing separate companies to handle publishing, merchandising and touring – which made The Stones one of the richest bands in history”

The evolution and management of FrontlineSMS can also be broken down into three phases:

  • Technology innovation
  • Organisational innovation
  • Business model innovation

As The Stones example demonstrates, each phase requires a very different skill set, and it would take an extraordinary individual to be able to manage and deliver successfully on each. While I may have been the right person – in the right place at the right time at the very least – to successfully deliver on Phase One, that doesn’t mean I’m the right person for Phase Two, or Three. A large part of building a successful organisation is assembling a talented, diverse team with complementary skill sets. Identifying gaps and being honest about our own strengths and weaknesses is a large part of the process.

The social entrepreneurship sector, however, remains largely laser-focused on the innovator, the person behind Phase One. Recognising that organisations develop in phases, and have different needs at each, there needs to be a slight shift in how we view – and support – entrepreneurs and the vehicles or organisations they help create.

With this in mind, there might well be a few things the social entrepreneurship sector could learn from The Rolling Stones.

July 12, 2011   109 Comments

The FrontlineSMS trump card

This time last year I was on my way back from Washington DC where I’d spent a week at the National Geographic Explorers Symposium. It was one of those am-I-really-here? events where you randomly share a lift with the likes of Bob Ballard – who discovered the wreck of the Titanic – or Spencer Wells, who’s trying to figure out where we all came from.

I couldn’t be there this year, but I did receive a nice surprise in the mail from a friend who works for National Geographic Traveler Magazine. At this year’s event they produced a deck of cards with the names of each of the Explorers and Emerging Explorers. I love what they’ve done with ours.

All that’s missing is the \o/ logo.  ;o)

That aside, hearty congratulations to everyone who made the Explorers Class of 2011!

June 28, 2011   7 Comments

The innovation/entrepreneurship divide

Last month I attended the Global Competitiveness Forum in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and sat on a Panel discussing “Conscious Capitalism” with Sally Osberg from Skoll, Bright Simons from IMANI, Michael Strong from FLOW and Mabel van Oranje from The Elders. It was during preparation for a short ten minute talk that my concept of “reluctant innovators” took shape, something I blogged about in more detail here.

Here’s the video of that introduction (you can also watch on YouTube), in which I briefly touch on our work with FrontlineSMS and why we focus on the “social mobile long tail“. It ends with a summary of some of the challenges entrepreneurs and innovators face working in the mobile-for-development field – nasties such as business models, measuring impact and scale.

March 10, 2011   33 Comments

National Geographic: Interview

The following interview“Solving eco challenges with grassroots messaging” - was given to the National Geographic website last autumn. It’s republished here after it turned out to be one of the most comprehensive to date – covering everything from the role of anthropology in mobiles-for-development, the environmental impact of mobile phones and the thinking behind FrontlineSMS. If you’re after a general overview of kiwanja’s work and work ethic, this is the best place to start.

“National Geographic Emerging Explorer Ken Banks is an anthropologist, conservationist, and mobile technology innovator who built a communications platform to empower grassroots organizations throughout the developing world. FrontlineSMS solves critical communication problems by enabling cell phone users to exchange mass message information without access to the internet – or even constant electricity.

His kiwanja.net organization strives to provide nonprofits around the globe with the mobile technology tools to enact meaningful change.

Ken Banks Interviewed by Brian Handwerk

How are anthropologists exploring the enormous impacts of technology in the developing world?

Today, with markets saturated in the ‘developed world’ – if we can call it that – manufacturers are increasingly turning their attention to the two billion or so consumers left on the planet who don’t yet own a phone. Many of these people sit at the “bottom of the pyramid” (BOP) as economists like to call it, and many have very different needs from a mobile phone.

Manufacturers looking to build devices for the BOP need to very carefully consider price, which is often a crucial factor for someone with very limited disposable income. They might also need to consider literacy levels, or technical ability, perhaps re-working the user interface on the phone to make it easier to use.

They might also need to consider building phones which can take multiple SIM cards, since many people in the developing world regularly switch between different networks before making calls to take advantage of special deals. And they might need to think about providing security and privacy features on the phone which allows it to be shared between family members, something else which is very common in developing countries.

Understanding what these users might need or want from a phone needs time in the field, and researchers need to immerse themselves in the consumer, their lives and their phone usage patterns. Often it’s simply a case of patient, participant observation rather than just going in asking a bunch of questions, and anthropologists are particularly well suited to this kind of work.

You’ve written about the environmental impact of four billion phones in “The Mobile Revolution’s Hidden Cost“. On the positive side, how can mobile technology help us find solutions to the world’s eco problems or help make our use of the world more sustainable?

Interestingly enough I started out my career in mobile working for a conservation organization -Fauna & Flora International – back in 2003. A couple of far-sighted individuals there were beginning to ask these very questions.

Mobile technology is proving increasingly useful to conservationists and environmentalists around the world. In addition to bringing down the cost of traditionally expensive animal tracking initiatives (which relied largely on satellite technology), mobile phones are also being used to provide alerts to communities living on the edges of national parks, helping mitigate against human/wildlife conflict. Phones and PDAs can be used in the field as data collection tools, replacing note pads and allowing teams of researchers to gather and share data simultaneously. Photos can be taken of incidences of poaching and transmitted to the Internet, or evidence of chemical or oil spills recorded with a specific location and then uploaded to a map.

On the consumer side of things, people can now check their carbon footprint or monitor their energy use via their mobile phone, or verify that products in shops are being produced sustainably. People can even look up details of a fish they’re about to order in a restaurant and check its conservation status. A project I worked on some years ago, called wildlive!, was designed to try to connect people with conservation projects through their phones, and provided images, animal sounds, conservation-themed games, and live news and field diaries to subscribers.

In short, mobile phones can have a positive impact both in the field in the hands of people doing the conservation work, or in the hands of the general public interested in keeping up-to-date and informed on environmental issues. But there’s a lot more we can do with the increasing numbers of always-on, always-connected mobile devices people are carrying around with them today.

What led to the birth of FrontlineSMS?

FrontlineSMS, which takes up the bulk of my time these days, was the first independent kiwanja.net initiative, and its roots are in conservation, funnily enough. I was working in Bushbuckridge, an area which straddles Kruger National Park in South Africa, helping with a Fauna & Flora International project.

One element of the Kruger work was to try and identify a system which South African National Parks (SANParks) could use to send text messages to Bushbuckridge community members. The authorities wanted to re-engage people into the conservation effort, keep them updated on park matters, ask their opinions on decisions which would impact them, arrange meetings, send wildlife alerts, and so on. Part of my role was to identify a system they could use to do this. After a considerable search, though, I could only find mass messaging tools which worked off the Internet. Back in 2004, it wasn’t possible to just jump on the Internet around Kruger National Park, so all of these solutions proved totally inappropriate.


Photo of women queuing for water in Bushbuckridge. By Ken Banks

It wasn’t until a year later that the idea of creating a mass messaging system which ran off a laptop computer and attached mobile phone came to me. By sending and receiving the messages through the phone, the need for the Internet was removed. It really is very simple, but at the time nothing like this existed. I had a hunch that there were likely many organizations out there that wanted to send messages to people in places where there was no Internet, so I raised a small amount of money and bought a laptop, some manuals, some phones and modems and cables, and spent five weeks over the summer of 2005 writing a prototype of FrontlineSMS on a kitchen table in Finland. I built a website for it, and in October that year released it to the world. What’s happened since has been pretty amazing.


Photo of a typical FrontlineSMS set-up. By Ken Banks

You had thoughts about how people might use FrontlineSMS, but it’s designed as a tool for people to create their own applications. What cool things have people done that really surprised you?

When you consider its conservation roots, the number of different areas where NGOs have applied the software has been staggering.

In Aceh, UNDP and Mercy Corps have used FrontlineSMS to send market prices and other agricultural data to smallholder rural coffee farmers. In Iraq it is being used by the country’s first independent news agency – Aswat al Iraq – to disseminate news to eight countries, and in Afghanistan it is helping keep NGO fieldworkers safe through the distribution of security alerts. In Zimbabwe, the software has been used extensively by a number of human rights organizations including Kubatana.net, and in Nigeria and the Philippines it helped monitor national elections. In Malawi, FrontlineSMS has generated considerable interest in the m-health sector where a project started by Josh Nesbit, a Stanford University student, is helping run a rural healthcare network for 250,000 people. That project has since become an organization of its own, FrontlineSMS:Medic.

FrontlineSMS was used by bloggers in Pakistan during the recent state of emergency to get news safely out of the country, and in the recent Azerbaijani elections it helped mobilize the youth vote. It is being used in Kenya to report breakages in fences caused by elephants, and is now running the Overseas Filipino Workers (OFW-SOS) emergency help line, allowing workers to receive immediate assistance in case of personal emergency. It has also been deployed in the DRC as part of the Ushahidi platform to collect violence reports via SMS, and been used by Grameen Technology Centre in Uganda to communicate with the Village Phone network. Projects in Cambodia and El Salvador have used it to help create transparency in agricultural markets, and Survivors Connect is using it in a number of countries to run anti-trafficking reporting systems among vulnerable communities.

All of this activity is user-driven and user-dictated. FrontlineSMS provides the tools necessary for people to create their own projects that make a difference. It empowers innovators and organizers in the developing world to achieve their full potential through their own ingenuity.

Why the focus on small grassroots organizations? They lack funds, staff, and technology, but what are their advantages?

The majority of my early conservation and development work, going back to 1993, was with small, local NGOs. It became very clear to me that many were punching well above their weight in terms of how much they delivered versus the resources and funding they had. At the same time, much of this work was going largely unnoticed. Why, for example, would you ever get to hear about some community project in Zambia working to empower women?

For the past 17 years, I’ve lived and worked in many African countries, and remain focused on the grassroots side of things to this day. It’s a place where much of the latest high-tech gadgetry we develop and promote has little chance of working due to a lack of the Internet, funding, technical expertise, and so on.

If you asked me to describe them in general terms, I’d say most grassroots organizations are generally small, extremely dedicated, run low-cost high-impact interventions, work on local issues with relatively modest numbers of local people, and are staffed by community members who have first-hand experience of the problems they’re trying to solve. What they lack in tools, resources, and funds they more than make up with a deep understanding of the local landscape – not just geographically, but also the language, culture, and daily challenges of the people. This is crucially important and is something often overlooked.

Is your ultimate vision one of providing the tools to let one person make a positive change in his or her own corner of the world?

Absolutely. We need to build tools which allow anyone with a passion to see it out, to promote it and share it and make a success of it. Let’s not forget, global environmental and social issues aren’t just the concern of large (or small) non-profits or activist groups – we’re all concerned about them. If someone watches a National Geographic program in their bedroom on seal hunting and feels compelled to campaign against it, for example, they should have access to all the tools necessary to campaign and help put a stop to it. For that, we need to make media tools easy to use, accessible, low-cost, and so on.

When we talk about sustainability, we need to also think about human sustainability. If we’re to have any chance of ongoing success with some of the more pressing problems of our time, then we need to attract the brightest young minds to the field and give them all the support they need to keep them there. Empowerment isn’t just something we do in a distant land. There’s plenty we can be doing on our own doorstep. It’s a different kind of empowerment, but that doesn’t make it less valuable.”

Further information
Watch a 15 minute video of a presentation made at National Geographic in Washington DC (June 2010)

February 13, 2011   21 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

Reflections on eight years in mobile

It was exactly eight years ago that I hesitantly took my first steps into the fledgling world of “mobiles for development”. It was December 2002, and Vodafone live! was the platform I would develop on. I was filled with self doubt. Not only had I never done any technical development with mobiles before, I also had little idea how phones might be used to solve social and environmental problems around the world. To be honest, few people did, and that was probably the reason I got the job.

Much of the latter half of that December was spent meticulously studying the limited range of Vodafone live! handsets. The very idea of cameras, colour screens, music, video, web access and downloadable games on phones was still pretty new back then, and I’d never even owned a handset with that kind of functionality before, let alone tried to build a service on top of one.

Much has changed over the past eight years. Not only have mobiles got one heck of a lot smarter, but there are a couple of billion more out there, and they’ve become a useful tool in the fight against all manner of worldly ills. “Mobiles for development” (m4d) has also matured somewhat as a discipline, and if my original job back in 2002 was advertised today there would likely be hundreds – maybe thousands – of applicants.

All-in-all it’s been a fascinating, action-packed eight years, and a journey I never expected to be on. As I look back and reflect, here are a few of the highlights.

2003

Most of my first year in mobile was spent trying to understand how they could be used to promote international conservation efforts. Eleven months working closely with the Vodafone team and many of the staff at Fauna & Flora International (FFI) culminated in the launch of wildlive! in December 2003 at FFI’s centenary celebrations at the Natural History Museum in London. This innovative new service combined conservation news with live field diaries and downloadable ringtones, wallpapers and games, which we’d developed all from scratch. Over £100,000 was generated through wildlive! in the first year, and throughout 2004 it was localised and rolled out in several additional European countries. Sadly, due to management restructuring and a shift in focus the following year, the service was shut down. A painful lesson.

(Interestingly, the “Silverback” game (which we later relaunched after a series of gorilla killings in the DRC in 2007) was designed and developed my Masabi, a UK-based company who, four years later, would re-write the early version of FrontlineSMS).

2004

Between work on wildlive!, a colleague and I were dispatched to South Africa and Mozambique to try and understand how mobile technology was being applied to conservation and development in the developing world. Over 2o03 and 2004 we made several trips, working with numerous local FFI partners, and in the process made one of the earliest attempts to try and document the emerging “m4d” field. It’s quite fascinating reading even today, not just because so much has changed but also because so much hasn’t. The report – “Mobile Phones: An Appropriate Tool for Conservation and Development?” - can be downloaded in full from the kiwanja Mobile Database here.

2005

This year began innocently enough, but was to prove pivotal because of the birth of FrontlineSMS. It was a few months after my final field trip to South Africa and Mozambique when I was sitting at home when the idea for the software first struck. I had already come across countless grassroots NGOs on my travels who were thinking about how they could use mobile phones in their work, yet there was no simple, out-of-the-box system they could easily deploy.

There were a number of reasons for this, but the idea behind FrontlineSMS seemed to solve all of them. Build a messaging system which could run without the need for the Internet, make it simple to use, design it so that NGOs could deploy it themselves with little or no technical skills, and make it free. Despite only a small amount of private funding, in October 2005 – after a five week software development cycle on a kitchen table in Finland - FrontlineSMS was released to the world.

2006, 2007

Shortly after the very low-key launch, I was contacted by someone at Stanford University who was himself beginning to experiment with SMS messaging hubs. Erik Sundelof and I became friends over the proceeding months, and he encouraged me to follow him and apply for a Fellowship at the Reuters Digital Vision Programme. It took a couple of tries, but I got in that year and headed out to Palo Alto in the late summer of 2006.

Stanford gave me the platform I needed to accelerate my work – and my thinking – around mobile technology and development. I was able to attend lectures, meet academics and give talks throughout campus, and use the Stanford connection to open doors which had previously been well-and-truly shut.

My time at Stanford University was also notable on a more personal level in that it gave me my first proper chance to own a VW Camper, something I’d dreamed of for years. It also doubled as my home, and my global HQ, and saved me a fortune in rent. Selling it was one of the hardest things I’d have to do. On a more positive note, my time at Stanford coincided with the first big break for FrontlineSMS when it was used to help citizens report on the Nigerian elections, and that lead to our first major grant – $200,000 – courtesy of the MacArthur Foundation. Later that summer I also randomly met Josh Nesbit for the first time, a young human biology major who was to help take FrontlineSMS off in a whole new direction.

2008, 2009

On June 25th, 2008, a new and improved version of FrontlineSMS was released, along with a new website and \o/ logo (courtesy of Wieden+Kennedy). By this time FrontlineSMS was becoming firmly established as a tool with potential (we were yet to fully understand what that potential was, mind you) and funding and media attention began to flow. In late 2008 we received a second significant grant, this time $400,000 from the Hewlett Foundation. The Open Society Institute (OSI) also stepped in with some valuable funds to help tide us over during a tricky few months.

Finally, as 2009 drew to a close, FrontlineSMS won a prestigious “Tech Award“.

2010

This year has seen no let-up, and from humble beginnings FrontlineSMS has become a full-time job. As the new year dawned we received a grant of $150,000 from the Rockefeller Foundation to help strengthen capacity, and the Omidyar Network came in over the summer with a $350,000 grant to help with organisational development. Our team now stands at eight strong over three continents, and FrontlineSMS has been downloaded over 11,000 times by NGOs in well over 60 countries.

This year draws to a close with an exciting new collaboration with National Geographic, who earlier in the year rewarded us for our work. The “Mobile Message” is a series of articles which will be published on the Nat Geo News Watch site, aimed at taking news of the ‘mobile revolution’ to a new audience.

It’s hard to believe that eight years have passed, and that for the past five I’ve been focusing almost solely on the simple text message. No doubt 2011 will be the ninth year I hear a “death of SMS” prediction. If my experience is anything to go by, there’s plenty of life left in the old dog yet.

To see what happens over the next eight years, watch this space.

December 13, 2010   41 Comments