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Category — Social mobile long tail

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

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

Taking the social mobile “taste test”

“After all is said and done, a lot more will be said than done” -
Unknown author

Twitter has been abuzz lately with fascinating snippets of advice on how to succeed, how not to fail, what makes a good social venture, what makes a good mobile project or how to be a successful social entrepreneur. Of course, it’s easy to say these things, and even easier to repeat mantras and slogans which fit a popular or emerging philosophy. Who could argue, for example, that “users should be put first”?

Sadly, when all is said and done, the reality is that it’s still much easier to ignore the advice and go do your own thing your own way, rather than doing things the right way.

The best way to get a sense of the true philosophy – the DNA – of a project is to see if it passes a “taste test”. This is particularly true in mobile, where almost all initiatives claim to have engaged or active communities, or to empower, to put users first, or to have been ‘born’ in the field. The question is: Does the rhetoric actually match the reality? In an age where more and more projects are coming under increasing scrutiny, ensuring they are properly positioned is crucial.

It’s quite easy to determine whether or not a tool is going to be of any use to an end user (an NGO in this case), or whether you’d need a medium to high degree of technical literacy to make use of it (in which case you might argue that the tool was more developer-focused). For some time I’ve used the concept of the “social mobile long tail” to graphically represent this.

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

So, how might we determine where a tool should be placed on the “social mobile long tail”? There are likely many measures and metrics, but I’d say these are a few of the more obvious ones the user would be principally concerned with:

  • Does the project have a user-facing, NGO-friendly website?
  • How technical is the language on the site?
  • Is there an easily accessible, open, visible user community?
  • How easy is the software to find, download and install?
  • Will it work on widely available hardware and software in the places where it will be used?
  • Can the user independently deploy the tool if they want to?

For some time I’ve wondered whether it would be worth scoping out the mobile landscape and plot available tools along the tail. Not only would it satisfy my general curiosity, but it could be immensely valuable to an NGO community which still largely struggles to understand the mobile technologies they believe – and hope – they should be using.

October 14, 2010   15 Comments

Leveraging the wisdom of the crowd

Late on Saturday night TV I caught a live performance from Pet Shop Boys, who were headlining one of the stages at Glastonbury. Not only did they go down incredibly well – for the impartial listener, at least – but they ended up trending on Twitter, which must have been a first. Reading the public reaction to their set reminded me of a conversation Laura and I had the other week.

While I was talking about mobile phones, innovation and FrontlineSMS to an audience at National Geographic (who were largely new to the subject), our UK-based team were helping out at a mobile event in London, primarily with a crowd who knew a whole lot more about what it was and what it did.

Pet Shop Boys always put on a great show, but what was striking about Saturday was that this wasn’t their usual crowd. These were people who would unlikely ever go to a Pet Shop Boys concert. It was a smart move – and a brave one – to take their electronic theatrical stage show to a totally new audience at a cult summer festival dominated by rock bands.

Taking the social mobile message outside of our own tight-knit community is something I’ve always been keen on, which is why I enjoyed writing for PC World. For me, this is where the real potential lies – with people who have never considered using mobile, let alone attend a mobile conference. Infinitely more grassroots non-profits have little sense of what the technology can do for them than do.

Most don’t even know they should be looking. And that needs to be fixed.

June 28, 2010   8 Comments

Our “social mobile” line in the sand

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

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

1. Who are your target audience?

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

Social Mobile Long Tail, kiwanja.net

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

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

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

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

2. What is your position on scaling?

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

3. How does it replicate and grow?

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

4. What is your position on open sourcing?

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

5. Does access to “the cloud” matter?

Cloud image courtesy versacevistas.wordpress.com

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

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

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

Read responses and “lines in the sand” from:

FrontlineSMS:Credit
FrontlineSMS:Medic

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

November 5, 2009   40 Comments

Building for mobile at the margins

Fortunately for us, many of the day-to-day technologies which drive large chunks of our on-line lives quietly tick away in the background, only reminding us of our total dependence on them when something breaks or goes wrong. We take the complex ecosystem which drives much of this for granted.

Last month I was invited to speak at a conference at Georgia Tech and give my perspective on building social mobile tools that work in the opposite, resource-challenged environments, a reality for the majority of people in the world today. My short ten minute talk is available above, courtesy of Georgia Tech, along with a PDF of the slides.

The motivation behind the Computing at The Margins Symposium grew out of a research agenda at the university aimed at “understanding the technology needs of under-served communities, both domestically and abroad, and driving the creation of innovative technology to serve and empower these communities”.

Figuring out how we build useful, appropriate mobile tools for grassroots NGOs is crucial if we’re not to create a digital divide within the digital divide. Additional posts and video on my thinking behind this “Social Mobile Long Tail” are available here.

June 1, 2009   23 Comments

The Social Mobile Long Tail explained

What follows is a short extract from the recent “Soul of the New Machine” human rights/technology conference hosted by UC Berkeley, in which I explain my theory of the Social Mobile Long Tail.

This video is also available on the FrontlineSMS Community pages

Social Mobile Long Tail

A full video of the session – PDA’s and Phones for Data Collection – which includes presentations from InSTEDD, Ushahidi, DataDyne and Salesforce.com, is available via the FORA.tv website.

May 23, 2009   105 Comments

Time to eat our own dog food?

Is the future of social mobile an empowered few, or an empowered many? Mobile tools in the hands of the masses presents great opportunity for NGO-led social change, but is that the future we’re creating?

In The White Man’s Burden – Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good”, William Easterly’s frustration at large-scale, top-down, bureaucracy-ridden development projects runs to an impressive 384 pages. While Easterly dedicates most of his book to markets, economics and the mechanics of international development itself, he talks little of information and communication technology (ICT). The index carries no reference to ‘computers’, ‘ICT’ or even plain old ‘technology’.

But there is an entry for ‘cell phones’.

"Small is Beautiful"E. F. Schumacher, a fellow economist and the man widely recognized as the father of the appropriate technology movement, spent a little more time in his books studying technology issues. His seminal 1973 book – Small is Beautiful – The Study of Economics as if People Mattered” – reacted to the imposition of alien development concepts on Third World countries, and he warned early of the dangers and difficulties of advocating the same technological practices in entirely different societies and environments. Although his earlier work focused more on agri-technology and large-scale infrastructure projects (dam building was a favorite ‘intervention’ at the time), his theories could easily have been applied to ICTs – as they were in later years.

Things have come a long way since 1973. For a start, many of us now have mobile phones, the most rapidly adopted technology in history. In what amounts to little more than the blink of an eye, mobiles have given us a glimpse of their potential to help us solve some of the most pressing problems of our time. With evidence mounting, I have one question: If mobiles truly are as revolutionary and empowering as they appear to be – particularly in the lives of some of the poorest members of society – then do we have a moral duty, in the ICT for Development (ICT4D) community at least, to see that they fulfill that potential?

You see, I’m a little worried. If we draw parallels between the concerns of Easterly and Schumacher and apply them to the application of mobile phones as a tool for social and economic development, there’s a danger that the development community may end up repeating the same mistakes of the past. We have a golden opportunity here that we can’t afford to miss.

But miss it we may. Since 2003 I’ve been working exclusively in the mobile space, and I’ve come to my own conclusions about where we need to be focusing more of our attention if we’re to take advantage of the opportunity ahead of us. Don’t get me wrong – we do need to be looking at the bigger picture – but there’s not room at the top for all of us. I, for one, am more than happy to be working at the bottom. Not only do I find grassroots NGOs particularly lean and efficient (often with the scarcest of funding and resources), but they also tend to get less bogged down with procedure, politics and egos, and are often able to react far more quickly to changing environments than their larger counterparts. Being local, they also tend to have much greater context for their environments, and in activism terms they’re more likely to be able to operate under the radar of dictatorial regimes, meaning they can often engage a local and national populace in ways where larger organizations might struggle.

So, waving my grassroots NGO flag, I see a central problem of focus in the mobile applications space. Let me explain. If we take the “Long Tail ” concept first talked about by Chris Anderson and apply it to the mobile space, we get something like this. I call it “Social Mobile’s Long Tail”.

Social Mobile Long Tail, kiwanja.net

What it demonstrates is that our tendency to aim for sexy, large-scale, top-down, capital- and time-intensive mobile solutions simply results in the creation of tools which only the larger, more resource-rich NGOs are able to adopt and afford. Having worked with grassroots NGOs for over 15 years, I strongly believe that we need to seriously refocus some of our attention there to avoid developing our own NGO “digital divide”. To do this we need to think about low-end, simple, appropriate mobile technology solutions which are easy to obtain, affordable, require as little technical expertise as possible, and are easy to copy and replicate. This is something I regularly write about, and it’s a challenge I’m more than happy to throw down to the developer community.

Another key problem that we have emerges as a symptom of the first. Because larger international development agencies, by their very nature, tend to pre-occupy themselves with the bigger issues, they often inadvertently neglect the simple, easier-to-fix problems (the “low hanging fruit” as some people like to call it). The Millennium Development Goals (MDG’s) are good examples of the kinds of targets which are far easier to miss than hit.

In mobile terms, using the technology to enhance basic communications is a classic “low hanging fruit”. After all, that’s what mobile phones do, and communication is fundamental to all NGO activities, particularly those working in the kinds of infrastructure-challenged environments often found in the developing world. Despite this, there are few tools available that take advantage of one of the most prolific mobile communication channels available to grassroots NGOs – the text message (or SMS).

Much of my own work with FrontlineSMS has sought to solve this fundamental problem, and in places such as Malawi – where Josh Nesbit, FrontlineSMS, a laptop and one hundred recycled mobile phones has helped revolutionise healthcare delivery to 250,000 rural Malawians – the benefits are loud and clear. In other countries, where activities of international aid organizations may be challenged or restricted by oppressive, dictatorial regimes, grassroots NGOs often manage to maintain operations and often provide the only voice for the people. In Zimbabwe, Kubatana.net have been using FrontlineSMS extensively to engage a population not only starved of jobs, a meaningful currency and a functioning democracy, but also news and information. In Afghanistan, an international NGO is using FrontlineSMS to provide security alerts to their staff and fieldworkers. The software is seen as a crucial tool in helping keep people safe in one of the world’s most volatile environments. With a little will, what can be done in Zimbabwe and Afghanistan can be done anywhere where similar oppression exists.

Destined for the rubbish

In cases such as these – and there are many more – we need to stop simply talking about “what works” and start to get “what works” into the hands of the NGOs that need it the most. That’s a challenge that I’m happy to throw down to the ICT4D community. There’s only a certain amount of talking and critiquing we can, and should, do.

There are, of course, many issues and challenges – some technical, some cultural, others economic and geographical. The good news is that few are insurmountable, and we can remove many of them by simply empowering the very people we’re seeking to help. The emergence of home grown developer communities in an increasing number of African countries, for example, presents the greatest opportunity yet to unlock the social change potential of mobile technology. Small-scale, realistic, achievable, replicable, bottom-up development such as that championed by the likes of Easterly and Schumacher may hardly be revolutionary, but what would be is our acknowledgement of the mistakes of the past, and a co-ordinated effort to help us avoid making them all over again.

I spent the best part of my university years critiquing the efforts of those who went before me. Countless others have done the same. Looking to the future, how favourably will the students and academics of tomorrow reflect on our efforts? If the next thirty years aren’t to read like the last then we need to re-think our approach, and re-think it now.

March 24, 2009   39 Comments

Social mobile: Myths and misconceptions

A couple of weeks ago – in “The long tail revisited” – I briefly touched on the topic of “myths in the social mobile space”. It wasn’t the major focus of the post, but as is often the case it kicked off a completely separate discussion, one which took place largely off-blog in the Twitterverse and via email. I’ve been thinking more about it since, particularly as the social mobile space continues to hot up and people begin to face tools and projects off against one another – sometimes for the right reasons, more often for the wrong.

So, here’s my current “Top Ten” myths and misconceptions in this emerging field. Feel free to add, remove, agree, disagree, debate or dismiss. In no particular order…

1. “High-end is better than low-end”
Firstly, one mobile tool should never be described as being better than the other – it’s all about the context of the user. There is just as much a need for a $1 million server-based, high bandwidth mobile-web solution as there is for a low-cost, SMS-only PC-based tool. Both are valid. Solutions are needed all the way along the “long tail“, and users need a healthy applications ecosystem to dip into, whoever and wherever they may be. Generally speaking there is no such thing as a bad tool, just an inappropriate one.

Server Farm - via Flickr (Jemimus)

2. “Don’t bother if it doesn’t scale”
Just because a particular solution won’t ramp-up to run an international mobile campaign, or health care for an entire nation, does not make it irrelevant. Just as a long tail solution might likely never run a high-end project, expensive and technically complex solutions would likely fail to downscale enough to run a small rural communications network. Let’s not forget that a small deployment which helps just a dozen people is significant to those dozen people and their families.

3. “Centralised is better than distributed
Not everything needs to run on a mega-server housed in the capital city, accessed through “the cloud“. Okay, storing data and even running applications – remotely – might be wonderful technologically, but it’s not so great if you have a patchy internet connection, if one at all. For most users centralised means “remote”, distributed “local”.

4. “Big is beautiful”
Sadly there’s a general tendency to take a small-scale solution that works and then try to make a really big version of it. One large instance of a tool is not necessarily better that hundreds of smaller instances. If a small clinic finds a tool to help deliver health care more effectively to two hundred people, why not simply get the same tool into a thousand clinics? Scaling a tool changes its DNA, sometimes to such an extent that everything that was originally good about it is lost. Instead, replication is what’s needed.

Toolbox from Flickr (_sarchi)

5. “Tools are sold as seen”
I would argue that everything we see in the social mobile applications ecosystem today is “work in progress”, and it will likely remain that way for some time. The debate around the pros and cons of different tools needs to be a constructive one – based on a work in progress mentality – and one which positively feeds back into the development cycle.

6. “Collaborate or die”
Although collaboration is a wonderful concept, it doesn’t come without its challenges – politics, ego and vested interests among them. There are moves to make the social mobile space more collaborative, but this is easier said than done. 2009 will determine whether or not true non-competitive collaboration is possible, and between who. The more meaningful collaborations will be organic, based on needs out in the field, not those formed out of convenience.

7. “Appropriate technologies are poor people’s technologies”
A criticism often aimed more broadly at the appropriate technology movement, locally-powered, simple low-tech-based responses should not be regarded as second best to their fancier high-tech ‘Western’ cousins. A cheap, low-spec handset with five days standby time is far more appropriate than an iPhone if you don’t live anywhere near a mains outlet.

kiwanja Mobile Gallery

8. “No news is bad news”
For every headline-grabbing mobile project, there are hundreds – if not thousands – which never make the news. Progress and adoption of tools will be slow and gradual, and project case studies will bubble up to the surface over time. No single person in the mobile space has a handle on everything that’s going on out there.

9. “Over-promotion is just hype”
Mobile tools will only be adopted when users get to hear about them, understand them and are given easy access to them. One of the biggest challenges in the social mobile space is outreach and promotion, and we need to take advantage of every opportunity to get news on available solutions – and successful deployments – right down to the grassroots. It is our moral duty to do this, as it is to help with the adoption of those tools which clearly work and improve people’s lives.

10. “Competition is healthy”
In a commercial environment – yes – but saving or improving lives should never be competitive. If there’s one thing that mobile-for-development practitioners can learn from the wider development and ICT4D community, it’s this.

February 2, 2009   41 Comments