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.

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.

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…)