Social Mobile meets Facebook

Anyone who reads this blog, or who follows our work with FrontlineSMS, will know there are two main themes which run throughout our work.

First, how do we lower the barriers to entry for NGOs looking to deploy mobile technology in their work? And second, how do we help share information about what mobile means in the developing world to the widest possible audience, i.e. one outside traditional development or technology circles?

A good example of the second theme is our recently-launched “Mobile Message” series running on the National Geographic website. We’re also targeting non-mobile-for-development and non-ICT4D conferences, and contributing chapters to books and giving interviews to magazines which take the message to a new audience. The latest was a piece on mobile innovation for an in-flight magazine for travellers on flights to Africa.

One of our early initiatives was the creation of The Social Mobile Group way back in November 2006. It was the first Facebook group of its kind to focus on the social application of mobiles and mobile technology, and it remains the largest group dedicated to the subject on Facebook today.

In a recent blog post I covered some of the challenges of building “mobile community“, and asked Maddie Grant, a Strategist at SocialFish, to help define it:

What makes a community open is when there’s “a lot more outside the login than inside”, so most of a community’s content must be at least viewable and shareable without logging in. To be active, most of a community’s content must be member (user) generated, not owner-generated, and must have some degree of conversation which includes comments, discussions and reviews

The Social Mobile Group always attempted to do this, and one of its first moves was to appoint Group Officers, handing control and ownership of the group to community members. This has worked well. All of the content and discussion comes from the community, everything is open, and thanks to the efforts of members alone it has organically grown to a membership of just under 3,000 today.

If you’d like to join, visit the Group’s Facebook page. If you’d like to get involved – or help us spread the mobile message – invite your friends, or leave a message on our wall. Our Group Officers would love to hear from you.

Mobile community: The holy grail of m4d?

Last week I wrote a post on the difficulties of running a “mobile for development” – or m4d – project. I tried to make it challenging, and was hoping to stir up some discussion around the merits of mobile-initiated development projects versus development-initiated mobile projects. You can read that post here.

Unless you’re one of the bigger technology blogs – Mashable, TechCrunch, Scobleizer and so on – it’s hit-and-miss whether or not a post will get the traction you’re looking for. Apart from a couple of dozen tweets and a dozen or so comments, the post didn’t generate as much debate as I’d have liked. But it did get me thinking – if these kinds of discussion weren’t taking place here, then where were they taking place?

I’m regularly asked at conferences for hints on the best sites for people to post questions and stimulate debate around mobile technology, and I always struggle to give an answer. It seems crazy that, for a discipline which began to fully emerge probably about seven or eight years ago, there still isn’t a genuinely active, engaging, open online community for people to join and interact with each other.

In order to get a sense of which communities exist, I recently sent out a message to a number of ICT4D and mobile email lists I subscribe to, and posted the odd message on Twitter. Very few people could suggest anything. A few people mentioned email lists which dealt specifically with sectoral issues, such as health, but not specifically with mobile (although mobile was a regular thread in many discussions). Only MobileActive suggested MobileActive, which was a surprise considering its positioning as a global, mobile community with over 16,000 ‘active’ members.

Finding nothing was only part of it – many people clearly had different ideas of what made up community, too (I’d put this down to a challenge of definition). When I pushed out my call for sites, I specifically asked for those which were “open, active, collaborative and engaging”, things that I thought would be pre-requisites for anything worth being a member of.

According to Maddie Grant, a Strategist at SocialFish, a consulting firm that helps associations build community on the social web:

What makes a community open is when there’s “a lot more outside the login than inside”, so most of a community’s content must be at least viewable and shareable without logging in. To be active, most of a community’s content must be member (user) generated, not owner-generated, and must have some degree of conversation which includes comments, discussions and reviews

Going by these criteria I don’t believe we yet have a truly active, engaging, open mobile community. This seems a little strange when you consider the attention the technology has been getting over the past few years.

On the flip side though, it might not be so strange after all. As Jonathan Donner put it to me in a recent email, “Why should m4d have it’s own groups and community sites? Can’t we – or should we – just mainstream ourselves into ICT4D?”.

This discussion clearly has a long way to go. I just wonder where that discussion will take place.

Bones for mobile phones

What on earth are anthropologists doing playing with mobile phones? The answer may be a little more obvious than you think

Anthropology is an age-old, at times complex discipline, and like many others it suffers from its fair share of in-fighting and disagreement. It’s also a discipline shrouded in a certain mystery. Few people seem to know what anthropology really is, or what anthropologists really do, and a general unwillingness to ask simply fuels the mystery further. Few people ever question, for example, what a discipline better (but often incorrectly) ‘known’ for poking around with dinosaur bones is doing playing with mobile phones and other electronic gadgets.

Indiana Jones, image courtesy Daily Mail Online

In today’s high tech world, anthropologists are as visible as engineers and software developers. In some projects, they’re all that’s visible. The public face of anthropology likely sits somewhere close to an Indiana Jones-type character, a dashing figure in khaki dress poking around with ancient relics while they try to unpick ancient puzzles and mysteries, or a bearded old man working with a leather-bound notepad in a dusty, dimly lit inaccessible room at the back of a museum building. If people were to be believed, anthropologists would be studying everything from human remains to dinosaur bones, old pots and pans, ants and roads. Yes, some people even think anthropologists study roads. Is there even such a discipline?

Despite the mystery, in recent years anthropology has witnessed something of a mini renaissance. As our lives become exposed to more and more technology, and companies become more and more interested in how technology affects us and how we interface with it, anthropologists have found themselves in increasing demand. When Genevieve Bell turned her back on academia and started working with Intel in the late 1990’s, she was accused of “selling out”. Today, anthropologists jump at the chance to help influence future innovation and, for many, working in industry has become the thing to do.

So, if anthropology isn’t the study of ants or roads, what is it? Generally described as the scientific study of the origin, the behaviour, and the physical, social, and cultural development of humans, anthropology is distinguished from other social sciences – such as sociology – by its emphasis on what’s called “cultural relativity“, the principle that an individuals’ beliefs and activities should be interpreted in terms of their own culture, not that of the anthropologist. Anthropology also offers an in-depth examination of context – the social and physical conditions under which different people live – and a focus on cross-cultural comparison. To you and me, that’s comparing one culture to another. In short, where a sociologist might put together a questionnaire to try and understand what people think of an object, an anthropologist would immerse themselves in the subject and try to understand it from ‘within’.

Anthropology has a number of sub-fields and, yes, one of those does involve poking round with old bones and relics. But for me, development anthropology has always been the most interesting sub-field because of the role it plays in the third world development arena. As a discipline it was borne out of severe criticism of the general development effort, with anthropologists regularly pointing out the failure of many agencies to analyse the consequences of their projects on a wider, human scale. Sadly, not a huge amount has changed since the 1970’s, making development anthropology as relevant today as it has ever been. Many academics – and practitioners, come to that – argue that anthropology should be a key component of the development process. In reality, in some projects it is, and in others it isn’t.

It’s widely recognised that projects can succeed or fail on the realisation of their relative impacts on target communities, and development anthropology is seen as an increasingly important element in determining these positive and negative impacts. In the ICT sector – particularly within emerging market divisions – it is now not uncommon to find anthropologists working within the corridors of hi-tech companies. Intel, Nokia and Microsoft are three such examples. Just as large development projects can fail if agencies fail to understand their target communities, commercial products can fail if companies fail to understand the very same people. In this case, these people go by a different name – customers.

Image from kiwanja.net Mobile Gallery

The explosive growth of mobile ownership in the developing world is largely down to a vibrant recycling market and the arrival of cheap $20 phones, but is also down in part to the efforts of forward-thinking mobile manufacturers. Anthropologists working for companies such as Nokia spend increasing amounts of time trying to understand what people living at the so-called “bottom of the pyramid” might want from a phone. Mobiles with flashlights are just one example of a product that can emerge from this brand of user-centric design. Others include mobiles with multiple phone books, which allow more than one person to share a single phone, a practice largely unheard of in many developed markets.

My first taste of anthropology came a little by accident, primarily down to Sussex University‘s policy of students having to select a second degree subject to go with their Development Studies option (this was my key interest back in 1996). Social anthropology was one choice, and one which looked slightly more interesting than geography, Spanish or French (not that there’s anything wrong with those subjects). During the course of my degree I formed many key ideas and opinions around central pieces of work on the appropriate technology movement and the practical role of anthropology, particularly in global conservation and development work.

Today, handset giants such as Nokia and Motorola believe that mobile devices will “close the digital divide in a way the PC never could”. Industry bodies such as the GSM Association run their own “Bridging the Digital Divide” initiative, and international development agencies pump hundreds of millions dollars into economic, health and educational initiatives based around mobiles and mobile technology.

In order for the mobile phone to reach its full potential we’re going to need to understand what people in developing countries need from their mobile devices, and how they can be applied in a way which positively impacts on their lives. Sounds like the perfect job for an anthropologist to me.