Bridging the knowledge divide

A common theme in my work, and in many of my conference talks, centres around a very simple message – appropriate technology. It’s nothing new, and as a concept has been around since the 1970’s with Fritz Schumacher’s defining book, Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered”. During my recent interview with Nokia’s “New Horizons” magazine, however, it was interesting that the conversation was entirely appropriate-technology focussed. I was expecting questions about FrontlineSMS, my work on wildlive! and my developing-country technology experience. Instead, the interview was dominated by my focus on “needs-based”, “human-centred”, “grassroots” and “appropriate” technologies. Believe me, I was more than happy to talk about these things – I don’t think enough people do.

It still surprises me – sometimes even saddens me – that we live in an era where there’s a general tendency to over-engineer solutions. Not only is this a waste of time in my view, but it’s a waste of money and effort. It also raises expectations. Believe me, there’s plenty of this going on as we speak (sorry, read). I come across this at conferences where I meet hugely technically-abled people who spend their time trying to find homes for the very latest technical gadgetry. And because of where I work, and the circles where I mix, the home they are looking for is usually in a developing country. This only serves to exaggerate the problem.

Take the recent use of my FrontlineSMS system in the Nigerian elections. FrontlineSMS is not rocket science. It’s so simple, in fact, that it slipped under most people’s radars. One comment on Slashdot discussing its use highlights this over-engineering view well:

It’s too simple. You guys don’t know what you are talking about. Doing it all with one computer and an SMS modem? You can’t future proof it that way. I want to see some mention of CORBA and SOAP. How can you have a system without middleware? Can you use dot NET? Everybody uses that these days. And what if I want to use it when I am already on the phone. Can’t it have a WAP interface as well? I want to sell a thousand copies of this thing and nobody is going to pay a million bucks for something which doesn’t use a single cutting edge technology

There is certainly no written rule that everything has to be cutting edge. Very little, in essence, is. Is Google cutting edge? There were plenty of other search engines around before they came along. All they did was see the opportunity, do it better and hit the target. Over the coming weeks I’m going to be spending a lot of time discussing mobile phone use, and web access, in developing countries. I’ll soon be presenting a paper – the same one presented at W3C in Bangalore last December – at the 16th International World Wide Web Conference in Banff, and sitting on an expert panel at the same event. And my message will be the same as it has always been.

Although it should come as no surprise that there’s a gulf between many developers and the realities of life in developing countries, there have been attempts to bring the two together. Some have worked better than others, but at least there’s a realisation that a meeting-of-minds is needed. If you want a simple, effective example as to why, take a look at the handsets being used by the majority of rural people in developing countries (see photo, taken in India this January). Then have a think about how Java, Flash Lite, WAP and smart-phone applications would go down with these users. Okay, one day these technologies will become relevant, but right now I would argue that they’re not. SMS is still the killer application, like it or not. And, on the subject of web access on mobile devices, I would also argue that we haven’t quite mastered it ourselves yet. Generally-speaking the user experience still leaves a lot to be desired.

I’m not the only person who thinks this way. Far from it. And I’m looking forward to meeting the others, and our technically-minded colleagues, in Canada next month. Time to re-open the debate…

Citizen journalism or citizen empowerment?

It’s been a funny old week. After last weeks interview, news broke on another subject – the use of my FrontlineSMS system in the monitoring of the Nigerian elections this coming weekend. NMEM, the Nigerian NGO who are running the project, will be using volunteer observers to text in any observations (good or bad) as they go through the voting process.

There has been a lot of talk in recent months (and years) about citizen journalism – people reporting on news in their area – but what is happening now, with software such as FrontlineSMS, is more citizen empowerment. The difference here is that with empowerment they not only report on their surroundings – they are suddenly able to fully engage and influence the outcome.

NMEM, whose mission is to “encourage the Nigerian electorate to participate in the electoral process”, are a non-profit group of young professionals in Nigeria advocating for social change through good governance. NMEM had the mission, NMEM had the passion and NMEM had the commitment and vision to drive this forward. NMEM also found FrontlineSMS, and they took the software and ran with it. With the exception of several emails and the odd 3am phone call (!) they have been pretty much alone in this venture. The story is really theirs.

This is just the beginning. The future is not citizen journalism – it’s citizen empowerment…

VC? Not for me…

Today on the Reuters Digital Vision Program we had the opportunity to mock pitch to three Venture Capitalist (VC) firms from Silicon Valley. As my fellow Fellows honed their pitches and made final tweaks to their presentations, I was ‘absent with leave’. It’s not that I’m not grateful for the opportunity, it’s just that I don’t have a business model for what I do. I barely make enough money for myself, let alone give someone else a good return on theirs (or any return, come to that).

Instead, I’m in search of the pure social investor.

Who would this be? What would they ‘look’ like? Well, by definition, a pure social investor would see the value of and realise that a solid sustainable business model, with a monetary return, is an unfair ask. They would instead want a strong social return based on a continuing service to non-profits and disenfranchised individuals and communities – grassroots organisations that need FrontlineSMS, or some crucial technical input into their project, or students and researchers wanting to understand the impact of technology in developing countries. is all about bringing down barriers. Asking for money for many of these services would simply put up another.

There are many grand schemes out there, people trying to develop multi-million dollar solutions to hundred-thousand dollar problems. Subsidised or not, many seek a financial return for their investors. Schmoozing with politicians and large multinational donor organisations takes time – some projects take years to come to fruition, let alone begin to deliver, and then large percentages of the grants get siphoned off to cover a multitude of overheads. So, while people are busy working on their “big picture”, kiwanja will happily keep working on the smaller one, chipping away at the problems, and provide tools, inspiration and support for dedicated organisations and individuals out in the ‘real’ world. It’s not that this helps me sleep better at night. Quite simply, it’s where I see the greatest need.

And the greatest impact.