A glimpse into social mobile’s long tail

Although I’ve only been writing about the social mobile long tail for a couple of years, the thinking behind it has developed over a fifteen year period where, working on and off in a number of African countries, I’ve witnessed at first hand the incredible contribution that some of the smallest and under-resourced NGOs make in solving some of the most pressing social and environmental problems. Most of these NGOs are hardly known outside the communities where they operate, and many fail to raise even the smallest amounts of funding in an environment where they compete with some of the biggest and smartest charities on the planet.

Long tail NGOs 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.

After fifteen years it should come as no surprise to hear that most of my work today is aimed at empowering the long tail, as it has been since kiwanja.net came into being in 2003, followed by FrontlineSMS a little later in 2005. Of course, a single local NGO with a piece of software isn’t going to solve a wider national healthcare problem, but how about a hundred of them? Or a thousand? The default position for many people working in ICT4D is to build centralised solutions to local problems – things that ‘integrate’ and ‘scale’. With little local ownership and engagement, many of these top-down approaches fail to appreciate the culture of technology and its users. Technology can be fixed, tweaked, scaled and integrated – building relationships with the users is much harder and takes a lot longer. Trust has to be won. And it takes even longer to get back if it’s lost.

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.

Here’s a video from Lynman Bacolor, a FrontlineSMS user in the Philippines, talking about how he uses the software in his health outreach work. What you see here is a very simple technology doing something which, to him, is significant.

In short, Lynman’s solution works because it was his problem, not someone elses. And it worked because he solved it. And going by the video he’s happy and proud, as he should be. Local ownership? You bet.  \o/

Now, just imagine what a thousand Lynman’s could achieve with a low cost laptop each, FrontlineSMS and a modest text messaging budget?

55 thoughts on “A glimpse into social mobile’s long tail

  1. GeorgeS says:

    Kenny – It’s very hard to argue against this. Simple and inspirational stuff from Dr. Bacalor. One can only imagine what hundreds of Doctors could do with this, and quickly. Maybe what Mobiles In Malawi are doing could be done in the Philippines? Your points about replication and solutions for the long tail are spot on. All we need to do now is make it happen!


  2. J.A. Ginsburg says:

    Great post! In fact, I linked to it on http://www.TrackerNews.net – an aggregator that focuses on health issues, humanitarian work and technology that supports both.

    Re centralized vs localized solutions – it applies to so much, whether communication systems or power generation. And yet it always seems like such a surprise that one-size-fits-all answers usually only fit a few. The challenge is figuring out whether and how smaller tailored solutions might dovetail into a larger whole – something analogous to a smart power grid.

    best & cheers,


  3. Stephane Boyera says:

    Great post Ken ! i’m, at 95%, sharing your view. There are other cases where the sum of very very small, narrow little local actions led to a global positive effect at the worldwide. The best example is the history of the Web. it started with one user at Cern, and then some friends replicated, and so on to reach the situation where we are today. So jsut to say that i strongly believe in this process.
    But then, there is this 5% on which we might have a slightly different view. This is about your last sentence. I personnaly believe that the current requirements to run an sms service is high. having a pc running 24hours a day is hard for many people (just having a pc, and then having it powered…). There are also many issues around text-based only approach which limit the access for people with low reading skills. All in one, i tend to believe that while SMS is great, there are alternate options (voice, mobile web) that might be alternate options, and it is important to develop tools and disseminate expertise round these technologies that might empower even more people.


  4. kiwanja says:

    Thanks for the comments!

    @GeorgeS @Josh Nesbit – Totally with you both. We have a great opportunitiy to reach out this year, but nothing will happen if we just sit on our bums. The whole social mobile sector needs to get out there and make it happen, as many of us are. Really positive about 2009!

    @J. Ginsburg – Thanks Janet – nice to hear from someone who understands and supports the notion. Looking forward to keeping the “distributed vs. centralised” conversation going

    @Steph – I agree that we do need to be thinking wider than just SMS-based tools. The real challenge is how we learn the lessons from successful SMS implementations and transfer them over to the ‘newer’ technologies. It won’t be easy, and hasn’t really happened yet. Of course, it will – and hopefully sooner rather than later. When we build MMS into FrontlineSMS that could see the start of a move in kiwanja’s work, at least, to embrace things like voice and data into the platform

  5. Girish Babu says:

    will Mobile MMS be acessible with Low bandwidht of GPRS in remote villages .

    How about applications to track the health of Individuals in Villages and do preventive work in Mother, Child and Chronic Diseases.

    Can it be a self sustainable model for scale up to other regions?

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  10. Jon Camfield says:

    I agree; it’s a difficult (but oh so important) line to walk between individualized tools and scalable projects — something, mind you, that FrontlineSMS does particularly well, being a “simple” tool that can be used in a variety of ways for a variety of different challenges.

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  20. Kevin Donovan says:

    “Of course, a single local NGO with a piece of software isn’t going to solve a wider national healthcare problem, but how about a hundred of them? Or a thousand?”

    That really drove home your point. Important stuff.

    But, I think the key to making those long tailers effective is enabling collaboration and coordination. How best to get the small FrontlineSMS-wielding NGOs to collaborate?

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  23. kiwanja says:

    @Kevin – Thanks for your comments, and for joining the discussion. I agree that this is an important part of the social mobile mix, but one which remains under-discussed.

    As for enabling collaboration, the online community (http://frontlinesms.ning.com) is providing a platform for NGOs to share stories and work together, and we’re already seeing this happening. We’re also organising email lists which will allow users to send messages to others outside of Ning.

    Community is notoriously hard to create – at least genuine, engaging, active community is. We’re certainly getting there, but it does take time. One idea we do have for the future are FrontlineSMS Conferences, where people can meet (users, developers, practitioners, etc) and discuss their use and ideas for the software

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  25. Kevin Donovan says:

    Thanks, Ken. I sympathize with the difficulty of creating a community, but I do think it’s amazing how much you’ve been able to do so far.

    Admittedly I am not familiar with the specifics of the technology, but in the midst of creating personal relationships through conferences, etc., it would be great to encourage technical means for sharing/collaborating/etc., as well as the ‘human layer’.

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