Low(er) cost computing

In the middle of everything else that’s going on right now, we’re working to get the latest FrontlineSMS ready for launch. Among a few of the more minor changes (bug fixes and additional language support, for example) this new release will see the inclusion of FrontlineForms, a fully integrated SMS-driven data collection tool. Although it’s been ready for some time, we’ve been busy getting the core system up to scratch before adding the first of a range of exciting new functionality (the ability to do MMS – multimedia messaging – comes later this year courtesy of our Hewlett funding).

Of course, none of this is of any use if you can’t afford a computer to run anything on. As part of our goal to lower the barrier to entry for prospective FrontlineSMS users, we have plans to develop USB stick and mobile versions of the software. More news on that in the coming weeks and months.


In the meantime, thanks to great forward planning from Masabi – our developers – FrontlineSMS will already run on a range of emerging low-cost computers. Here’s the latest build (1.5.2) being tested on an Acer One (it’s also running happily on the even lower-cost EEE PC). This kind of set up – a low-cost computer, a GSM modem and a handful of low-end mobile phones – forms the backbone to our thinking of what an “SMS Hub in a Box” might look like.

We’re hoping to do something with that idea when we have a little spare time on our hands.

What’s the frequency, Kenneth?

This is a diagram for Bushmail, a system which allows users in very remote locations to send email using high-frequency radio signals. No need for a mobile signal, no need for cell towers and no need for any infrastructure.


A wire strung up over a tree is enough to act as a transmitter/receiver, and a car battery and a solar panel enough to power the whole thing. Used quite widely among the conservation community, could this be the ideal data/email solution for an ‘off-network’ African village?motorola1
This is a Motorola walkie-talkie. With a range of approximately ten square kilometres, these radios allow two-way voice communication without the need for a mobile signal, no need for cell towers and no need for any additional infrastructure. An ideal voice solution for communication within and around a remote African village?

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about intermediate technology, the ‘other’ name for appropriate technology but one which, going by my thinking, promises more of a bridge to an “optimum technology solution” rather than one trying to be an out-and-out replacement for it. A stop-gap, in other words. I’ve also been thinking about how people communicate within rural communities. When we talk about connectivity, who are we trying to connect people to? In my latest PC World article – “Where walkie-talkies dare” – I ask:

Imagine, say, 75% of a rural community’s communication needs were local, in other words among itself, and most of that community lived in, say, a 10- or 15-square-kilometre area. You could argue that a for-profit mobile network, likely run by a diesel-powered tower, is an inappropriate and over-the-top technology solution. Other technologies already exist that could do the job, technologies that don’t operate on a pay-per-use basis and don’t need costly infrastructure to work

If you want two great examples of these kinds of technologies, just look up.

Despite the spectacular advance of mobile, large swathes of some of the more remote communities in the developing world still remain disconnected – not just from us, but also from each other. While mobile technology is widely regarded by many as the ultimate solution, many communities stand little chance of getting on the radar of the “mobile for development” community until they firstly get on the radar of the mobile operators, and a tower appears somewhere in or near their village. Although exciting things happen when towers appear, I’d argue that waiting years for one to come is probably unnecessary. Turning again to my PC World article:

Right now, a traders cooperative in a rural village could easily equip itself with walkie-talkies and exchange information on commodity prices and produce availability, to organise transport and to share storm forecasts. Health care workers covering the village and nearby area could use them to communicate and technically coordinate a health care network. And why not have Village Phone Operators (VPOs) with walkie-talkies rather than mobile phones, who can sell the use of their devices for a small fee, with a near 100% profit margin? Maybe this is a new model Grameen Phone could do something with?

I’d be fascinated to hear if anyone has carried out research on the local communication needs of rural communities. How much of what they need to say is predominantly local? If my ‘grab-it-out-of-the-air’ figure of 75% is even remotely close – and we put any technology snobbery aside for a moment – then I think there could be very real opportunities to implement some very effective intermediate technology solutions within some of these communities.

So, my questions are these: Are there projects out there implementing these solutions right now? Are they working? What other (better?) options are available? What do the communities think of them? Maybe this is all just a crazy idea? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

The “long tail” revisited

Four years ago was a very lonely time. Not for me personally, understand, but in the social mobile space. The wider non-profit world was just beginning to take a serious interest in what the technology had to offer, and in 2004 I’d just co-authored one of the earlier reports – funded by the Vodafone Group Foundation – on the use of mobile technology for conservation and development. To give some context, these were the days when it was widely believed that “poor people in developing countries” would never be able to afford a phone, and the days when concrete case studies on the application of mobile technology for positive social and environmental change were few and far between. Most evidence was anecdotal. A revised report would look very different today, but with one exception – many of the conclusions would likely still stand. If that’s the case, how far have we really come?

Four years ago this week I came up with the concept of a laptop-based group messaging hub. The software I ended up developing is better known today as FrontlineSMS (“ProjectSMS” was the working title for the first few months). When I eventually got the resources together to write the first version in the summer of 2005, there was zero chance of reinventing any wheels. The “social mobile applications” shop was quite literally bare. After extensive research for a project I had been working on with South Africa National Parks (SANParks), there were simply no appropriate technology mobile solutions they could easily pick up and run with. The situation seemed crazy, and I had a hunch that SANParks were not alone in their need for an appropriate, portable, GSM-based communications tool. The rest is history, as they say.

Things are not quite so lonely today and 2008 – for me, at least – goes down as the year things really began to change. For what seemed like an age, FrontlineSMS was one of the few appropriate technology-based mobile tools aimed at – and openly and freely available to – the grassroots non-profit community. For a while it was the only one. It was also likely the first to be developed specifically with the NGO sector in mind – most other solutions were commercial offerings which found their way into the hands of NGOs, quite often the larger international variety with the funds, expertise and resources to use them. The frustration for me was that – until last year, at least – many of the emerging ‘non-profit’ mobile solutions seemed to be following that same model.

Enter “The Social Mobile Long Tail”, my attempt at mapping out the social mobile applications space (you can read the original post, which explains the thinking in detail, here).

The basic rationale behind it was this. The majority of emerging mobile solutions, platforms or tools (call them what you will) were settling in the red area, and as such were 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 aimed a multinational NGOs or government departments. Tools in the lower end are simple, low-cost, appropriate and easily replicable solutions. My experiences working with NGOs in Africa over the past fifteen years has strongly influenced and steered the focus of my work towards the long tail, and I would have it no other way.

But let’s just destroy a few myths for a minute. There are many out there. Here’s my top three (feel free to add to these in the comments section below).

Firstly, wherever your tool sits on the graph, there is no right or wrong place for it. It’s all about the context of the user. There is just as much a need for $1 million server-based, high bandwidth solutions as there are for free, SMS-only tools. In your typical scenario, national governments would likely go for the former, and grassroots NGOs for the latter, but not always. Both are valid, and tools shouldn’t ever be described as “being better” than another because of it. This is a big mistake. We need there to be solutions all along the tail so that the users have a healthy applications ecosystem to dip into, whoever and wherever they may be. If you’re trying to park a car into a small space, a Mini is much better than a Rolls Royce.

Secondly, let’s not get all hooked up on scale. Just because a tool in the long tail might not run an international mobile campaign does not make it irrelevant. Just as a long tail solution might likely never run a higher-end project, expensive and technically complex solutions would likely fail to downscale enough to run a small communications network for farmers from a small NGO office with no mains electricity, for example.

Thirdly, we don’t yet have any complete, polished mobile tools. I would argue that everything that we see in the social mobile applications ecosystem today is “work in progress”, and it will likely stay that way for a very long time. Speaking with my FrontlineSMS hat on, I’d say we’re probably only about 40% there with that solution right now. There is much to do, and the mobile technical landscape never stands still. Our challenge is how we all move with it, how we stay relevant, and how we all work together to share technical resources and know-how. A fragmented mobile landscape is a problem for all of us.

There have been many positive blog posts calling 2009 the “Year of Mobile”. I think they could be right. I also think 2009 is going to be the “Year of the Searcher” (see my earlier blog post). As I argued back then, let’s never forget it’s the users of our tools who we answer to. Social change happens on the ground, often through them, and not online.

For the first time in four years things don’t feel quite so lonely. I for one am hugely honoured to be working in a space alongside some of the most dedicated and talented people in the mobile and development fields, all of whom are trying to apply a range of practical solutions – all the way along the “social mobile long tail” – to some of the most pressing problems in the world today. We have a great opportunity in front of us if we stick together, remain focussed, and do not lose sight of the big picture.

After all, we don’t want to be reading blog posts in twelve months time calling 2010 the “Year of Mobile”, do we?

[You can read a Haitian Creole translation of this post, courtesy of Susan Basen, here].

Building our Clinton Commitment

Those following kiwanja’s work will remember last September’s invitation to the Clinton Global Initiative in New York, where we proposed the “FrontlineSMS Ambassadors Programme” as our 2009/2010 Commitment. This Commitment was announced live on-stage during the ‘Poverty and Information’ workshop on the final day, and I also had the huge honour of meeting President Clinton in person, who presented me with our Commitment certificate.


Of course, now the work really starts. Since New York much has happened, including the receipt of a significant grant from the Hewlett Foundation. Portions of this funding will be used in the coming weeks to kick off the first phase of the Ambassadors Programme, which is part of wider efforts to promote the use of FrontlineSMS among the NGO community. This first initiative will be based around Josh Nesbit’s innovative health-based efforts in Malawi, and Josh – who will be project managing the work – will provide updates nearer the time via his blog and Twitter feed.

Future initiatives will take in other key target areas where FrontlineSMS has shown its versatility. These include agriculture, education, conservation and human rights, among others. For regular updates feel free to subscribe to the blog RSS or FrontlineSMS Twitter feeds.