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 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.

Build it, and they will come (if it’s useful)

It’s incredible to think that exactly four years ago I was gearing up to write the early FrontlineSMS prototype. Although a lot was undecided, a central pillar of my early thinking was that a “platform approach” would be the most flexible and appropriate, and that it would be wrong and restrictive of me to try and build a specific, local solution to the communications problem I’d witnessed in South Africa the year before. I figured that if I could avoid the temptation to try and solve a problem that wasn’t mine, but build something which allowed its local owners to solve it, then interesting things might happen.

Africa Journal, Fall 2007Today, the dizzying array of uses NGOs have found for FrontlineSMS is testament to that early approach, and the software is today driving projects in ways I could never have imagined. The Africa Journal most neatly summed up its impact when they wrote, back in 2007:

FrontlineSMS provides the tools necessary for people to create their own projects that make a difference. It empowers innovators and organisers in the developing world to achieve their full potential through their own ingenuity

Non-profits in over fifty countries have either applied, thought about applying, experimented or played with FrontlineSMS in the context of their own work, imaginatively considering ways in which the software – and the rise of text messaging – can be be turned to good use. As a result we’ve seen solid growth in the FrontlineSMS user community, but this is just one piece of the puzzle. Building community with users is one thing, but getting traction with developers is another.

And today, something very exciting is beginning to happen.

N2Y4If you take a look at the N2Y4 Mobile Challenge this year, you’ll notice something quite interesting. Three of the ten finalists are building their solutions around the FrontlineSMS platform, and a fourth used it as a major component in early prototyping exercises. You can add to these work that Ushahidi‘s developers have been recently carrying out, or students at MIT, or human rights activists in the Philippines, or the FrontlineSMS:Medic team, or university-based agriculture projects, all of whom have started integrating FrontlineSMS into their own tools and solutions. This kind of integration is what we always intended, and the software has been written in such a way to make it as painless as possible. Usability alone, however, is never a guarantee that people will buy into your vision.

It may have its critics, but the “Build it and they will come” mantra is truly alive and kicking in the FrontlineSMS world, and the finalists in N2Y4 are testament to this. FrontlineSMS:Medic, IJCentral and FrontlineSMS Alerts each have FrontlineSMS at the core of their proposals. Freedom Fone carried out much of their early proof-of-concept work with the software. Each of these projects are trying to solve a range of problems (note that voting is open until Friday 10th April).

FrontlineSMS:Medic – SMS for Medical Records and Mobile Lab Diagnostics [vote]
FrontlineSMS:Medic is a team committed to empowering community health workers in the developing world using appropriate mobile technology. After almost a year of working with FrontlineSMS in Malawi, they are launching FrontlineSMS:Medic to extend the capabilities of this software and bring it to health centers across several continents

IJCentral: Movement to Support Global Rule of Law [vote]
IJCentral, in tandem with documentary film “The Reckoning: The Battle for the International Criminal Court”, will be the core of a social network for global justice to combat the entrenched culture of impunity for crimes against humanity, implementing a multi-platform citizen engagement strategy using geolocated mobile phone SMS text messages, to build a worldwide constituency for the rule of law visualized on the IJC Map. Success will be an active global constituency supporting the justice mandate of the ICC, to prosecute perpetrators of the worst crimes, no matter how powerful

FrontlineSMS + Cell Alert = FrontlineSMS Alerts [vote]
This team have created a whole new suite of information tracking and delivery modules including Grant Alerts, Regional Conflict Alerts, Genocide and Blockade Alerts, World Food Aid Alerts, and Economic Aid Alerts. These tools are particularly powerful when used with FrontlineSMS. Recent trials proved the concept in El Salvador and Pakistan. Essential and timely market data that is unavailable in rural El Salvador and rural Pakistan due to a lack of Internet access was made accessible in these trials through the use of FrontlineSMS. Through their trials, Cell Alert was used to locate and deliver essential market data to beta testers in rural areas through the software

Freedom Fone [vote]
Freedom Fone is a free open source software tool that can be used to build and update a dial-up information service in any language. Its easy to use interface lowers the barriers to using Interactive Voice Response for outreach. Freedom Fone empowers non-technical organizations to build automated information services that are available to the public 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Pre-recorded audio files are stored by Freedom Fone in a Content Management System. This is updated through a simple to use browser interface. Callers then phone in to listen to the audio options available to them

The competition judges will decide which of these projects have merit, and which ones walk away with the prize money, if any. Of course, none are FrontlineSMS entries as such, and I have had nothing to do with any of the entries, or their decision to enter. What I do think is significant, however, is that it shows what’s possible if we focus on building simple, appropriate, open social mobile tools and platforms, and let users impose their own will and vision on it.

If we build it – and it’s useful – it turns out that they might just come.

Is It Africa’s Turn?

Described by Publishers Weekly as “a refreshing take on the fortunes of Africa in the current century, and a fascinating compendium of some of the leading theorists of African development” – Africa’s Turn is a new publication by the Boston Review which emerged from an earlier magazine discussion on the progress of development in Africa.

Earlier last year, somewhat by chance, I was invited to contribute to the original discussion during a meeting with the Editor over coffee outside the Green Library at Stanford University.

Economist Edward Miguel writes the main article, discussing his time working in Busia, a small Kenyan border town, where he noticed something different starting in 1997 – modest but steady economic progress, with new construction projects, flower markets, shops, and ubiquitous cell phones. In Africa’s Turn?” he tracks a decade of comparably hopeful economic trends throughout sub-Saharan Africa and suggests that we may be seeing a turnaround.

In the book, “nine experts gauge his optimism. These include Olu Ajakaiye, Ken Banks, Robert Bates, Paul Collier, Rachel Glennerster, Rosamond Naylor, Smita Singh, David N. Weil, and Jeremy M. Weinstein”. A PDF of my response – published in the original magazine – is available here. A copy of the cloth-covered book can be ordered from Amazon.