Our “social mobile” line in the sand

The depth and range of discussion generated by my last post on “the cloud” and “appropriate technology” may have come as something of a surprise, but one thing is clear. There’s a great deal of misunderstanding around the topic, particularly with people who are either developing or promoting tools based on the very technology I was challenging. The only way to avoid this kind of confusion is to spell out our positions clearly, and I made this point in that very same post. So how do we move on from here?

Well, we need to set out our positions clearly as a marker in the sand for future discussion. So, let me go first. To clear up any present and future confusion, here’s the official FrontlineSMS / kiwanja.net position on what I consider five key “mobile tools for development” areas – location in the “long tail”, scaling, replication and growth, open sourcing and access to “the cloud”.

1. Who are your target audience?

Some time ago I butchered Chris Anderson’s “long tail” concept and adapted it for mobile. It seemed like the best way of categorising the different focus areas for mobile tools – high-end for larger organisations down to low-end for small grassroots ones. Here’s what I came up with.

Social Mobile Long Tail, kiwanja.net

The basic rationale behind the diagram is this. Tools in the red area are 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 which require a high degree of technical competence, and often the Internet, to set up and use. Tools in the lower end are simple, low-cost, need few technical skills, work on easily available hardware, don’t require the Internet, and are easy to install and run. Tools in the green space can be quickly adopted and replicated – within hours – whereas tools at the other end need much more planning, i.e. more people and more lead time, and most likely a degree of training.

Note: There is no right or wrong or good or bad place on the tail. There are just different places

From its early beginnings in South Africa in 2004, FrontlineSMS has been totally focused on grassroots NGOs in the green space, an area which I believed back then was heavily underserved (and to a large degree still is). We’re not particularly interested in big users such as international NGOs or government departments. So if our tool isn’t considered right for the kinds of big projects they’re likely to be running, then that’s fine with us.

I wonder where the other social mobile tools would place themselves on the tail?

2. What is your position on scaling?

Believe it or not, not everyone wants to build tools that can grow into large centralised solutions, which is how many people seem to define scale. No one is ever going to run a nationwide election monitoring campaign running into millions of text messages using a single laptop, cable and mobile phone. FrontlineSMS is based on “horizontal scaling”, gained by an increase in the numbers of individual users with their own systems. In other words, a hundred systems in a hundred clinics serving 10,000 people each, rather than one system adapted and “scaled up” to serve a million. We’re happy and comfortable with this approach, as are our target audience of grassroots NGOs.

3. How does it replicate and grow?

Growth is based on patience, and a “pull” rather than “push” approach, i.e. awareness-raising and then letting NGOs decide if they want to try out the tool or not. Those that do then go and request it from the website. Everything is driven by the end user, who needs to be independently motivated to download and use the tool. There is no need for us to be involved at any stage, so no-one flies anywhere and no-one does any training – note that the approaches of FrontlineSMS:Medic and FrontlineSMS:Credit may be different – and no-one tries to “sell” FrontlineSMS to anyone. The solution is designed to allow users to do everything themselves. No core FrontlineSMS implementations are driven by us, and none are our projects. Use is replicated by users sharing experiences, talking about their use of the tool to others, and growing numbers of champions who are either building their own solutions around FrontlineSMS, or bloggers and researchers who write about its use and impact.

4. What is your position on open sourcing?

Again, from the very beginning we have been unashamedly focused on our end user – NGOs in developing countries seeking easy-to-deploy mobile tools. Our end users are not programmers, coders or technical developers, and few if any of our FrontlineSMS user base would have any idea what to do with source code. We decided that we would focus on the open source community once we believed we had something worth working with, and that time is about now. In between working on everything else, we plan to launch a developer community soon. That all said, there are already a number of developers bolting on new functionality to the core FrontlineSMS platform, and 90% of the code is already available online and accessible through SourceForge.

5. Does access to “the cloud” matter?

Cloud image courtesy versacevistas.wordpress.com

FrontlineSMS only came about four years ago because of a critical lack of tools that allowed for group messaging without the need for the Internet. Building a tool which is able to operate in Internet-free zones has therefore been central to our thinking since the very beginning, and continues to this day. Beyond basic messaging, FrontlineSMS can make use of an Internet connection when and where available – messages can be forwarded via email, or posted to websites, for example (that’s the functionality Ushahidi takes advantage of) – but no Internet is not a show stopper for us. And as time moves on and connectivity does improve, we’ll be ready. We’re adding picture messaging in the next couple of months (for example), and other web-based features are in the pipeline. We are not anti-Internet, but realistic when it comes to its availability and reliability.

So, that’s our line in the sand. If anyone else has a mobile tool – or is working on a mobile tool – I’d encourage them to clear up any possible confusion and write a post outlining their thinking in these five areas. The alternative is more confusion, and more false arguments and comparisons.

I know I’d love to know the thinking behind more social mobile tools, and going by the reaction earlier this week, it looks like I’m not the only one. Now is a good-a-time as any to join the conversation.

Read responses and “lines in the sand” from:


(As of 20th December, no other mobile tools providers have responded, which is a shame. May the confusion and misrepresentation continue…)

40 thoughts on “Our “social mobile” line in the sand

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  6. Andrea Bohnstedt says:

    Possibly a stupid question, but: how do you finance your activities (I understand from your outline above that your main ‘clients’ are small non-profits)?

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  9. kiwanja says:

    @Andrea – We’ve now been donor funded for two years in total (out of the 4.5 that FrontlineSMS has been around or in development). We hope to figure out a sustainability model in the coming year. I was wondering whether this should be one of the questions in the post, but it’s not ‘tool’ specific so I left it out. Good point, though.

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  11. Isaac Holeman says:

    Nice post Ken. I’m even more excited to see the series of blog posts that I hope will respond.

    For what it’s worth, I’d like to reiterate that drawing a “line in the sand” is about differentiating oneself more than critiquing alternative approaches.

    I’m not just a friend and admirer of Ken’s, I also work with him very closely as a co-founder of FrontlineSMS:Medic, an mHealth venture that is using FrontlineSMS as a spring board. I and the FrontlineSMS:Medic team differ from Ken and the core FrontlineSMS platform in some noteworthy ways. We do work with massive NGOs and are interested in working with governments. We aren’t so hands off about implementation, and we think that horizantal scale is very incomplete unless the many parallel systems can inter-operate and exchange data. These difference haven’t put us at odds with Ken. In fact, I think he’s been so supportive specifically because he observes that we are filling a slightly different niche.

    Maybe I should get a “line in the sand” post up on the medic blog…

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  15. kiwanja says:

    @Isaac – You got it in one. For the core platform, I think the approach is spot on. General users who decide themselves how to deploy and apply the tool. With more specialist uses, such as yours (and Ben with FrontlineSMS:Credit) clearly need a different and more co-ordinated approach, including training and a degree of consultancy and installation. Would love to read a post from you on your thoughts 🙂

  16. Steve Song says:

    Hey Ken. An observation. Ever since you wrote the social mobile long tail blog post, you’ve been writing pieces that in one way or another appear to be a defense of the approach you’ve taken with Frontline SMS. To be honest, I don’t really understand why you feel it needs so much defending. FrontlineSMS is great and its success and the success of its derivatives is its own defense. As Georges Hebert said, sometimes “living well is the best revenge”. 🙂

  17. kiwanja says:

    @Steve – Hey Steve, nice to hear from you! I don’t think it’s been intended as much of a defence, but more a clarification of our position (but maybe it has come across that way). There is still a strong tendency for people to compare tools and in many cases people are comparing apples and oranges (for example, FrontlineSMS is constantly put up against RapidSMS, yet they are *totally* different tools). There’s also a general belief that scale is vital, and that if things aren’t open source they’re bad.

    So more often than not, posts like these on FrontlineSMS are designed to simply try and reconfirm our position, so that unnecessary comparisons are no longer made. I hope people working on other tools will do the same so we all know where we stand on some of these key issues.

  18. Alasdair Munn says:

    Ken. Great post. It brings a lot of clarity to your position. It is a good reminder to all of us to draw a line in the sand. Context is a great thing.
    Keep up the wonderful work.

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  24. Ben Lyon says:

    This is definitely proactive. Clearly defining goals and processes – and then discussing them dispassionately – is essential for pushing our egos out of the way and building a product that benefits the end user.

    I’ll start working on the FrontlineSMS:Credit ‘line in the sand’ post now =)

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