Mobile Design. Sans Frontieres.

Although I find myself intrigued by the convergence of computer science, human computer interaction (HCI) design and international development, it’s not often that I find myself in a room of experts. They’re just not places I tend to mix, most likely because I have no professional IT qualifications, let alone a computer science degree, and I’ve done most of my own software design off-the-cuff, much to the dismay of people who hoped there was a robust process behind it.

Last August I got my first taste of the very real challenges that the computer science world faces when it comes up against the equally real challenges of international development. The meeting – convened at UC Berkeley – was an eye-opener for me to say the least, and as I left I blogged about how thankful I was that it wasn’t me who had to come up with the answers. You can read that post here.

A little later in the year I was invited to speak at the First International Workshop on Expressive Interactions for Sustainability and Empowerment, held at one of Vodafone’s London offices. The topic of conversation was similar, but here the focus was on how to build mobile tools that work in difficult, challenging, ‘foreign’ environments. Following my talk I was invited by the Editor of Interfaces, John Knight, to contribute an article to the next edition of their magazine.

For the article I teamed up with Joel Selanikio, co-founder of and the creator of the EpiSurveyor mobile data collection tool. It made sense working with Joel for a number of reasons. Not only have I known and admired him and his work for some time, but Joel is first and foremost a paediatrician. For him – like me – understanding the problem takes priority over the technology, consideration of which should always come last. FrontlineSMS and EpiSurveyor have both evolved from time spent in the field – observing, experiencing and understanding before designing, developing and building.

You can read our thoughts on the process – “Ten things you might want to know before building for mobile – in the current edition of Interfaces magazine (PDF, 2.5Mb).

For further posts on the subject see the “Mobile applications development” section of this blog, which includes a 10 minute video on the topic.

Ushering in the Advisors #3: Tess, Renny

Following the launch of the FrontlineSMS Advisory Board late last year, we’re honoured to announce news of our latest two appointees – Tess Conner and Renny Gleeson. Tess and Renny join previous recruits Larry Diamond, Jenny AkerJan Chipchase and Erik Hersman.

Rather than formulate a general board of Advisors, we’re trying to be strategic by appointing individuals in areas we consider key for the ongoing success and growth of the project. Tess and Renny fall into the branding/public relations category – clear communication and positioning will be increasingly crucial as we continue to build and deploy non-profit facing mobile services. In addition to their professional expertise, both have a strong interest in ICTs and their impact around the world. Tess has already spent the past year helping us with press and outreach, and Renny has been instrumental in the exciting – and path-breaking – branding work carried out on FrontlineSMS and the growing family of related projects.

Tess is an independent Communications Executive leading consultations which involve global community investments and social initiatives. With experience living and working in the developing world, she’s developed a great deal of passion and understanding around on-the-ground realities faced by rural communities, and the potential of the right technologies in the hands of these communities. Recently with Cisco Systems, her drive is to understand issues concerning technology’s role in education and economic development. She graduated with a Masters in Global Media and Postnational Communication from the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, and is an avid surfer.

Renny has worked all sides of the interactive marketing space from client, to agency, to publishing/sales, beginning his “career” as an animator and game designer creating online and CD-ROM games, before helping to found Saatchi & Saatchi’s Darwin Digital company in 1997. He was later recruited by the National Basketball Association to be their Senior Director of Global Media and Interactive Marketing, where he created mobile programs and programming, oversaw fantasy game-related syndication revenue and developed interactive platforms for NBA corporate partners. Renny has since found his spiritual home at Wieden+Kennedy (W+K) as their Global Director of Interactive Strategies, where he shapes client vision on the “brave new digital world”.

We’re incredibly excited to be able to draw on the considerable experience of our new Advisory Board members, each of whom will help steer and direct our technical, marketing and organisational development. With software downloads now approaching 5,000 and the imminent launch of a number of new initiatives, not to mention the emergence of new spin-off organisations such as FrontlineSMS:Medic and FrontlineSMS:Credit, there’s without doubt plenty to be getting on with.

The Board of Advisors will all be profiled on the FrontlineSMS website once all appointments have been made. The final two will be unveiled in the coming weeks.

Welcome Tess and Renny! \o/

New year, new funding, new release

We may only be a couple of days in, but 2010 is already promising to be another exciting year. After twelve months of steady growth (and one which saw us regularly exceed our limited technical capacity), late last month we were pleased to secure significant new funding. A $150,000 grant – our first from the Rockefeller Foundation – will allow us to increase the size of our FrontlineSMS developer team and better service the growing needs of our user, partner and developer communities. A huge thanks to Rockefeller for their support. \o/

The revamped version of FrontlineSMS – originally funded by the MacArthur Foundation in 2007/2008 – has only been available for just short of 18 months, but we’ve already put out two significant upgrades, with a third imminent. Each of these has been shaped by user feedback and requests for new features, all co-ordinated through our active and growing online Community, probably one of our greatest achievements. The latest release includes new language support, a mapping module and extended ability to connect external software applications.

Over the past few months we’ve also been quietly working on a new SMS-based initiative with partners Wieden+Kennedy, Accenture Development Partnerships (ADP) and the GSM Association. Technical development on this Hewlett Foundation-funded project – which will solve one of the biggest challenges faced by many grassroots mobile initiatives – starts next month. More news on that, and the new FrontlineSMS release, soon!