Ushering in our Project Manager

The FrontlineSMS team is growing. In this Guest Blog post, Laura Hudson – the new FrontlineSMS Project Manager – tells us why she came on board, what she intends to do in her new role, and outlines some of her early thinking.

“It’s exciting and a bit nerve-wracking to represent something as revolutionary as FrontlineSMS at the best of times, but two-and-a-half weeks in to a new job as Project Manager for FrontlineSMS, attending the World Bank’s Innovation Fair on Moving Beyond Conflict was an eye-opening experience. The Fair was attended by innovators and technical experts from all over the world, and was a great opportunity to swap stories and questions, make connections, and plan future collaborations.

Five years on from the first version, and thanks to Ken’s tireless work to raise awareness, FrontlineSMS is a familiar name to many in the mobile and social entrepreneurship field. Still others had heard about it and were keen to try it, and I met at least one implementing partner I hadn’t encountered before!

Lots of our discussions had to do with what you do after you’ve had the great idea – how to get it from concept to reality, to operating ‘at scale’. So much of the success of FrontlineSMS has had to do with just two things: a great concept; developed with the support and input of a strong user community. I wanted to reflect a bit on what we’re doing to continue to develop along these lines, and we’ll hear more in future from our lovely developers, Alex and Morgan, on the next few months in the FrontlineSMS labs.

In some ways FrontlineSMS is already scaling – the software has been downloaded from our website over 6000 times, and we have a  number of organisations working directly with us to build on the FrontlineSMS brand and software to develop plugins and implementations in specific sectors – including FrontlineSMS:Medic and FrontlineSMS:Credit. The field is so fast-moving and collaborative that new possibilities pop up every day – so much so that it could be hard to settle down and focus on our core business – developing the software.

In the coming months, we’re going to work on a strategy that will set our direction for the next five years, and support an operational plan for the next two years. We’ll be looking at how to consolidate our support to users (more on that in a second) and what we should be looking at next – picture messaging, for example, or examining what sort of interface might be useful with online services like Mxit in South Africa.

Since the beginning, Ken’s mantra has been ‘support the users, and all else will follow‘. Priorities for the next year include improving our support to our users, and providing more online resources and step-by-step help, such as decision-making trees and thematic guides. And as for any organisation, it’s important to know what we’ve achieved.

As a service provider, supporting those who deliver on the ground rather than delivering ourselves, this will take the form of figures and case studies on how many projects using FrontlineSMS, how it’s going, and if possible, approximately how many people they are reaching. To find this out we’ll be contacting users directly, running competitions, and linking users direct to donors in innovative ways – watch this space.

It’s an exciting time for us and for all those out there helping our project and others like it to achieve great things and hopefully, and most importantly, help to make a real difference to people all over the world”.

Laura Hudson
Project Manager

Doing the right thing by development

“How can a future global population of nine billion people all be fed healthily and sustainably?” This is the question a gathering of agricultural projects and experts will seek to address at a workshop in Nairobi next week. Unfortunately, as with almost all things ‘development’, it raises more questions than it could ever hope to answer.

While more than a handful of NGOs are figuring out how we feed so many people, others are trying to figure out how we avoid getting that crowded in the first place. It’s a tricky balance, and on my frequent trips to Africa I’ve found myself wondering how on earth the development sector – which struggles to come to terms with the effects of even today’s population levels – is going to cope when there are another three billion of us charging around. The answer could be, of course, that it won’t.

My year working with primates in Nigeria back in 2002 starkly reminds me of the impact of rapid population growth. Trying to preserve natural resources – rainforests and watershed systems among them – is nigh on impossible when put up against poverty-stricken, ever-expanding human populations. “Islands of biodiversity in a sea of humanity” is exactly where we seem to be headed, and in Nigeria I often found myself wondering if I was wasting my time, if our efforts were simply a stalling tactic and that, ultimately, all the primates and forests would eventually disappear whatever our efforts.

Technology is – of course – often seen as the answer, but in the context of a global population boom recent advances are arguably more the cause. As more of us live (and live for longer), genetically modified crops – however much we love or hate them – are likely the only realistic way enough food can be grown for so many people without turning the planet into one giant corn field. Planet Earth doesn’t have an infinite carrying capacity, and as the likes of James Lovelock are all-too-keen to remind us, we passed that point some time ago.

The primary objective of large numbers of humanitarian organisations is to save lives, to increase life expectancy and to lower child mortality, and until poverty is eradicated around the world population growth will be an unavoidable side effect of their actions. Other than morally being the right thing to do, saving lives just happens to be one of the few developmental activities that can be measured with any degree of accuracy.

But I sometimes wonder if we spend too much time thinking about the numbers. Surely there are times when it’s just as much about quality as it is about quantity. When it comes to human lives, quantitative isn’t necessarily better than qualitative.

This is why I find myself constantly drawn to this old Christian Aid campaign, one which struck me the very first time I saw it. Increasing life expectancy needs to go hand-in-hand with an increased quality of life, and it’s easy to forget this simple message in our relentless drive to “develop”. I sometimes wonder whether, through our own work here, we’re contributing to this in the right – or the wrong – way.

Rethinking Schumacher

Ever since I came across Fritz Schumacher’s “Small is Beautiful” at University back in 1997, I’ve been a close follower of the appropriate technology movement. Although for many appropriate technology is associated with ploughs, stoves and farming implements, for some time I’ve been thinking about how it applies to the work we do with mobile. I tackled this in a PC World article a couple of years ago, and more recently in a blog post on how appropriate “cloud-based” mobile solutions are in a world where so many people are yet to be reliably connected to the web.

Now the World Watch Institute have taken the discussion a step further in an excellent article in the May/June edition of their magazine. In it, John Mulrow argues that, if carried out appropriately, Schumacher’s original concept of local initiatives, local ownership and local innovation can be applied to today’s mobile world, despite mobile phones being a technology often designed, developed and controlled from the ‘outside’. This is one of the best articles yet on mobile vs. appropriate technology, and is well worth a read.

“Think Mobile, Act Local” is available as a PDF here.