FrontlineSMS goes MMS!

It’s been three long years since the idea of supporting multimedia messaging (MMS) within FrontlineSMS was first raised by a handful of users. About a year later, the Hewlett Foundation stepped in and funded its development, excited by its potential in health, agriculture and governance, among others. Today, we’re excited to finally announce MMS support in FrontlineSMS. And it’s something of a game-changer for us and our users.

To quote from today’s Press Release:

The open-source SMS communications platform FrontlineSMS has delivered major new features as part of a new software release today. With this upgrade, FrontlineSMS allows organisations to receive multimedia messages via a standard email account. More complex than SMS messages, MMS can include text, images, video and audio. This is a huge step forward for FrontlineSMS: it opens the door for social and environmental organisations to incorporate photo, audio and video documentation in their work, and it paves the way for innovations like the FrontlineSMS:Medic partnership with Cellophone that will provide medical diagnostics via MMS. With MMS, FrontlineSMS extends its efforts to empower large groups of people to gather and share information of any kind, anywhere there is a mobile signal

For further details, or for tweets, re-tweets and comments on this story, check out the FrontlineSMS Blog.

Please note: From today onwards, all official FrontlineSMS posts and Guest Posts will be posted on the official FrontlineSMS website. Older entries are still available here by clicking on the relevant category to the right.

Restricted mobility

On my travels it’s not unusual for me to find a dozen or more Village Phone operators in a single village. It’s also not unusual to find them with pretty-much the same phone, quite often the same price plan, and the same signs and posters. And just to rub it in, their shops and kiosks are often the same colour, too. Standing out from the competition can be quite a challenge in an environment like this, but it can be done.

Making a phone call on a Village Phone can hardly be called a private affair. First of all you’re likely standing out in the open, the phone owner usually hangs around a couple of feet away, and children crowd around because that’s what children do. In an attempt to break the mould – and gain a little competitive advantage – this Village Phone operator decided that customers should be allowed to put some space between her, the children and their private conversation. So her customers can take the phone ‘away’ somewhere where it’s a little more private. To stop them running off with it, she attaches a length of wire which leads back into her shop. Simple, but clever.

Maybe the wire could double up as an aerial extension for places with poor reception (now there’s one for Nokia to consider, or Motorola in this case)?

Sometimes, living in a wired world can have its advantages…

Further reading
Unplanned adolescence“, a Fast Company article on what happens to Village Phone operators when local mobile ownership increases (and my response to that), and “Africa’s grassroots mobile revolution – A traveller’s perspective“, a photo essay I wrote a couple of years ago for ‘Vodafone receiver’

Mobile community: The holy grail of m4d?

Last week I wrote a post on the difficulties of running a “mobile for development” – or m4d – project. I tried to make it challenging, and was hoping to stir up some discussion around the merits of mobile-initiated development projects versus development-initiated mobile projects. You can read that post here.

Unless you’re one of the bigger technology blogs – Mashable, TechCrunch, Scobleizer and so on – it’s hit-and-miss whether or not a post will get the traction you’re looking for. Apart from a couple of dozen tweets and a dozen or so comments, the post didn’t generate as much debate as I’d have liked. But it did get me thinking – if these kinds of discussion weren’t taking place here, then where were they taking place?

I’m regularly asked at conferences for hints on the best sites for people to post questions and stimulate debate around mobile technology, and I always struggle to give an answer. It seems crazy that, for a discipline which began to fully emerge probably about seven or eight years ago, there still isn’t a genuinely active, engaging, open online community for people to join and interact with each other.

In order to get a sense of which communities exist, I recently sent out a message to a number of ICT4D and mobile email lists I subscribe to, and posted the odd message on Twitter. Very few people could suggest anything. A few people mentioned email lists which dealt specifically with sectoral issues, such as health, but not specifically with mobile (although mobile was a regular thread in many discussions). Only MobileActive suggested MobileActive, which was a surprise considering its positioning as a global, mobile community with over 16,000 ‘active’ members.

Finding nothing was only part of it – many people clearly had different ideas of what made up community, too (I’d put this down to a challenge of definition). When I pushed out my call for sites, I specifically asked for those which were “open, active, collaborative and engaging”, things that I thought would be pre-requisites for anything worth being a member of.

According to Maddie Grant, a Strategist at SocialFish, a consulting firm that helps associations build community on the social web:

What makes a community open is when there’s “a lot more outside the login than inside”, so most of a community’s content must be at least viewable and shareable without logging in. To be active, most of a community’s content must be member (user) generated, not owner-generated, and must have some degree of conversation which includes comments, discussions and reviews

Going by these criteria I don’t believe we yet have a truly active, engaging, open mobile community. This seems a little strange when you consider the attention the technology has been getting over the past few years.

On the flip side though, it might not be so strange after all. As Jonathan Donner put it to me in a recent email, “Why should m4d have it’s own groups and community sites? Can’t we – or should we – just mainstream ourselves into ICT4D?”.

This discussion clearly has a long way to go. I just wonder where that discussion will take place.

Dissecting “m4d”: Back to basics

Do the majority of people working in “mobiles for development” work in mobile, or development? It may seem like an odd question, but how people approach “m4d” may have more of an impact on success or failure than we think.

The world of social mobile isn’t short of anecdotes. “Put the user first”, “Consider the technology only at the very end”, “Don’t re-invent the wheel” and “Build with scale in mind” are just a few. Ignore these and failure won’t be far around the corner, we’re told. But maybe we’re missing something here. Sure, there’s a growing number of ‘best’ practices, but one thing we rarely seem to question are the very credentials of the project origin itself.

Everyone from donors to project managers and technologists to journalists are keen to identify traits or patterns in ‘failed’ mobile projects. Many of their conclusions will point to poor planning, poor technology choice or lack of collaboration, but sometimes the biggest failure may have taken place long before anyone got near a mobile phone.

What I wonder is this. Do we know what ratio of “m4d” projects are initiated by development practitioners (or sectoral experts in health, agriculture, conservation and so on) as opposed to mobile technologists, and what impact does this have on the success or failure of the project? In other words, if the problem solver is primarily a mobile technologist – the “m” part of “m4d” – then you might assume they have much less understanding of the on-the-ground problem than a development practitioner or sectoral expert might – the “d” part.

Does this bear out in reality? If failure does turn out to be higher among technologists then this is a relatively easy problem to fix, whereas many of the other perceived reasons for failure are not. It’s all about getting back to basics.

(Click here for more observations on mobile development).

I’ve always maintained that the people closest to the problem have the best chance of coming up with a solution, and this probably bears out in many cases, particularly in the ICT4D field. Ushahidi, started by Kenyans to solve a Kenyan crisis – and DataDyne, a health-based data collection solution designed by a paediatrician – immediately spring to mind. In these instances, being up-close and dirty with the problem came well in advance of any technology-based solution to it. The same goes for our very own FrontlineSMS initiative, borne out of a series of visits to South Africa and Mozambique back in 2003/2004.

In any discipline, the greater the rate of innovation the greater the problem of focus, and mobile is no exception. As Bill Easterly put it in a recent post in response to questions from students about how they might help “end world poverty”:

Don’t be in such a hurry. Learn a little bit more about a specific country or culture, a specific sector, the complexities of global poverty and long run economic development. At the very least, make sure you are sound on just plain economics before deciding how you personally can contribute. Be willing to accept that your role will be specialized and small relative to the scope of the problem. Aside from all this, you probably already know better what you can do than I do

This is great advice, and not just for economists. If mobile and health is your thing, focus on health and get very good at it. If it’s mobile and agriculture, or mobile and election monitoring, do the same. Whatever your area of interest, get out and understand the issues where they matter – on the ground – and don’t get totally sidetracked by the latest trends, technologies or disciplines. Whatever the reason for your interest in ‘mobiles for development’, make sure you don’t forget the importance of understanding the ‘development’ bit.

Focus is highly underrated, and often debates around technology choice, open source, challenges of scale and “understanding your users” are distractions from a much-less discussed but equally vital question. And that’s this.

“Who’s best placed to run a successful “m4d” project – the m‘s or the d‘s?”.