Mobile as exploration

It was early evening, 14th October, last year. I’d just received the email completely out of the blue. I’d had a long day in London, and was staying over for an early start the following morning. The email was from National Geographic, and it carried news that I’d been named an “Emerging Explorer“. Of course, I thought it was spam.

Because the nomination and selection process for these Awards are entirely confidential, I still don’t know to this day who nominated me. Not only that, but I also had to get my head around what on earth my work had to do with exploration. The email wasn’t spam, after all.

On reflection, it was a very bold move by the Selection Committee. Almost all of the other Emerging Explorers are either climbing, diving, scaling, digging or building, and what I do hardly fits into your typical adventurer job description. But in a way it does. As mobile technology continues its global advance, figuring out ways of applying the technology in socially and environmentally meaningful ways is a kind of 21st century exploring. The public reaction to the Award has been incredible, and once people see the connection they tend to think differently about tools like FrontlineSMS and their place in the world.

The Awards were made during “Explorers Week” in Washington DC in June. You can watch my 15 minute presentation (above), or read a short blog post of thoughts from the start of the week. We’ve also recently begun a new series on the National Geographic website – “Mobile Message” – designed to help spread the word on what mobile technology means for the developing world.

It was a huge honour to be the first mobile innovator to be named a National Geographic Emerging Explorer. With the incredible progress being made by many other friends and colleagues, I’m confident I won’t be the last…

Reflections on eight years in mobile

It was exactly eight years ago that I hesitantly took my first steps into the fledgling world of “mobiles for development”. It was December 2002, and Vodafone live! was the platform I would develop on. I was filled with self doubt. Not only had I never done any technical development with mobiles before, I also had little idea how phones might be used to solve social and environmental problems around the world. To be honest, few people did, and that was probably the reason I got the job.

Much of the latter half of that December was spent meticulously studying the limited range of Vodafone live! handsets. The very idea of cameras, colour screens, music, video, web access and downloadable games on phones was still pretty new back then, and I’d never even owned a handset with that kind of functionality before, let alone tried to build a service on top of one.

Much has changed over the past eight years. Not only have mobiles got one heck of a lot smarter, but there are a couple of billion more out there, and they’ve become a useful tool in the fight against all manner of worldly ills. “Mobiles for development” (m4d) has also matured somewhat as a discipline, and if my original job back in 2002 was advertised today there would likely be hundreds – maybe thousands – of applicants.

All-in-all it’s been a fascinating, action-packed eight years, and a journey I never expected to be on. As I look back and reflect, here are a few of the highlights.


Most of my first year in mobile was spent trying to understand how they could be used to promote international conservation efforts. Eleven months working closely with the Vodafone team and many of the staff at Fauna & Flora International (FFI) culminated in the launch of wildlive! in December 2003 at FFI’s centenary celebrations at the Natural History Museum in London. This innovative new service combined conservation news with live field diaries and downloadable ringtones, wallpapers and games, which we’d developed all from scratch. Over £100,000 was generated through wildlive! in the first year, and throughout 2004 it was localised and rolled out in several additional European countries. Sadly, due to management restructuring and a shift in focus the following year, the service was shut down. A painful lesson.

(Interestingly, the “Silverback” game (which we later relaunched after a series of gorilla killings in the DRC in 2007) was designed and developed my Masabi, a UK-based company who, four years later, would re-write the early version of FrontlineSMS).


Between work on wildlive!, a colleague and I were dispatched to South Africa and Mozambique to try and understand how mobile technology was being applied to conservation and development in the developing world. Over 2o03 and 2004 we made several trips, working with numerous local FFI partners, and in the process made one of the earliest attempts to try and document the emerging “m4d” field. It’s quite fascinating reading even today, not just because so much has changed but also because so much hasn’t. The report – “Mobile Phones: An Appropriate Tool for Conservation and Development?” – can be downloaded in full from the kiwanja Mobile Database here.


This year began innocently enough, but was to prove pivotal because of the birth of FrontlineSMS. It was a few months after my final field trip to South Africa and Mozambique when I was sitting at home when the idea for the software first struck. I had already come across countless grassroots NGOs on my travels who were thinking about how they could use mobile phones in their work, yet there was no simple, out-of-the-box system they could easily deploy.

There were a number of reasons for this, but the idea behind FrontlineSMS seemed to solve all of them. Build a messaging system which could run without the need for the Internet, make it simple to use, design it so that NGOs could deploy it themselves with little or no technical skills, and make it free. Despite only a small amount of private funding, in October 2005 – after a five week software development cycle on a kitchen table in Finland FrontlineSMS was released to the world.

2006, 2007

Shortly after the very low-key launch, I was contacted by someone at Stanford University who was himself beginning to experiment with SMS messaging hubs. Erik Sundelof and I became friends over the proceeding months, and he encouraged me to follow him and apply for a Fellowship at the Reuters Digital Vision Programme. It took a couple of tries, but I got in that year and headed out to Palo Alto in the late summer of 2006.

Stanford gave me the platform I needed to accelerate my work – and my thinking – around mobile technology and development. I was able to attend lectures, meet academics and give talks throughout campus, and use the Stanford connection to open doors which had previously been well-and-truly shut.

My time at Stanford University was also notable on a more personal level in that it gave me my first proper chance to own a VW Camper, something I’d dreamed of for years. It also doubled as my home, and my global HQ, and saved me a fortune in rent. Selling it was one of the hardest things I’d have to do. On a more positive note, my time at Stanford coincided with the first big break for FrontlineSMS when it was used to help citizens report on the Nigerian elections, and that lead to our first major grant – $200,000 – courtesy of the MacArthur Foundation. Later that summer I also randomly met Josh Nesbit for the first time, a young human biology major who was to help take FrontlineSMS off in a whole new direction.

2008, 2009

On June 25th, 2008, a new and improved version of FrontlineSMS was released, along with a new website and \o/ logo (courtesy of Wieden+Kennedy). By this time FrontlineSMS was becoming firmly established as a tool with potential (we were yet to fully understand what that potential was, mind you) and funding and media attention began to flow. In late 2008 we received a second significant grant, this time $400,000 from the Hewlett Foundation. The Open Society Institute (OSI) also stepped in with some valuable funds to help tide us over during a tricky few months.

Finally, as 2009 drew to a close, FrontlineSMS won a prestigious “Tech Award“.


This year has seen no let-up, and from humble beginnings FrontlineSMS has become a full-time job. As the new year dawned we received a grant of $150,000 from the Rockefeller Foundation to help strengthen capacity, and the Omidyar Network came in over the summer with a $350,000 grant to help with organisational development. Our team now stands at eight strong over three continents, and FrontlineSMS has been downloaded over 11,000 times by NGOs in well over 60 countries.

This year draws to a close with an exciting new collaboration with National Geographic, who earlier in the year rewarded us for our work. The “Mobile Message” is a series of articles which will be published on the Nat Geo News Watch site, aimed at taking news of the ‘mobile revolution’ to a new audience.

It’s hard to believe that eight years have passed, and that for the past five I’ve been focusing almost solely on the simple text message. No doubt 2011 will be the ninth year I hear a “death of SMS” prediction. If my experience is anything to go by, there’s plenty of life left in the old dog yet.

To see what happens over the next eight years, watch this space.

Spreading the “Mobile Message”

Over the past year or so, it’s become increasingly clear to us that we need to take the “mobile message” out of its technology silo and make it more available – and accessible – to a wider audience. This was the thinking behind our regular series on PC World, and is the thinking behind a new series we’re launching today in collaboration with National Geographic.

The “Mobile Message” is aimed at a broad audience, but most importantly people who would never likely visit a mobile-specific site. Recent talks at Communicate – aimed at conservationists – and Nat Geo Live! – aimed at the general public – have convinced us even more that we need to stop just talking among ourselves and take the message out to more mainstream, broader audiences.

According to the first “Mobile Message” posted today:

“Over the next few months we will delve into the human stories behind the growth of mobile technology in the developing world. We’ll take a closer look at the background and thinking behind FrontlineSMS, and hear from a number of users applying it to very real social and environmental problems in their communities. We will also hear thoughts and insights from other key mobile innovators in the field, from anthropologists to technologists to local innovators.”

You can read the rest of the introductory post on the National Geographic website here.