When in Rome. Or Africa.

Whenever I find myself in front of a group of students, or young people aspiring to work in development, I’m usually asked to share one piece of advice with them. I usually go with this: Get out there while you can and understand the context of the people you aspire to help. As you get older the reality is that it becomes harder to travel for extended periods, or to randomly go and live overseas.

In the early days of ICT4D and m4d – and development more broadly – it may have been seen as a luxury to understand the context of your target users (many solutions were seen as “universal”, after all). Today I’d say it’s become a necessity.

In my earlier days I did a lot of travel, mostly to and around Africa. (One thing I regret never managing to do was walk across the continent, something I started tentatively planning a few years ago). As our organisation has grown and my role within it changed, I spend more time today travelling to conferences giving talks than actually doing the work. My last major piece of extended fieldwork (i.e. longer than a week) was back in the summer of 2007 when I spent a month in Uganda consulting with Grameen’s fledgling AppLab.

There’s more to it, though, than just “getting out there”. What you learn, sense, pick up and appreciate about the place you’re in and the people you’re with largely depends on the kind of traveller you are. The truth of the matter is you’ll rarely get a real sense of a place staying for just a few days in the capital city behind the walls of a four or five star hotel. Quite often the more you get out of your comfort zone the more you learn.

I’ve been hugely fortunate to have lived and worked in many countries – mostly in Africa – since I set out to work in development almost twenty years ago. And during that time I’ve developed quite a few “travel habits” to help me get the most out of my time there.

Here’s my Top 15:

1. Stay in a locally-owned or run hotel (or even better, guest house).
2. Spend as much time as possible on foot. Draw a map.
3. Get out of the city.
4. Check out the best places to watch Premiership football.
5. Ignore health warnings (within reason) and eat in local cafes/markets.
6. Buy local papers, listen to local radio, watch local TV, visit local cinemas.
7. Use public transport. Avoid being ‘chauffeured’ around.
8. Take a camera. Take your time taking pictures.
9. Go for at least a month.
10. Visit villages on market days.
11. Spend time in local bookshops, libraries and antique/art shops.
12. Read up on the history and background of where you’re going. Buy a locally-written history and geography book.
13. Be sure to experience the city on foot, at night.
14. Wherever you are, get up for a sunrise stroll. It’s a different, fascinating (and cooler) time of day.
15. Don’t over-plan. Be open to unexpected opportunities.

Finally, if you’re looking for advice on what to take on a trip to Africa, good friend Erik Hersman (aka WhiteAfrican) has an excellent post here.

Additional suggestions

Rebecca Harrison (@rhrsn on Twitter):
16. Seize any opportunity to visit homes, especially at meal times.

Anthropologists in a Global Village

Social anthropology was a discipline I was fortunate to stumble into when I headed to university way back in 1996. My main motive for going was to read Development Studies, but at Sussex you couldn’t study it as a single subject. Choices for a second ranged from English Literature to Spanish to Geography. I rather casually picked anthropology.

If I were to be honest, for much of the first year I struggled. I never could get my head around the intricacies of “Kinship, Gender and Social Reproduction”. It wasn’t until we shifted focus in the second year towards applied anthropology that it all began to fall into place. Grounding the discipline in the problems and challenges of ‘modern’ life helped frame how useful, relevant and outright interesting it could be. By the time I graduated my main two pieces of work had focused on the role of anthropologists in the creation of conservation areas and national parks, and language death (including attempts to “revive” threatened languages such as Manx and Jerriais).

When people first come across our work they usually hone straight in on the “anthropology” in the strapline. Many people seem genuinely fascinated by what anthropologists could ever be doing working in mobiles-for-development, or ICT4D more broadly. It’s a good question. This is how I answered in a recent interview with National Geographic (this is one of a number of possible answers):

How are anthropologists exploring the enormous impacts of technology in the developing world?

Today, with markets saturated in the ‘developed world’ – if we can call it that – manufacturers are increasingly turning their attention to the two billion or so consumers left on the planet who don’t yet own a phone. Many of these people sit at the “bottom of the pyramid” (BOP) as economists like to call it, and many have very different needs from a mobile phone.

Manufacturers looking to build devices for the BOP need to very carefully consider price, which is often a crucial factor for someone with very limited disposable income. They might also need to consider literacy levels, or technical ability, perhaps re-working the user interface on the phone to make it easier to use.

They might also need to consider building phones which can take multiple SIM cards, since many people in the developing world regularly switch between different networks before making calls to take advantage of special deals. And they might need to think about providing security and privacy features on the phone which allows it to be shared between family members, something else which is very common in developing countries.

Understanding what these users might need or want from a phone needs time in the field, and researchers need to immerse themselves in the consumer, their lives and their phone usage patterns. Often it’s simply a case of patient, participant observation rather than just going in asking a bunch of questions, and anthropologists are particularly well suited to this kind of work.

Back in the summer of 2008 I was approached by researchers from the Department of Anthropology at the University of North Texas. They were working on a book chapter which looked at how anthropologists were contributing to the development of technologies that addressed the challenges of globalisation. Their focus was principally on consumer uses of technology, not organisational, and how anthropologists were melding theory and practice in the technology space, or “Global Village”.

After much work, that book – “Applying Anthropology in the Global Village” – is about to hit the shelves. For anyone interested in how anthropology can be usefully applied in the modern world, this is a must-read. kiwanja’s early work which lead to the development of FrontlineSMS is featured in the chapter on “Localising the Global in Technology Design”.

A comment from one of the reviewers sums up the book’s contribution well:

Once in a generation comes a shift in the practice of anthropology, or perhaps a shift in our perspective on the place of practice in the discipline and in the world.  Here is a harbinger of such change – the book we have all been waiting for – taking us to the cutting-edge of an anthropological practice that is ‘globalised’, hybridised with other disciplines, technology-infused, and on the go 24/7. A remarkable collection, this volume provides prospective and retrospective views of the agglomerative power of anthropology in the halls of global practice – influencing policy on global climate change, gendering our knowledge of mobility around the world, explaining the reason for technology ‘grey markets’ in developing nations, revealing the concept of ‘plastic time’ and so much more. It will challenge what you thought you knew about ‘applied anthropology’

Although nothing as grand as a book, there are a few posts here covering anthropology and it’s increasing relevance in the ICT4D/m4d sector. There’s a general introduction here, a few additional resources here and an anthropology ‘category’ here.

If you’re interested in working in ICT4D and would rather focus on the “D”, you could do a lot worse than study anthropology. This book could well be the perfect place to start.

The dollar-a-week “mobile challenge”

Some people go on long walks. Some climb mountains. Others run marathons or go for weeks without smoking, drinking alcohol or watching television. There are many ways to raise money for charity these days, although many don’t have a direct connection with the area of focus of the charity itself. Even less put the fundraiser in the shoes of the target audience the charity’s very existence seeks to help.

Trying to live off a couple of dollars a day is an exception. Starting yesterday, thousands of people across the UK started doing just that – living off £1 (approximately $2) a day for a total of five days. That needs to cover all their food and drink needs. According to Live Below The Line, they’re doing this to:

get a better understanding of the challenges faced by people living in extreme poverty, and to raise funds for crucial anti-poverty initiatives

One friend who will be shortly joining the challenge is Laurie Lee, Deputy Director of Policy & Advocacy at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. You can follow Laurie’s progress on Twitter, along with Live Below The Line’s own updates. There can be few better ways of helping people understand the challenge hundreds of millions of people around the world face than to put them in a similar position or predicament.

So, it got me thinking… I wonder what the equivalent challenge might be in the mobiles-for-development sector?

Some time last year we passed a critical point in the history of mobile when more people on the planet started owning one than not. Projected penetration and ownership rates vary, but within the next year or two we’ll be over the five billion mark, which is quite incredible.

Of course, ownership alone doesn’t tell the whole story. The hundreds of millions of people having to eek a living off a couple of dollars a day are not only trying to buy food and water for them and their families. They’re also trying to save to send their kids to school, to buy medicine, to keep a roof over their heads. In the context of their phone ownership, they also need to find extra cash to keep their phone charged, and to keep it topped up, usable and functional. There is already growing evidence which highlights the tough decisions mobile owners are having to make when balancing a restricted household budget.

So, what would an equivalent “$2 a day” challenge look like for mobile? Well, for a start we’d have to calculate the average telecommunications spend for an average mobile owner in a developing country. Without specific data to hand, I’m going to take a stab at $1 per week. If I were to cancel my mobile contract today and move to pre-pay, how would I manage with that kind of budget, and what decisions would I have to make on a daily basis before hitting “Send”, “OK” or “Dial” on my phone?

Let me take another stab at some of the things I’d likely have to do.

Service costs
For the first time I’d need to read up and make sure I fully understood all of the price plans and offers from each of the mobile operators in the UK. Right now I have no idea, because I’ve never needed to know. If I’m to maximise my $1 per week I need to know under which conditions which operator will be cheapest.

SIM choice
I’d need to go out and acquire one SIM card for each of those operators, and get used to swapping it in and out on a regular basis before making calls, sending texts, tweeting, checking emails, and so on in order to maximise my budget. Ideally I’d have a phone which takes multiple SIM cards to make this all slightly less painful, only they’re not available where I live.

Configuration
Assuming I’m able to access the Internet and can afford to (see “Web challenges” below), whenever I do switch SIM cards I’d need to learn how to change the WAP/Web configuration settings on the phone (which are network dependent). This can be a challenge at the best of times, and even more so for less technical users.

Web challenges
Assuming my phone and SIM are data enabled, I’d be able to access the Internet. Only problem is I have very little idea what the costs would be. Right now, with my generous browsing allowance, I can pop onto Twitter or read the news, but if I had to pay for each page view or chunk of downloaded data, how would I know what the costs are ahead of time? Again, I’d need to make a conscious decision whether or not I could afford the luxury, and confusion over data costs could easily (and quickly) be the death of me.

My friends and family network
I’d need to make sure I knew which network each friend and family member were on, so I’d know which SIM to switch to before making a call, or texting (same-network calls or texts are cheaper in many countries). And with many of these contacts also likely having multiple SIM cards, I’d need to be confident that I could manage a complex address book.

To call, tweet, text – or not call, tweet or text?
Before making a call, or sending an SMS, I’d need to make a conscious decision whether or not I could afford it, and weigh up any cost with the anticipated benefit. Gone would be the days of having the luxury of thousands of minutes and texts to ‘waste’ away.

Battery
I’d need to put aside a few pence per week to cover the cost of charging (electricity isn’t free), depending on how much I used the phone. If charging costs were prohibitive then I’d need to make sure my phone was off when I didn’t need it (or wasn’t expecting a call) in order to maximise the time between charges.

Flashing and beeping
If I did need to contact someone urgently, and assuming I was okay with them being burdened with the call cost, I could “flash” or “beep” them (ring their phone a couple of times, and hang up and wait for a call back). Since there’s no real culture of this where I live, I’m not sure if it would work, and if the person I was calling was also short of credit, we could have a stalemate. (For an excellent article on the culture of flashing and beeping, check out this Jonathan Donner article).

Calling codes
For short, regular messages – “I’m at work okay”, “I’ve got the shopping” or “Leaving now” – I’d possibly need to devise a system where I could ring a recipient phone and use a set number of rings (or sequence of missed calls) to relay the message. I’d need to come up with a range of “survival strategies” in order to protect my phone credit.

Regardless of how well I did, one thing is abundantly clear – me and my phone would have a very different kind of relationship than we do today, and I’d certainly have to be a lot better organised than I am now. Both of those could, of course, be seen as a good thing.

If anyone else has any other “survival strategies” I’ve missed, please let me know (there are bound to be many). Either way, this would be a fascinating exercise, and well worth a try if anyone’s interested in putting themselves in the shoes of many mobile phone owners throughout the developing world.

National Geographic: Interview

The following interview“Solving eco challenges with grassroots messaging” – was given to the National Geographic website last autumn. It’s republished here after it turned out to be one of the most comprehensive to date – covering everything from the role of anthropology in mobiles-for-development, the environmental impact of mobile phones and the thinking behind FrontlineSMS. If you’re after a general overview of kiwanja’s work and work ethic, this is the best place to start.

“National Geographic Emerging Explorer Ken Banks is an anthropologist, conservationist, and mobile technology innovator who built a communications platform to empower grassroots organizations throughout the developing world. FrontlineSMS solves critical communication problems by enabling cell phone users to exchange mass message information without access to the internet – or even constant electricity.

His kiwanja.net organization strives to provide nonprofits around the globe with the mobile technology tools to enact meaningful change.

Ken Banks Interviewed by Brian Handwerk

How are anthropologists exploring the enormous impacts of technology in the developing world?

Today, with markets saturated in the ‘developed world’ – if we can call it that – manufacturers are increasingly turning their attention to the two billion or so consumers left on the planet who don’t yet own a phone. Many of these people sit at the “bottom of the pyramid” (BOP) as economists like to call it, and many have very different needs from a mobile phone.

Manufacturers looking to build devices for the BOP need to very carefully consider price, which is often a crucial factor for someone with very limited disposable income. They might also need to consider literacy levels, or technical ability, perhaps re-working the user interface on the phone to make it easier to use.

They might also need to consider building phones which can take multiple SIM cards, since many people in the developing world regularly switch between different networks before making calls to take advantage of special deals. And they might need to think about providing security and privacy features on the phone which allows it to be shared between family members, something else which is very common in developing countries.

Understanding what these users might need or want from a phone needs time in the field, and researchers need to immerse themselves in the consumer, their lives and their phone usage patterns. Often it’s simply a case of patient, participant observation rather than just going in asking a bunch of questions, and anthropologists are particularly well suited to this kind of work.

You’ve written about the environmental impact of four billion phones in “The Mobile Revolution’s Hidden Cost“. On the positive side, how can mobile technology help us find solutions to the world’s eco problems or help make our use of the world more sustainable?

Interestingly enough I started out my career in mobile working for a conservation organization -Fauna & Flora International – back in 2003. A couple of far-sighted individuals there were beginning to ask these very questions.

Mobile technology is proving increasingly useful to conservationists and environmentalists around the world. In addition to bringing down the cost of traditionally expensive animal tracking initiatives (which relied largely on satellite technology), mobile phones are also being used to provide alerts to communities living on the edges of national parks, helping mitigate against human/wildlife conflict. Phones and PDAs can be used in the field as data collection tools, replacing note pads and allowing teams of researchers to gather and share data simultaneously. Photos can be taken of incidences of poaching and transmitted to the Internet, or evidence of chemical or oil spills recorded with a specific location and then uploaded to a map.

On the consumer side of things, people can now check their carbon footprint or monitor their energy use via their mobile phone, or verify that products in shops are being produced sustainably. People can even look up details of a fish they’re about to order in a restaurant and check its conservation status. A project I worked on some years ago, called wildlive!, was designed to try to connect people with conservation projects through their phones, and provided images, animal sounds, conservation-themed games, and live news and field diaries to subscribers.

In short, mobile phones can have a positive impact both in the field in the hands of people doing the conservation work, or in the hands of the general public interested in keeping up-to-date and informed on environmental issues. But there’s a lot more we can do with the increasing numbers of always-on, always-connected mobile devices people are carrying around with them today.

What led to the birth of FrontlineSMS?

FrontlineSMS, which takes up the bulk of my time these days, was the first independent kiwanja.net initiative, and its roots are in conservation, funnily enough. I was working in Bushbuckridge, an area which straddles Kruger National Park in South Africa, helping with a Fauna & Flora International project.

One element of the Kruger work was to try and identify a system which South African National Parks (SANParks) could use to send text messages to Bushbuckridge community members. The authorities wanted to re-engage people into the conservation effort, keep them updated on park matters, ask their opinions on decisions which would impact them, arrange meetings, send wildlife alerts, and so on. Part of my role was to identify a system they could use to do this. After a considerable search, though, I could only find mass messaging tools which worked off the Internet. Back in 2004, it wasn’t possible to just jump on the Internet around Kruger National Park, so all of these solutions proved totally inappropriate.


Photo of women queuing for water in Bushbuckridge. By Ken Banks

It wasn’t until a year later that the idea of creating a mass messaging system which ran off a laptop computer and attached mobile phone came to me. By sending and receiving the messages through the phone, the need for the Internet was removed. It really is very simple, but at the time nothing like this existed. I had a hunch that there were likely many organizations out there that wanted to send messages to people in places where there was no Internet, so I raised a small amount of money and bought a laptop, some manuals, some phones and modems and cables, and spent five weeks over the summer of 2005 writing a prototype of FrontlineSMS on a kitchen table in Finland. I built a website for it, and in October that year released it to the world. What’s happened since has been pretty amazing.


Photo of a typical FrontlineSMS set-up. By Ken Banks

You had thoughts about how people might use FrontlineSMS, but it’s designed as a tool for people to create their own applications. What cool things have people done that really surprised you?

When you consider its conservation roots, the number of different areas where NGOs have applied the software has been staggering.

In Aceh, UNDP and Mercy Corps have used FrontlineSMS to send market prices and other agricultural data to smallholder rural coffee farmers. In Iraq it is being used by the country’s first independent news agency – Aswat al Iraq – to disseminate news to eight countries, and in Afghanistan it is helping keep NGO fieldworkers safe through the distribution of security alerts. In Zimbabwe, the software has been used extensively by a number of human rights organizations including Kubatana.net, and in Nigeria and the Philippines it helped monitor national elections. In Malawi, FrontlineSMS has generated considerable interest in the m-health sector where a project started by Josh Nesbit, a Stanford University student, is helping run a rural healthcare network for 250,000 people. That project has since become an organization of its own, FrontlineSMS:Medic.

FrontlineSMS was used by bloggers in Pakistan during the recent state of emergency to get news safely out of the country, and in the recent Azerbaijani elections it helped mobilize the youth vote. It is being used in Kenya to report breakages in fences caused by elephants, and is now running the Overseas Filipino Workers (OFW-SOS) emergency help line, allowing workers to receive immediate assistance in case of personal emergency. It has also been deployed in the DRC as part of the Ushahidi platform to collect violence reports via SMS, and been used by Grameen Technology Centre in Uganda to communicate with the Village Phone network. Projects in Cambodia and El Salvador have used it to help create transparency in agricultural markets, and Survivors Connect is using it in a number of countries to run anti-trafficking reporting systems among vulnerable communities.

All of this activity is user-driven and user-dictated. FrontlineSMS provides the tools necessary for people to create their own projects that make a difference. It empowers innovators and organizers in the developing world to achieve their full potential through their own ingenuity.

Why the focus on small grassroots organizations? They lack funds, staff, and technology, but what are their advantages?

The majority of my early conservation and development work, going back to 1993, was with small, local NGOs. It became very clear to me that many were punching well above their weight in terms of how much they delivered versus the resources and funding they had. At the same time, much of this work was going largely unnoticed. Why, for example, would you ever get to hear about some community project in Zambia working to empower women?

For the past 17 years, I’ve lived and worked in many African countries, and remain focused on the grassroots side of things to this day. It’s a place where much of the latest high-tech gadgetry we develop and promote has little chance of working due to a lack of the Internet, funding, technical expertise, and so on.

If you asked me to describe them in general terms, I’d say most grassroots organizations are generally small, extremely dedicated, run low-cost high-impact interventions, work on local issues with relatively modest numbers of local people, and are staffed by community members who have first-hand experience of the problems they’re trying to solve. What they lack in tools, resources, and funds they more than make up with a deep understanding of the local landscape – not just geographically, but also the language, culture, and daily challenges of the people. This is crucially important and is something often overlooked.

Is your ultimate vision one of providing the tools to let one person make a positive change in his or her own corner of the world?

Absolutely. We need to build tools which allow anyone with a passion to see it out, to promote it and share it and make a success of it. Let’s not forget, global environmental and social issues aren’t just the concern of large (or small) non-profits or activist groups – we’re all concerned about them. If someone watches a National Geographic program in their bedroom on seal hunting and feels compelled to campaign against it, for example, they should have access to all the tools necessary to campaign and help put a stop to it. For that, we need to make media tools easy to use, accessible, low-cost, and so on.

When we talk about sustainability, we need to also think about human sustainability. If we’re to have any chance of ongoing success with some of the more pressing problems of our time, then we need to attract the brightest young minds to the field and give them all the support they need to keep them there. Empowerment isn’t just something we do in a distant land. There’s plenty we can be doing on our own doorstep. It’s a different kind of empowerment, but that doesn’t make it less valuable.”

Further information
Watch a 15 minute video of a presentation made at National Geographic in Washington DC (June 2010)