With innovation, less can be more.

If your technology solution turns out to be more complicated than the actual problem you’re trying to solve then you’ve probably fallen into the “over-engineering” trap. The temptation to try to be all things to all people, or to cram in as much functionality as possible, can be the death of many technology-based projects.

In the world of innovation, interesting things happen if you train yourself to “think lean”. In the examples below, less is not only more – it’s the secret to success. Google looked at rivals and stripped back their home page, leaving the one vital component – the search box. Blogger, originally a component of a much larger information management platform called Pyra, was spun out after it proved the most useful feature. And Twitter took one small part of Facebook – the status update – and revolutionised how many of us communicate online.

Search engines

From: Yahoo!’s “all things to all people”

To: Google’s simple search

Management/publishing

From: Pyra’s holistic project management platform
(ValleySpeak screenshot indicative only)

To: Blogger’s simple publishing tool

Social media

From: Facebook’s rich timeline

To: Twitter’s simple status update

The lesson? Strip back your idea, get to the essence of what it is you’re trying to do, and drop the clutter. Focus is king.

FrontlineSMS at Google Zeitgeist

“The power to make a positive difference in society lies in all our hands – businesses, governments and individuals. How have advances in technology and social media altered the balance of power between the state and individuals in driving change? What can business and government leaders learn from inspiring individuals who persevere against all odds to bring about lasting improvement?”

These were just a few questions being asked at Google Zeitgeist 2010, an invitation-only event held earlier this month in a country retreat outside London. The Panel consisted of:

Howard Schultz (Chairman, President & CEO, Starbucks)
Ken Banks (Founder, kiwanja.net and FrontlineSMS)
Minouche Shafik (Permanent Secretary, DFID UK)
Jessica Jackley (Co-Founder, Kiva)

The session was moderated by Chrystia Freeland, the Global Editor-at-Large for Reuters.

Further videos are available from the Google Zeitgeist Channel on YouTube.

Searching where Google can’t

“We read a lot about the delivery, and popularity, of SMS services such as market prices, health advice and job alerts in developing countries, information there is clearly a need for. Only last week Grameen’s AppLab initiative, in conjunction with Google and MTN, launched a suite of SMS services in Uganda. These are the services you’ll get to hear most about when you search the Web, trawl the blogosphere and attend various conferences on the subject. It all seems pretty sewn up on the content side – I mean, what else could people earning a few dollars a day (at most) possibly want?”.

Question Box. Photo courtesy Rose Shuman

kiwanja’s latest PC World article takes a look at an exciting and innovative project which started out in India but is now spreading to Africa – Question Box – which takes the internet to places where Google is yet to reach.

Students to debut FrontlineSMS on Android?

CS210 is a project-based Computer Science Innovation & Development course at Stanford University where students work with faculty and staff to build on the spirit of innovation and excellence at Stanford and the larger Silicon Valley area. As part of the course this year, Karina Qian and David Gobaud are working with the Computer Science Department and the Haas Center for Public Service to create Masters and Senior project classes. Here, Karina talks about one project which hopes to create a Google Android version of kiwanja’s FrontlineSMS system

Students in CS210 usually collaborate with corporate liaisons on software challenges presented by global corporations that require innovation. Teams take projects from concept to completion, which includes defining requirements, iterating through ideas and prototypes and, ultimately, producing a finished work product. To reflect the growing importance of collaboration with the NGO sector, David Gobaud and I are working on allowing students to collaborate with non-profits on software challenges that require innovation, and would expose a new generation of programmers to the possibilities available in applying technology to social problems.

In CS210, a team of 3+ creative, bright Stanford Master’s level Computer Science (CS) students tackle one project over two quarters – for a total of six months – starting in January. The final product will be showcased at the Stanford Software Faire held in June.

Right now a group of students are interested in a project that would build a comprehensive all-mobile mass text-messaging program on Android. (For those of you interested in the technical detail, students would essentially impose a REST architecture on top of SMS, basically using SMS as a form of HTTP. Each SMS message would represent a 160 character mini-webpage that would serve as an information architecture for any kind of project, from election-monitoring to rapid disaster relief).

As a first step the project would involve porting FrontlineSMS and other, existing mass text-messaging platforms (like InSTEDD’s GeoChat) onto Android. The program would then be expanded to create a larger suite of features that would also allow users to process, manage, and respond to data using different software and display data using varying web-based interfaces. It would be open source, allowing users to adapt the program by mashing in other applications as needed.

This project would create a cheaper, more flexible, and more adaptable platform for managing SMS by virtually eliminating the need for computers, and even Internet, in the field. Large chunks of crowd-sourced data can be aggregated in a server in the urban areas, and uploaded onto the web for dissemination and/or further parsing. Crucially, users will no longer need computers to set up a mass SMS platform, only an Android-enabled phone and a phone plan with (unlimited) text messages. The decreased cost of operating SMS-based networks would have a significant impact on non-profit mobile projects.

The class is a great opportunity for a team of 3+ software engineers to devote themselves to the completion of this project for twenty weeks. Students would work in consultation with InSTEDD and FrontlineSMS. However, despite being a non-profit project, the class is primarily directed toward industry and this requires an unrestricted donation of $75,000. We are actively seeking funding to cover this. Thank you.

Karina Qian is co-founder of techY, a Stanford on-campus initiative which aims to engage students in global NGO technology issues

If you, or anyone you know, is interested in helping fund this innovative and exciting project, please contact Ken Banks through the kiwanja.net website. (FrontlineSMS has already been integrated into a human rights monitoring system in the Philippines – blog post pending – and work continues on its integration into the new Ushahidi crowdsourcing platform. Further work is pending on a number of other projects, including with the team at InSTEDD)