And the winners are…

Most of my ideas come on trains and buses. nGOmobile was no exception. The 1645 Kings Cross to Cambridge train was responsible this time around, after I’d spent the day getting ‘processed’ by the American Embassy in London. It only seems like yesterday that we launched the competition, and yet here we are, five months and over seventy entries later, with the four winners.

It’s been a fascinating exercise. We have projects from Kenya, Uganda, Mexico and Azerbaijan looking to work with local communities to promote the protection and sustainable use of environmental resources; another planning to launch an SMS-based service for rural communities allowing them to ask a range of water-based questions on topics such as sanitation, hygiene, water harvesting, and water technologies; one seeking to help rural Central American and Mexican communities solve problems of deforestation, poverty, malnutrition, unemployment and the marginalisation of women; and another seeking to help grassroots and politically excluded people understand their human and legal rights, and to engage them further in the political process.

nGOmobile is a text message-based competition aimed exclusively and unashamedly at grassroots non-profit organisations working for positive social and environmental change throughout the developing world. Non-profits were asked to send in proposals on how they sought to use mobile technology, with the top entries getting laptops, modems, phones, software and cash to enable them to implement the work.

It was tough turning down so many other amazing and worthy entries, and the hope among all the Judges is that we can scale this further and provide further prizes and opportunities when we re-run the competition in the coming months. Mobile World Congress has been a great platform to announce and profile the winners, and there is widespread interest in what nGOmobile is trying to achieve. For a project which only took five weeks and $20 to set up – I couldn’t get anyone to donate the URL – it’s a great example how it needn’t take months and cost thousands of dollars to get a project up and running. Rapid prototyping is a strong theme in all my work.

Last night I introduced the four winners to each other, and they’ve already started sharing their stories and experiences via email. In the next couple of weeks we will profile these projects in more detail on the competition website, and begin to plan ahead. It’s very early days, but the potential positive social and environmental impact of nGOmobile is there for all to see…

When actions DO speak louder than words

Winston Churchill once famously remarked that it was “better to be making the news than taking it. To be an actor rather than a critic”. But there are times when this simplifies, and trivialises, the complementary roles that ‘actors’ and ‘critics’ can play. Half-a-century on, modern technology has empowered ‘critics’ in ways Churchill could never have imagined.

In 1984 a BBC news crew, accompanied by reporter Michael Bourke, travelled to Ethiopia and brought news of a growing humanitarian crisis to the worlds’ attention. “A biblical famine in the 20th Century” and “The closest thing to hell on Earth” was how he described it. The international community were shocked into action, and the following summer saw Live Aid – Bob Geldof’s massive mobilisation of the music industry which helped raise hundreds of millions for the famine victims. Michael Bourke – ‘critic’ turned ‘actor’.

Today, modern-day blogging is creating mini-Michael Bourke’s the world over. Human rights violations, environmental vandalism, political killings, oppression against citizens, animal cruelty and unlawful detentions make the news from all corners of the globe, made possible by brave souls empowered by mobile and internet technologies. The line between ‘actor’ and ‘critic’ is becoming increasingly blurred, if it exists at all anymore. Recent events in Kenya – which have spurned the creation of Ushahidi.com – is a perfect case in point.

A few short days ago, good friend Erik Hersman (who Blogs as the widely read and highly respected White African) aired his frustration at the lack of news coming out of the country from the man and woman on the street. In “It’s Not About Us, It’s About Them“, Erik noted:

“While blogging, emails, Twitter and the internet are doing a great deal of good getting the news out of what’s going on in Kenya to the rest of the world, I find myself troubled. You see, the communication that needs to be happening is at the grassroots level. Everyday Kenyans do not have access to any of these services. Let’s put our minds and capabilities towards solving real problems for people beyond the technologically elite”

True to his word, just five days later saw the launch of Ushahidi.com, a site which allows Kenyans to report acts of violence via the web and SMS, incidents which are then aggregated with other reports and displayed on a map. Ushahidi – which means “witness” in Kiswahili – provides an avenue for everyday Kenyans to get their news out, and news of its launch has been widely hailed in the mainstream press (and the Blogosphere, funnily enough). Putting Ushahidi together is a textbook study in rapid prototyping and collaboration, and Erik takes a huge amount of credit for blurring the ‘actor’ and ‘critic’ distinction yet further by pulling his finger out and actually doing something. As he says, when all the dust settles in Kenya, he doesn’t want to be one of the ones saying “I should have done something”.

From a personal perspective, Bloggers such as Erik have been hugely supportive of kiwanja’s work, without which there would have been little chance of initiatives such as FrontlineSMS and nGOmobile ever getting off the ground. nGOmobile alone has generated interest from over seventy grassroots NGOs, all of whom are now in with a chance of winning equipment to run their own text messaging services. FrontlineSMS has empowered NGOs in over forty countries from all corners of the globe. Essential to this has been a dedicated band of supporters, including White African, ZapBoom, Tactical Tech, ShareIdeas, Textually.org, Ore’s Notes, Total Tactics, Black Looks, Saidia.org and 160Characters, among many others.

Whether or not we’re ‘actors’ or ‘critics’ – and whether or not it really matters – we all have a valuable role to play. Ushahidi shows us just how valuable that role can be.

Ring, ring… The grassroots is calling

One thing I really enjoy about kiwanja’s work is how it encourages NGOs to come up with their own solutions to their own problems, how it focuses on the grassroots and how it seeks to help those organisations looking to help themselves. While other initiatives appear more interested in what people are doing with technology, a large part of what interests me is how we empower organisations who aren’t there yet – those that have the ideas but lack the capacity to see those ideas through. For example, for every NGO using mobile technology in their work there are dozens, if not hundreds, who aren’t.


I’ve been fortunate over the past few weeks to be involved in the judging of a couple of competitions, and by far the most enjoyable has been nGOmobile (and not because it’s one of my own projects). While other competitions are largely dominated by industry players and middle- and heavyweight NGOs, nGOmobile has been unashamedly aimed at the small guy. Having spent a lot of time living and working in the developing world, I remain convinced that one of the best ways to solve many of the chronic problems in these countries is through grassroots empowerment. As William Easterly points out in The White Man’s Burden – a topic I blogged about in the summer – development’s traditional ‘top down’ approach has had little tangible return on its hundreds of billions (or trillions?) of dollars investment.

One of the really nice things about nGOmobile is that NGOs get the chance to win a prize based on what they’re going to do, rather than what they’ve done. While this makes the competition a little unique, it does make it more of a challenge from an organisational point of view.

The competition was launched in October, and ran for three months. Getting news out to grassroots NGOs, many of whom struggle with their own connectivity issues, was never going to be easy. But thanks to some fantastic support from other mobile-related sites and bloggers, including White African, ZapBoom, Tactical Tech, ShareIdeas, Textually.org, Nokia, Ore’s Notes, Total Tactics, Black Looks, Saidia.org and 160Characters, news broke fast, and a feature on the BBC World Service Digital Planet programme made a big impact. By the time the competition closed over seventy NGOs had submitted entries. Other, higher-profile and bigger-budget, better-established ICT competitions would have been happy to hit anywhere near that.

Analysing the results of the competition makes fascinating reading, as did my first analysis of FrontlineSMS usage last month. What we’ve done, in essence, is taken the pulse of the grassroots NGO community. Where are they working? What is their focus? What concerns them? How would they solve a problem? How would mobile technology make their lives easier? What would the impact be if they had it? The pie chart above does indeed tell an interesting story.

Health-related work came out on top at 19% – perhaps not a huge surprise – but conservation, running it close at 18%? That was a surprise. The conservation community has been a little slower than most to grasp the benefits of mobile technology, but it looks as though things are beginning to change. The human rights community has been increasingly active in this area, with sites such as ICT4Peace and New Tactics taking a lead, and agriculture- and fisheries- related projects have been responsible for some of the higher-profile mobile-based solutions, including Manobi, TradeNet and the 2006 WSIS Award winner, East African Fish Auctions. Entries in the competition reflect this.

Interest in nGOmobile among the blogging community, grassroots NGOs and the mobile industry has been fantastic, and discussions are already underway on ways to scale the competition in 2008 and increase its own – and the winners – profile. It’s incredible to think that it was only launched four months ago.

The grassroots were given the opportunity to speak. And boy, are they calling

Hat-trick on the BBC World Service

My latest initiative – nGOmobile – was featured this week on the BBC World Service “Digital Planet” series which reports on technology stories from around the world. This is the third time kiwanja has been featured on the program. Nokia’s Head of Social Investment for Africa and the Middle East, Micheline Ntiru – who is on the competition judging panel – joined me in discussing the project with Bill Thompson (another judge!) and Gareth Mitchell. A Podcast of the program is available via the “Digital Planet” website or the interview segment here (8Mb, MP3)