In the fast-moving social mobile space, keeping up with developments can be a tricky affair. For every initiative we unpick, examine and discuss there are dozens more which never end up gracing the pages of the world wide web, or are never profiled at conferences or in magazines, books or other ICT4D publications.
Understanding what technology is used, how it is deployed and what impact it has is only a small part of it, of course. People also want stories, context and personal experiences, too. Many of the great conference presentations I've listened to have had that, and back in January this year the editors of Vodafone receiver came to me looking for it.
"Your kiwanja.net work is intriguing, and we are big fans of the mobile gallery. Because pictures like that of the Bodafone, the Kampala Mobile Repair Shop, The Uganda Village Repair Sign and many others convey such a lively impression of the context in which mobile technology is used, we'd like to suggest to go for a picture story that highlights a few use cases to describe the "mobile-enabled social change" you are aiming at - how mobiles can facilitate communication, push the spread of information, the growth of digital literacy and making everyday life a bit easier in developing regions"
For the past fifteen years I've been travelling regularly to and from the African continent, and have been fortunate to have lived, worked and visited many places including Uganda, Zambia, Nigeria, Cameroon, Kenya, South Africa and Mozambique. During that time I've worked with some incredible people on a number of equally incredible projects, touching on everything from school and hospital building to primate and biodiversity conservation, and the application of ICT in poverty alleviation programmes. Had I not been so incredibly fortunate - particularly with my more recent brushes with mobile technology - I'd never have been able to write the Vodafone receiver article, let alone take any of the photos.
Understanding the realities of life in 'developing countries' is essential, I believe, if we're to fully grasp what today's emerging mobile technology means to people. That means spending time on the ground, getting our hands dirty and trying things out. "Rapid prototyping" or "failing fast" shouldn't be terms to be afraid of, but ones to embrace. After all, the only way to fully release the potential of mobile technology for positive social and environmental change is to try things out, and more crucially give others the opportunity to do the same.
Back in 2003, during one of my many visits to Bushbuckridge (an area which straddles Kruger National Park in South Africa), I took this picture of a group of women about half-way through their daily wait for water. I use this photo regularly during my presentations because, to me, it challenges our perception of technology and empowerment. What can mobile technology do for these people? Or, perhaps more crucially in the context of my work, what can mobile technology do for the non-profits working in the areas where these people live? After all, it's the grassroots non-profits on the ground who are generally better placed to answer that first question.
Towards the end of many of my conference presentations I turn to the obligatory "Challenges" slide, where I discuss some of the unresolved issues and difficulties working in the mobile space. One of the more widely discussed of these is the Social Mobile Long Tail concept, which looks at the focus of mobile applications development, and how it largely fails the grassroots NGO community. Another is the "developer/practitioner divide", where application developers - who are generally as geographically detached from a problem as you can get - try to create solutions to a problem they don't fully understand. Thankfully we're seeing an 'ICT4D shift' which is leaning away from a culture of ownership and more towards one of collaboration and empowerment.
In a recent paper Richard Heeks, referring to the "developer/practitioner divide", makes the point that in order to be more effective "ICT4D 2.0 champions" (as he calls them) must understand enough about the three domains of computer science, IS, and development studies. If it weren't complicated enough, I suggest we also throw in anthropology for good measure.
Despite having a decade-long IT career behind me, when I went to Sussex University in 1996 studying the subject was the last thing on my mind. I wanted to learn more about the context of emerging ICT4D work - the "D" part. Anthropology was thrown in for good measure, but is now equally if not more important in my work. If we're honest about it, technology is generally cold and passive - it's the people who use it and interact with it that makes it interesting, hence my addition of anthropology to Heeks' list.
Sitting at the self-titled intersection of "technology, anthropology, conservation and development" means I get involved in a fascinating array of projects and initiatives. Some draw heavily on my technology background, others on my experience living and working in Africa, and others on the application of anthropology. The really interesting ones combine all three. FrontlineSMS alone, with its growing community of users, draws me into the work of NGOs involved in human rights, health, education, activism, conservation and agriculture, to name a few. Some great stories are already beginning to emerge following the recent release in June.
In addition to FrontlineSMS - the main focus of my work at the moment - kiwanja has also been collaborating and working with Tactical Tech on their forthcoming Mobile Advocacy Toolkit, Grameen Technology Center on their AppLab initiative in Uganda, Kubatana.net on a range of projects (including the forthcoming Freedom Fone initiative), Question Box on a mobile version of their innovative web-based village intercom, and W3C on the Mobile Web For Social Development (MW4D) initiative. Other kiwanja projects include the Silverback mobile phone conservation game (pictured), nGOmobile - which will shortly announce a second annual competition - and the new "mobility" project (which has an incredible partner line-up).
Of course, all of this work beautifully feeds back into itself, allowing me to share the learning and experiences from one project with another, which is just how it should be. Apart from Grameen - where I spent a month in Uganda last summer getting the AppLab initiative up and running (when I should have been on honeymoon), and the Kubatana work which involved a three week spell in Zimbabwe (no honeymoon) - the rest has been largely co-ordinated from my corner at Stanford University, the comfort of my temporary VW Camper-based Global HQ, or the Cambridgeshire village where I live.
Nothing can replace experience in the field, of course, but at least working on such a broad and fascinating range of projects helps keep kiwanja's work - and that of others - connected and relevant. Which is also just how it should be.