During the recent Pop!Tech Social Innovation Fellows boot camp in Camden, Maine, I had the pleasure of sharing a cabin with Erik Hersman of White African, AfriGadget and Ushahidi fame. Despite knowing Erik for a couple of years or so, it was the first time we'd managed to sit down over a prolonged period and chat Africa, mobiles, innovation and technology. It was great and, as it turned out, productive.
Most evenings founds us blogging, Tweeting (@whiteafrican and @kiwanja), practicing our 5-minute Pop!Tech pitches, sharing stories and bouncing random ideas around. So it came as no surprise when we stumbled on a pretty cool idea for a hybrid piece of hardware (at least we think it's a pretty cool idea). If it existed, we thought, this thing could unlock the potential of platforms such as Ushahidi and FrontlineSMS yet further, and prove a real breakthrough in our efforts to lower the barrier to entry for organisations seeking to use SMS-based services in their social change work.
Messaging hubs like FrontlineSMS - currently being used by Ushahidi in the DRC to collect and forward local text messages to a remote server - require three things to work. Firstly, a computer with the software installed and configured; secondly, a local SIM card connected to a local mobile operator; and thirdly, a GSM modem or mobile phone to send and receive the messages. The GSM device is essential, as is the SIM card, but the computer is another matter. What if messaging software such as FrontlineSMS could be run 'locally' from a microSD card which slotted into the side of the modem? The software, drivers, configuration files and databases could all be held locally on the same device, and seamlessly connect with the GSM network through the 'built-in' modem. This would mean the user wouldn't need to own a computer to use it, and it would allow them to temporarily turn any machine into a messaging hub by plugging the hybrid device into any computer - running Windows, Mac OSX or Linux - in an internet cafe or elsewhere.
Right now this is only an idea, although we're going to see what we can do with it early next month when Erik and I, along with most of the Ushahidi team, happen to be in Nairobi, Kenya. Using Erik's extensive contacts in the Kenyan innovation space, we'll be looking to see if a prototype device like this can be cobbled together in a workshop somewhere. I'm willing to sacrifice a GSM modem in the name of progress.
If the guys can pull it off then there's a real chance we could get funding for wider trials. Things would then get really interesting not only for our own projects, but also for many others working in the same social mobile space, making rapid prototyping and the dissemination of tools much quicker and easier.