Njenga Kahiro, Kinship Conservation Fellow and member of the Zeitz Foundation, started the Laikipia Unity Cup in 2010 when he decided to combine environmental education and a football tournament. Laikipia is a countyin central Kenya where conflict between warring communities and stripping of natural resources are both fairly common. Njenga, with the help of his foundation, put together football teams from each region , usually combining young citizens of quarreling communities, and host a tournament that included matches, educational theater, and local conservation projects.
"The Curry Stone Design Prize was created to champion designers as a force for social change. Now in its fourth year, the Prize recognizes innovators who address critical issues involving clean air, food and water, shelter, health care, energy, education, social justice or peace". Yesterday was an exciting day for us as we announced FrontlineSMS had won the prestigious 2011 Curry Stone Design Prize. This award follows closely on the heels of the 2011 Pizzigati Prize, an honourable mention at the Buckminster Fuller Challenge and our National Geographic "Explorer" Award last summer. It goes without saying these are exciting times not just for FrontlineSMS but for our growing user base and the rapidly expanding team behind it. When I think back to the roots of our work in the spring of 2005, FrontlineSMS almost comes across as "the little piece of software that dared to dream big".
With the exception of the Pizzigati Prize - which specifically focuses on open source software for public good - our other recent awards are particularly revealing. Last summer we began something of a trend by being awarded things which weren't traditionally won by socially-focused mobile technology organisations.
Being named a 2010 National Geographic Emerging Explorer is a case in point, and last summer while I was in Washington DC collecting the prize I wrote down my thoughts in a blog post:
On reflection, it was a very bold move by the Selection Committee. Almost all of the other Emerging Explorers are either climbing, diving, scaling, digging or building, and what I do hardly fits into your typical adventurer job description. But in a way it does. As mobile technology continues its global advance, figuring out ways of applying the technology in socially and environmentally meaningful ways is a kind of 21st century exploring. The public reaction to the Award has been incredible, and once people see the connection they tend to think differently about tools like FrontlineSMS and their place in the world.
More recently we've begun receiving recognition from more traditional socially-responsible design organisations - Buckminster Fuller and Clifford Curry/Delight Stone. If you ask the man or woman on the street what "socially responsible design" meant to them, most would associate it with physical design - the building or construction of things, more-to-the-point. Water containers, purifiers, prefabricated buildings, emergency shelters, storage containers and so on. Design is so much easier to recognise, explain and appreciate if you can see it. Software is a different beast altogether, and that's what makes our Curry Stone Design Prize most interesting. As the prize website itself puts it:
Design has always been concerned with built environment and the place of people within it, but too often has limited its effective reach to narrow segments of society. The Curry Stone Design Prize is intended to support the expansion of the reach of designers to a wider segment of humanity around the globe, making talents of leading designers available to broader sections of society.
Over the past few years FrontlineSMS has become so much more than just a piece of software. Our core values are hard-coded into how the software works, how it's deployed, the things it can do, how users connect, and the way it allows all this to happen. We've worked hard to build a tool which anyone can take and, without us needing to get involved, applied to any problem anywhere. How this is done is entirely up to the user, and it's this flexibility that sits at the core of the platform. It's also arguably at the heart of it's success:
We trust our users - rely on them, in fact - to be imaginative and innovative with the platform. If they succeed, we succeed. If they fail, we fail. We're all very much in this together. We focus on the people and not the technology because it's people who own the problems, and by default they're often the ones best-placed to solve them. When you lead with people, technology is relegated to the position of being a tool. Our approach to empowering our users isn't rocket science. As I've written many times before, it's usually quite subtle, but it works:
My belief is that users don’t want access to tools – they want to be given the tools. There’s a subtle but significant difference. They want to have their own system, something which works with them to solve their problem. They want to see it, to have it there with them, not in some "cloud". This may sound petty – people wanting something of their own – but I believe that this is one way that works.
What recognition from the likes of the Curry Stone Design Prize tells us is that socially responsible design can be increasingly applied to the solutions, people and ecosystems built around lines of code - but only if those solutions are user-focused, sensitive to their needs, deploy appropriate technologies and allow communities to influence how these tools are applied to the problems they own.
Further reading FrontlineSMS is featured in the upcoming book "Design Like You Give a Damn 2: Building Change From The Ground Up", available now on pre-order from Amazon.
It has been an exciting few days for FrontlineSMS in terms of media recognition for the work we do. Recent coverage of FrontlineSMS has included an article in Wired magazine, a guest opinion piece in CNN World, and an interview with FrontlineSMS founder, Ken Banks, in National Geographic Traveler magazine too. As a result of all this attention there has been a dramatic rise in downloads of FrontlineSMS, with almost 200 people downloading our free and open source software over the last two days - nearly five times more than normal. If you would like your own copy of FrontlineSMS you get it here today!
Check out brief extracts from these various articles below, and follow the links to read more!
"Back in 2005, all Ken Banks wanted was a simple way to use his cellphone to reach the community around South Africa’s Kruger National Park. Little did he know that his brainchild would help monitor nation-wide elections in Nigeria, provide market price information to fisherman in Indonesia, and just last week, become a finalist in the Buckminster Fuller Challenge for socially responsible projects and initiatives."
"Ten-dollar cell phones are easier to obtain than Internet access in many parts of the developing world. And now, thanks to software conceived by Ken Banks, a National Geographic Emerging Explorer, cheap phones are making the Internet unnecessary in those places. Grassroots groups are exchanging vital information from laptop to cell phone in areas the Internet doesn’t reach."
"The story of innovation is not complete without an appreciation of "real world" innovation, much of which is grassroots-driven and much of which goes unnoticed. It’s this “real world” innovation that I’d like to discuss... The rise of the Internet – followed more recently by the mobile phone – presents us with opportunities to solve human problems like never before.... I would also count myself as a reluctant innovator – FrontlineSMS (a piece of software being used by non-profits all over the world to run text message-based networks) was never planned – and the team behind Ushahidi would likely feel the same. They were simply responding to a crisis in their country. None of us went out looking for something to solve. A problem found us, and we felt compelled to solve it. This is a different kind of innovation to that taught in schools or harnessed in laboratories."
If you would like to read these articles in full follow the links below:
FrontlineSMS has been selected as one of only four Finalists in the Buckminster Fuller Challenge, the prestigious annual design science competition. Named “Socially-Responsible Design’s Highest Award” by Metropolis Magazine, the Challenge awards $100,000 to support the development and implementation of a whole systems-based solution that has significant potential to solve humanity’s most pressing problems.
By Sarah George, Florence Scialom and Nsonje Siame
FrontlineSMS has been recognized for bringing the communication revolution to poor and remote regions, through harnessing the power and reach of mobile phones. The software works without the Internet, is easy to implement, simple to operate, and free to download.
Results from a FrontlineSMS user survey, held at the end of 2010, help to illustrate efforts to design software to work for “100% of humanity.” In the survey 84% of users said they found our software easy to use.* Results also demonstrated that FrontlineSMS is being used in over 70 countries, and is particularly useful in areas of the world where other forms of communication can be difficult to access. One FrontlineSMS user said:
I was using FrontlineSMS to communicate with administrators, principals, and teachers in 50 secondary schools. In the area I was working landlines and faxes were largely unheard of, postal services unreliable, and even road access was poor. FrontlineSMS allowed me to coordinate communication between these schools to organize various school events and programs
At its core, FrontlineSMS software turns a laptop or desktop computer and a mobile phone or modem into a mass messaging platform, empowering users to gather and share information of any kind, in any place. The software forms part of a strategy that grassroots organizations around the world can adopt to leverage mobile technology for the greater good. FrontlineSMS focuses on reaching the “last mile” by designing the platform to take advantage of basic mobile phones already in the hands of billions of people throughout the developing world.
While the core platform is use-agnostic, the FrontlineSMS team is committed to incubating sector specific solutions. For example, sister projects work with FrontlineSMS to confront challenges in access to healthcare, education, financial credit, legal representation, and media. There are clearly many other sectors in which FrontlineSMS can be utilized, too. In the recent user survey examples emerged from over 15 sectors, including conservation, human rights, and agriculture, amongst others.
For FrontlineSMS, winning the $100,000 Buckminster Fuller prize would provide critical support for developing Version 2 of the software; an upgrade that will improve and extend core functionalities, making the software even more user friendly and interactive. Version 2 will help users of FrontlineSMS do more with the software than ever before.
Finalists were chosen by BFI’s multi-disciplinary review team, made up of 11 distinguished jurors. These include Valerie Casey, founder of Design Accord; David Orr, writer and professor of Environmental Studies and Politics at Oberlin College; Andrew Zolli, producer of PopTech and Danielle Nierenberg, Project Director of State of World 2011; and Sim Vanderyn, visionary ecological design pioneer.
On Wednesday, June 8th FrontlineSMS will be presented to jury members and an audience in New York City. On Friday, June 10th the Winner will be revealed at a conferring ceremony. Both events will take place at The Graduate Center, CUNY. More information about the event is available here.
About the Buckminster Fuller Challenge
The Buckminster Fuller Challenge is the premier international competition recognizing initiatives which take a comprehensive, anticipatory, design approach to radically advance human well being and the health of our planet’s ecosystems. The 2011 Semi-finalists are providing workable solutions to some of the world’s most significant challenges including water scarcity, food supply, health, energy consumption and shelter. The Challenge is a program of The Buckminster Fuller Institute which aims to deeply influence the ascendance of a new generation of design-science pioneers who are leading the creation of an abundant and restorative world economy that benefits all humanity. For more information on the 2011 Finalists visit the Challenge website. You can visit the FrontlineSMS page here.
* The FrontlineSMS user survey received responses from 174 people
It was a cold evening last October when I heard from National Geographic that we’d won an Emerging Explorer Award for our work in mobile. Seven months is a long time to keep a secret, but now news is out it will hopefully be the ideal platform to help us spur further development of FrontlineSMS, and increase interest in wider circles around the potential for simple, appropriate mobile technologies to solve some of the more pressing problems people face in the world today. Although it’s wonderful to get this kind of recognition, it also makes it a good time to clarify a few key points about the work we're doing.
First, I believe National Geographic took a bold step picking a mobile project as one of their Awardees. Explorers are usually associated with more physical, tangible acts such as climbing, diving, flying, discovering and so on. Trying to come up with a new approach to applying mobile technology to a problem is a different way of thinking about “exploring”, and I think it raises a number of very interesting questions. Something for a future blog post, no doubt.
Second, first and foremost I believe the Award is recognition of our approach. Over the past five years – yes, it’s almost been that long – we’ve developed a clear methodology based on “handing over our technology and stepping back” (as one conference delegate once put it to me). The National Geographic article summed it up perfectly:
The key, Banks believes, is a hands-off approach. While his website provides free support and connects participants worldwide, users themselves decide how to put the software into action. "FrontlineSMS gives them tools to create their own projects and make a difference," Banks notes. "It empowers innovators and organizers in the developing world to reach their full potential through their own ingenuity. That’s why it’s so motivating, exciting, and effective"
If we look at what’s happening today – with very little of it controlled by us – we’re seeing something of an ecosystem developing around FrontlineSMS. Sure, the software isn’t perfect and it’s constantly improving and evolving, but people are being drawn to it because it allows them to do what they do, better. It’s something they can build on top of, something they know of and to a large degree trust, and something which allows them to immediately tap into a wider community of users, donors and supporters.
It can act as a springboard for their own ideas and visions in a way other solutions aren't. And only a few of these people are technical, and that is key. “Focus on the users and all else will follow” is something we seem to come back to again and again, but without it – and without users – all we have left is a bunch of code and a Big Idea.
The FrontlineSMS ecosystem is witnessing the creation of increasing numbers of plug-ins - medical modules, microfinance modules, mapping tools, reminders and analytical tools among them, and we’re hearing more and more from established, well-known entrepreneurial organisations who have chosen to implement and integrate FrontlineSMS as one element of their work. Laura, our new Project Manager, is just beginning to reach out and make sense of this activity, much of which we currently know very little about. Allowing users to take your platform and just run with it is empowering for them, but creates a unique set of challenges for us.
Third, and finally, are the recipients of the Award. I may have been fortunate enough to have got the fledgling FrontlineSMS concept off the ground way back in the summer of 2005, but it’s been a truly monumental, global effort getting it to where it is today, recognising – of course – that we still have a long way to go. From bloggers to donors, from developers to journalists, from testing partners to users, people have stuck with us and supported us in ways I would never have imagined.
Sure, the software can do some pretty neat things, and thanks to Alex and Morgan (our two developers) it continues to improve. But what really draws the majority of people to our work is the approach. For five years we’ve remained 100% focussed on the end user, and have not been distracted by newer, sexier emerging technologies. People really seem to get that. We’ve also concentrated on building, and on remaining positive. There is much wrong in the world, but that should never stop anyone making a contribution, however small.
So, a big thank you to National Geographic for putting their faith in our work; to Laura, Alex, Morgan and Josh, our dedicated core team; to the MacArthur Foundation for taking a gamble on a guy living in a van in 2007, and to the Hewlett Foundation, Open Society Institute, HIVOS, the Rockefeller Foundation and the Omidyar Network for helping us continue to develop and grow.
Finally, thanks to everyone who has supported us, spoken about us, written about us, promoted us and helped us, and thanks to the users for taking our software and doing some truly inspirational things with it. We owe all of this to you.