Musings

The world according to FrontlineSMS

We're not far off a year since the launch of the revised version of FrontlineSMS, and great progress has been made on many fronts. One of the challenges we've faced is that there's no manual for what we're trying to do, so it's been something of a shot in the dark much of the time. The past, present (and no doubt future) of the software remains heavily influenced by the organic spread of the tool - NGOs finding it by "discovery" and adopting it in their own projects, for themselves, by themselves. Leaving them do a little bit of the work themselves helps create the ownership so crucial for a project to succeed, I believe. FrontlineSMS around the world

Looking at the map of users today, we have a quite amazing spread. Along with expected hotspots in Africa and South/Central America, FrontlineSMS has been "discovered" by NGOs in as far-flung places as the Maldives, Bermuda and the Faroe Islands. How they got to hear about it I'll never know. Maybe not knowing is half the fun.

FrontlineSMS online community

The online user community also continues to grow and remains very active, and is showing encouraging signs of become self-supporting. As of today we have 478 members and, yes, some of them do like to customise their pages! To date around 20% of NGOs who download the software end up joining the community (downloads to date comes to 2,118), which is not a bad return. We have to do a bit more work on this, I think, as we intend to in the coming months. We also need to focus more on the growing interest from the developer community, who still lack a proper, fully decorated home. Work starts on that any day now.

Of course, there is still much we don't know - how we measure the impact of FrontlineSMS, how many of the users who download the software that go on to use it with any regularity, what additional challenges there are to adoption over and above the ones we know, and so on. But we'll keep working at it. We have the funding - for now, anyway - and we have the incredible support of a growing community of NGOs, bloggers, activists, developers, academics, observers and, of course, users.

(Note: A selection of FrontlineSMS Guest Posts are available, written and submitted by users themselves).

Low(er) cost computing

In the middle of everything else that's going on right now, we're working to get the latest FrontlineSMS ready for launch. Among a few of the more minor changes (bug fixes and additional language support, for example) this new release will see the inclusion of FrontlineForms, a fully integrated SMS-driven data collection tool. Although it's been ready for some time, we've been busy getting the core system up to scratch before adding the first of a range of exciting new functionality (the ability to do MMS - multimedia messaging - comes later this year courtesy of our Hewlett funding). Of course, none of this is of any use if you can't afford a computer to run anything on. As part of our goal to lower the barrier to entry for prospective FrontlineSMS users, we have plans to develop USB stick and mobile versions of the software. More news on that in the coming weeks and months.

acerfrontlinesms

In the meantime, thanks to great forward planning from Masabi - our developers - FrontlineSMS will already run on a range of emerging low-cost computers. Here's the latest build (1.5.2) being tested on an Acer One (it's also running happily on the even lower-cost EEE PC). This kind of set up - a low-cost computer, a GSM modem and a handful of low-end mobile phones - forms the backbone to our thinking of what an "SMS Hub in a Box" might look like.

We're hoping to do something with that idea when we have a little spare time on our hands.

The "long tail" revisited

Four years ago was a very lonely time. Not for me personally, understand, but in the social mobile space. The wider non-profit world was just beginning to take a serious interest in what the technology had to offer, and in 2004 I'd just co-authored one of the earlier reports - funded by the Vodafone Group Foundation - on the use of mobile technology for conservation and development. To give some context, these were the days when it was widely believed that "poor people in developing countries" would never be able to afford a phone, and the days when concrete case studies on the application of mobile technology for positive social and environmental change were few and far between. Most evidence was anecdotal. A revised report would look very different today, but with one exception - many of the conclusions would likely still stand. If that's the case, how far have we really come?

Four years ago this week I came up with the concept of a laptop-based group messaging hub. The software I ended up developing is better known today as FrontlineSMS ("ProjectSMS" was the working title for the first few months). When I eventually got the resources together to write the first version in the summer of 2005, there was zero chance of reinventing any wheels. The "social mobile applications" shop was quite literally bare. After extensive research for a project I had been working on with South Africa National Parks (SANParks), there were simply no appropriate technology mobile solutions they could easily pick up and run with. The situation seemed crazy, and I had a hunch that SANParks were not alone in their need for an appropriate, portable, GSM-based communications tool. The rest is history, as they say.

Things are not quite so lonely today and 2008 - for me, at least - goes down as the year things really began to change. For what seemed like an age, FrontlineSMS was one of the few appropriate technology-based mobile tools aimed at - and openly and freely available to - the grassroots non-profit community. For a while it was the only one. It was also likely the first to be developed specifically with the NGO sector in mind - most other solutions were commercial offerings which found their way into the hands of NGOs, quite often the larger international variety with the funds, expertise and resources to use them. The frustration for me was that - until last year, at least - many of the emerging 'non-profit' mobile solutions seemed to be following that same model.

Enter "The Social Mobile Long Tail", my attempt at mapping out the social mobile applications space (you can read the original post, which explains the thinking in detail, here).

The basic rationale behind it was this. The majority of emerging mobile solutions, platforms or tools (call them what you will) were settling in the red area, and as such were technically and financially out-of-reach of many grassroots NGOs, many of whom sit in the green space. Tools at the higher end of the graph are generally more complex, server-based systems aimed a multinational NGOs or government departments. Tools in the lower end are simple, low-cost, appropriate and easily replicable solutions. My experiences working with NGOs in Africa over the past fifteen years has strongly influenced and steered the focus of my work towards the long tail, and I would have it no other way.

But let's just destroy a few myths for a minute. There are many out there. Here's my top three (feel free to add to these in the comments section below).

Firstly, wherever your tool sits on the graph, there is no right or wrong place for it. It's all about the context of the user. There is just as much a need for $1 million server-based, high bandwidth solutions as there are for free, SMS-only tools. In your typical scenario, national governments would likely go for the former, and grassroots NGOs for the latter, but not always. Both are valid, and tools shouldn't ever be described as "being better" than another because of it. This is a big mistake. We need there to be solutions all along the tail so that the users have a healthy applications ecosystem to dip into, whoever and wherever they may be. If you're trying to park a car into a small space, a Mini is much better than a Rolls Royce.

Secondly, let's not get all hooked up on scale. Just because a tool in the long tail might not run an international mobile campaign does not make it irrelevant. Just as a long tail solution might likely never run a higher-end project, expensive and technically complex solutions would likely fail to downscale enough to run a small communications network for farmers from a small NGO office with no mains electricity, for example.

Thirdly, we don't yet have any complete, polished mobile tools. I would argue that everything that we see in the social mobile applications ecosystem today is "work in progress", and it will likely stay that way for a very long time. Speaking with my FrontlineSMS hat on, I'd say we're probably only about 40% there with that solution right now. There is much to do, and the mobile technical landscape never stands still. Our challenge is how we all move with it, how we stay relevant, and how we all work together to share technical resources and know-how. A fragmented mobile landscape is a problem for all of us.

There have been many positive blog posts calling 2009 the "Year of Mobile". I think they could be right. I also think 2009 is going to be the "Year of the Searcher" (see my earlier blog post). As I argued back then, let's never forget it's the users of our tools who we answer to. Social change happens on the ground, often through them, and not online.

For the first time in four years things don't feel quite so lonely. I for one am hugely honoured to be working in a space alongside some of the most dedicated and talented people in the mobile and development fields, all of whom are trying to apply a range of practical solutions - all the way along the "social mobile long tail" - to some of the most pressing problems in the world today. We have a great opportunity in front of us if we stick together, remain focussed, and do not lose sight of the big picture.

After all, we don't want to be reading blog posts in twelve months time calling 2010 the "Year of Mobile", do we?

Invention. Collaboration. Integration.

The past couple of weeks have been particularly exciting for Ushahidi and FrontlineSMS. Independently they've been featured on the BBC and CNN websites, where their use in the DRC and Malawi respectively continues to gain traction. Jointly they've appeared in Forbes Magazine in an interview given by Ory (which was predominantly about Ushahidi, but given the enormous openness and spirit of collaboration between the two projects, the FrontlineSMS integration also made it to print). I've been a big fan of Ushahidi - particularly the people behind it - long before they started using FrontlineSMS as their local SMS gateway. I wrote about the project when it came to prominence during the Kenyan election crisis, and included it (along with FrontlineSMS and Kiva) in a discussion about rapid prototyping - something I'm a huge fan of - in one of my PC World articles:

The interesting thing about these three projects [Ushahidi, Kiva and FrontlineSMS] is that they all proved that they worked - in other words, proved there was a need and developed a track record - before receiving significant funding. Kiva went out and showed that their lending platform worked before major funders stepped in, just as FrontlineSMS did. And Ushahidi put the first version of their crowd sourcing site together in just a few days, and have reaped the benefits of having a working prototype ever since. If there is a lesson to learn here then it would have to be this - don't let a lack of funding stop you from getting your ICT4D solution off the ground, even if it does involve "failing fast"

Given Ushahidi's Kenyan roots (and those of the Founders) and its growing collaboration with FrontlineSMS, it was more than a little apt that last week saw three of us working together at a Plan International workshop near Nairobi (photo, above, of us at a separate Ushahidi developer meeting). Erik Hersman, Juliana Rotich and myself didn't only present Ushahidi and FrontlineSMS as standalone tools to the Plan staff, but also demonstrated how easily and how well the two could work together. It was the first time the three of us had collaborated like this, and the first time that I'd seen a FrontlineSMS/Ushahidi sync running in the field. As Erik himself commented:

One of the basic tenants of Ushahidi's Engine is to make it open to extend through other mobile phone and web applications. The first one we've done this with is FrontlineSMS, which has worked out incredibly smoothly for us. Within a week of releasing our alpha code, we deployed Ushahidi into the DR Congo, and used a FrontlineSMS installation locally to create the hub for any Congolese to report incidents that they see. It has worked flawlessly...

During our presentation, Plan International staff were able to text messages into the FrontlineSMS hub at the front of the room, messages which were then automatically posted via the internet to the Ushahidi server. Erik approved some of the comments (not all!) via the online Ushahidi dashboard from the back of the room, and the attendees saw them appearing on a Ushahidi map beamed via a projector onto the wall. Although live demonstrations are risky at the best of times, the sync took two minutes to set up, and everything worked perfectly. For everyone behind the Ushahidi and FrontlineSMS projects, months (and in the case of FrontlineSMS, years) of hard work was paying off right before our eyes.

Graphic courtesy Ushahidi

For the workshop delegates, the potential of the two tools - independently and together - was clear, and ideas for their application in Plan projects across Africa continued to flow for the rest of the week. What's more, the benefit of working together to demonstrate the independent and collaborative power of the tools was clear to Erik, Juliana and myself. An innocent Tweet about "Ushahidi/FrontlineSMS Road Shows" brought back encouraging words, and even an offer to try and help make it happen.

There's much talk of collaboration and integration in the mobile space, and things are slowly beginning to happen. The recent establishment of the Open Mobile Consortium is further proof of a growing collaborative environment and mentality. What took place last week in Lukenya is just a small part, but one that I - and the team behind Ushahidi - are immensely proud to be a part of.

Pocket messaging?

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.

Fireside chat

If I was ever asked to give a short, informal introductory fireside talk about FrontlineSMS, it would probably go something like this...

FrontlineSMS was originally released at the end of 2005 based on a hunch that there was a need within the grassroots non-profit community for a simple, easy-to-use replicable text messaging tool which didn't require the internet or expensive infrastructure or equipment to use. The idea came during fieldwork in South Africa, where I was looking for something that South Africa National Parks could use to re-engage the local communities within the conservation effort through their mobile phones. I couldn't find anything.

Several months later the idea of a mobile-based messaging hub came to me, and I decided it might be worth trying to write something. Over a five week period I sat at a kitchen table in Finland developing a prototype FrontlineSMS (during development it was known as "Project SMS" until good friend Simon Hicks came up with the newer, better name). Clearly the hunch has paid off. FrontlineSMS is today in the hands of well over a thousand non-profit organisations, and increasing numbers are beginning to do some quite incredible things with it. (A nice little history of FrontlineSMS was published in the Stanford Journal of African Studies recently).

Bushbuckridge - the inspiration behind FrontlineSMS

Despite a warm reception to the launch from bloggers, reporters and activists, it wasn't until April 2007 that the software really came to prominence when it was used by local NGOs to help monitor the Nigerian Presidential elections, the first time (it is believed) that civilians have helped monitor an African election. The story was widely reported, most notably on the BBC. Late last year news of its use in Pakistan during the state of emergency was reported in the Economist (bloggers were afraid to use the internet to report news and information, so turned to text messaging. FrontlineSMS enabled them to be anonymous). FrontlineSMS has since been featured a number of times on the BBC World Service, and more recently on PRI's "The World" when it was used by activist groups to help spread news and information during the recent troubled Presidential elections in Zimbabwe.

Last spring and summer, with increasing numbers of people taking an interest in the software, the MacArthur Foundation stepped in to fund the development of a rebuild (at this stage FrontlineSMS was still technically proof-of-concept). The nine-month project created a new and improved version - one which now also runs on Windows, Mac and Linux machines. Main development work was carried out by an incredible team at Masabi in London. In parallel, Wieden+Kennedy carried out a full branding, communications and website-building exercise. Thanks to them there are now hundreds of former conference goers around the world in possession of much sought-after FrontlineSMS badges... o/

When I think about the growing number of users and uses, and the kinds of projects that FrontlineSMS has enabled - not to mention the enthusiasm many NGOs have shown for what the tool has done for them - a quote in the Africa Journal from last year rings incredibly true:

"FrontlineSMS provides the tools necessary for people to create their own projects that make a difference. It empowers innovators and organizers in the developing world to achieve their full potential through their own ingenuity" The use studies are beginning to back this up. Since the new version was released at the end of June 2008, 932 NGOs have downloaded it. News of its availability has primarily been spread through news sites and blogs, driven in large part by incredible support from the NGO community, volunteers, bloggers, Twitterers, ICT4D professionals, professional and amateur reporters, and donors. A single person may have originally come up with the concept, but it's been a huge team effort to move it on to where it is today.

If there was ever a paragraph that summed up the kind of impact FrontlineSMS is having, then this would be it. Take a deep breath...

In Aceh, UNDP and Mercy Corps are using FrontlineSMS to send market prices and other agricultural data to smallholder rural coffee farmers. In Iraq it is being used by the country's first independent news agency - Aswat al Iraq - to disseminate news to eight countries, and in Afghanistan it is helping keep NGO fieldworkers safe through the distribution of security alerts. In Zimbabwe the software has been used extensively by a number of human rights organisations - including Kubatana.net - and in Nigeria and the Philippines it helped monitor national elections (it's also being lined up to help register 135,000 overseas Filipino workers ready for their 2010 elections). In Malawi, FrontlineSMS is generating a huge amount of interest in the m-health sector where a project started by Josh Nesbit - a Stanford University student - is helping run a rural healthcare network for 250,000 people. It was used by bloggers in Pakistan during the recent state of emergency to get news safely out of the country, and in the October 2008 Azerbaijani elections it helped mobilise the youth vote. FrontlineSMS is being used in Kenya to report breakages in fences caused by elephants, and is now running the Overseas Filipino Workers (OFW-SOS) emergency help line, allowing workers to receive immediate assistance in case of personal emergency. Just this month it was deployed in the DRC as part of the Ushahidi platform to collect violence reports via SMS. It's also being used by Grameen Technology Centre in Uganda to communicate with the Village Phone network, and has been integrated into the work of a major human rights organisations in the Philippines. Projects are lined up in Cambodia and El Salvador (where it will be used to help create transparency in agricultural markets) and a network of journalists will be implementing FrontlineSMS to help report and monitor forthcoming elections in Ghana, Guinea and the Ivory Coast.

FrontlineSMS clearly has considerable potential if this smallest of snapshots is anything to go by. I've always believed that if we're able to build an NGO user community around a single, common, appropriate mobile solution then amazing things could happen. If what we're beginning to see now isn't exciting enough, just remember that this is only the start. When we all work together, anything and everything is possible.

#Pop!Tech08

You can always tell you've been to something quite special when the bar rises not only off the scale but out of site. "Amazing. Inspiring. Community. Friends. Special. Overwhelming. Over-fed. Unstoppable". Just some of the words used by delegates in the closing session on Saturday to describe their Pop!Tech08 experience. Mine would have been "Spiritual". And yes, with a capital 'S'.

This was my first Pop!Tech. Two years ago I had never even heard of it, but by last year I had. I wanted to go then, but it was never going to happen. Twelve months can be a long time in mobile, and this was to be my year. It would have been more than enough to have just sat back in Camden Opera House and soak up the amazing atmosphere, like the majority off the 700-odd people fortunate enough to be there. But going as an inaugural Pop!Tech Social Innovation Fellow made it all the more special. The many people I had the pleasure to spend four days with at the Fellows boot camp made sure of that. Finally getting to spend some quality time with Erik Hersman was one of the highlights, as was our late evening spent in a cabin in the woods with Ethan Zuckerman, beer in hand, while the three of us discussed the intricacies of baseball. Such a shame these moments are so rare, but it's the rarity that makes them so special, I suppose.

kiwanja presenting FrontlineSMS at Pop!Tech08 - Photo courtesy Leapologist (Flickr)

Traditionally, conferences are all about turning up and hearing what you hope to be interesting people talk. Sometimes you get lucky. Here, it didn't matter, although the speaker line-up was stunning. Pop!Tech felt different because it wasn't just about speaking, about presenter and presented, but more about dialogue. Everyone there was interested and interesting in their own right. The three days felt like a hyperactive family re-union of massive proportions. People were physically and mentally overwhelmed by it. Pop!Tech is intellectual renewable energy in its purest form. The Camden Opera House was well and truly lit up with it.

Spirituality is a word rarely mentioned in the technology world, although a lot of what I see in the people who work in our little corner of it is spiritual in nature, whether they realise it or not. Hearing about individuals inspired and driven to action by key events - the loss of close friends, suffering or hardship witnessed at first hand, injustice - are strong testament to the strength and presence of that human spirit.

There were many emotional connections at Pop!Tech, many emotional moments, many off-stage but some on. When Zinny Thabethe and Andrew Zolli embraced at the end of a stirring session about the HIV/AIDS crisis in South Africa, their arms reached out and embraced us all. It's these moments that leave me struggling for a word other than 'conference'. Conferences just don't do that.

Industry events now have a lot to live up to, although it would be unfair to judge them against Pop!Tech's incredibly high standards and rather unique positioning. But, if I can't help myself, there's always Pop!Tech09, I guess... o/

Social mobile: Doing what it says on the tin

About a year ago I was asked to give an interview to the Africa Journal. They were looking at ICT innovators and entrepreneurs in Africa and I agreed, despite being mildly uncomfortable being labelled an ICT innovator or an entrepreneur (and an African one, at that). At the end of the interview, however, they captured a brief moment which beautifully encapsulated what FrontlineSMS is all about. The interview ended:

FrontlineSMS provides the tools necessary for people to create their own projects that make a difference. It empowers innovators and organizers in the developing world to achieve their full potential through their own ingenuity

FrontlineSMS has always been about empowerment. It's never been about telling people how to use mobile phones to monitor elections, to increase market transparency, or help raise awareness around HIV/AIDS issues, even though it's been used for these things and many more. At the end of the day, it's a tool which allows organisations to figure out how to do these things for themselves. Combine that with a connected community and you have the makings of something quite powerful.

The decision to build a platform - and not a specific solution to a specific problem - has turned out to be one of the key strengths of the software. The new functionality we've added to the latest version takes this one step further allowing, for example, St. Gabriel's hospital in Malawi to figure out how to do automatic remote top-ups of their health workers' phones, or CP-Union in the Philippines to share incoming SMS data - human rights reporting in this case - with their own K-Rights Monitoring software. When users start adding contacts, keywords and actions in FrontlineSMS, or integrating it into existing systems, they're essentially creating something new, something from scratch, a communications environment all of their own making.

In ideal circumstances platforms become something of a blank canvas, and the brushstrokes the user-generated 'content' (actionable ideas, in this case). Not only does this encourage a culture of do-it-yourself thinking, it also creates instant engagement and ownership. Combine these with the local knowledge and level of engagement many NGOs already have with their stakeholders, and you're half-way to a positive outcome. Approaches which allow initiatives to grow from the ground up, focussing on technology as the enabler (not the owner) generally have the greatest chance of success. The uses of FrontlineSMS, for example, are bewildering, and they're growing all the time. Few, if any, were anticipated. Lower the barriers to entry and all sorts of things can happen, it seems.

Local ownership, the use of appropriate technology, ease-of-use, high replicability and accessibility, and a low barrier to entry should be among the key ingredients of any grassroots-focussed social mobile tool. If we're to make real, tangible progress then the tools we create don't only need to set out to empower, they need to empower. In other words, they need to do exactly what they say on the tin.

Cometh the hour. Cometh the technology.

For NGOs and developers alike, the ICT4D space can be a tough nut to crack. While NGOs generally struggle to find the tools they need to meet their particular needs, developers face the opposite problem - getting their tools into the hands of those who need them the most. Attempts to connect the NGO and developer communities - physically and virtually - continue to this day with varying degrees of success. There is no magic bullet.

Of course, bringing together the two parties in one place - conference room or chat room - is only a small part of it. Getting them to understand each others needs, often over a technologically-fuelled chasm, can be another. While one side may approach things from a "technology looking for a problem" angle, NGOs often have it completely the other way round. One of the boldest attempts in recent times to join the non-profit/developer dots took place in February 2007 in the boldly titled UN Meets Silicon Valley conference, where the United Nations met up with a bunch of Silicon Valley companies to explore how technology and industry could bolster international development. Lower-profile events take place far more regularly, often in the form of 'user generated conferences'. One such gathering - yesterday's BarCampAfrica - aims to bring "people, institutions and enterprises interested in Africa together in one location to exchange ideas, build connections, re-frame perceptions and catalyse action that leads to positive involvement and mutual benefit between Silicon Valley and the continent of Africa".

Having worked for many years in the non-profit sector, particularly in developing countries, I've seen at first-hand the kind of challenges many face, and their frustration at the lack of appropriate ICT solutions available to them. I've also been on the developer side of the fence, spending the last three years building and promoting the use of my FrontlineSMS messaging platform among the grassroots non-profit community. Unfortunately, despite what you might think, seeing the challenge from both perspectives doesn't necessarily make finding a solution any easier. Getting FrontlineSMS, for example, into the hands of NGOs has become slightly easier over time as more people get to hear about it, but it's been a very reactionary process at a time when I'd much rather be proactive. No magic bullet for me.

Sadly, for every ICT solution that gains traction, many more don't even see the light of day. While some may argue that those who failed probably weren't good enough, this isn't always the case. Take Kiva as a case in point. In the early days Matt and Jessica Flannery were regularly told by 'experts' that their idea wouldn't work, that it wouldn't scale. They didn't give up, and today Kiva is a huge success story, connecting lenders - you and me - to small businesses in developing countries the world over. Since forming in late 2005 they have facilitated the lending of over $14 million to tens of thousands of entrepreneurs in some of the poorest countries in the world.

A key turning point for Kiva was their decision to switch from business plans to 'action' plans, getting out there and building their success from the ground up. Some of us would call this "rapid prototyping", or "failing fast". Whatever you choose to call it, it's an approach I firmly believe in. In places like Silicon Valley getting it wrong isn't seen as a bad thing, and this encourages a "rapid prototyping" culture. Sadly the story is very different in the UK.

Some projects - Kiva and FrontlineSMS among them - are based on experiences gained in the field and the belief that a particular problem can be solved with an appropriate technological intervention. Of course, before any ICT4D solution can succeed there has to be a need. It doesn't matter how good a solution is if people don't see the 'problem' as one that needs fixing. In the case of Kiva, borrowers were clearly in need of funds, yet lenders lacked access to them. With FrontlineSMS, grassroots non-profits were keen to make use of the growing numbers of mobile phones among their stakeholders, but lacked a platform to communicate with them. These two initiatives worked because they were problems that found a solution.

The ICT4D space is exciting and challenging in equal measure, and by its very nature practitioners tend to focus on some of the most pressing problems in the most challenging regions of the world. Whether it's a natural disaster, a stolen election, human-wildlife conflict, a crushed uprising or a health epidemic, elements of the ICT4D community spring into action to either help co-ordinate, fix, or report on events. Interestingly, sometimes it can be the events themselves which raise the profile of a particular ICT solution, or the events themselves which lead to the creation of new tools and resources.

In 2006, Erik Sundelof was one of a dozen Reuters Digital Vision Fellows at Stanford University, a programme I was fortunate enough to attend the following year (thanks, in large part, to Erik himself). Erik was building a web-based tool which allowed citizens to report news and events around them to the wider world through their mobile phones. This, of course, is nothing particularly new today, but back then it was an emerging field. During the final weeks of his Fellowship in July 2006, Israel invaded Lebanon in response to the kidnapping of one of their soldiers. Erik's tool was picked up by Lebanese civilians, who texted in their experiences, hopes and fears through their mobile phones. The international media were quick onto the story, including CNN. Erik's project was propelled into the limelight, resulting in significant funding to develop a new citizen journalism site, allvoices, which he runs today.

In a similar vein, it took a national election to significantly raise the profile of FrontlineSMS when it was used to help monitor the Nigerian Presidential elections in 2007. The story was significant in that it was believed to be the first time civilians had helped monitor an election in an African country. As the BBC reported, "anyone trying to rig or tamper with Saturday's presidential elections in Nigeria could be caught out by a team of volunteers armed with mobile phones". Although FrontlineSMS had already been around for over eighteen months, its use in Nigeria created significant new interest in the software, lead to funding from the MacArthur Foundation and ended with the release of a new version earlier this summer. The project is now going from strength to strength.

One of the most widely talked-about platforms today also emerged from the ashes of another significant event, this time the troubles following Kenya's disputed elections in late 2007. With everyday Kenyans deprived of a voice at the height of the troubles, a team of African developers created a site which allowed citizens to report acts of violence via the web and SMS, incidents which were then aggregated with other reports and displayed on a map. Ushahidi - which means "witness" in Kiswahili - provided an avenue for everyday people to get their news out, and news of its launch was widely hailed in the mainstream press. Putting Ushahidi together is a textbook study in rapid prototyping and collaboration. In the past few months the project has also gone from strength to strength, has been implemented in South Africa to monitor acts of anti-emigrant violence, won the NetSquared Mashup Challenge and was runner-up in the recent Knight-Batten Awards.

The interesting thing about these three projects is that they all proved that they worked - in other words, proved there was a need and developed a track record - before receiving significant funding. Kiva went out and showed that their lending platform worked before major funders stepped in, just as FrontlineSMS did. And Ushahidi put the first version of their crowd sourcing site together in just five days, and have reaped the benefits of having a working prototype ever since. If there is a lesson to learn here then it would have to be this - don't let a lack of funding stop you from getting your ICT4D solution off the ground, even if it does involve "failing fast".

Of course, not everyone should rely on an international emergency to raise the profile of their project, and it wouldn't be wise to bet on something ever happening, either. But when it does, the obvious lack of a solution to an emerging problem often rises to the surface, creating an environment where tools which do exist - whether they are proven or not - are able to prosper for the benefit of everyone.

Empowerment: It's the users, stupid!

Empowerment (em-pou-er-ment)The process of transferring decision-making power from influential sectors to poor communities and individuals who have traditionally been excluded

It's been an interesting last few days. I've just finished giving talks at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), and the ICT4D Group at Royal Holloway. Both may be 'London-based' universities, but they were both totally different audiences. The SOAS crowd were more academically-focussed, whereas the ICT4D audience were more rooted in the practical application of mobile technology, not solely the theory underlying it. I think you can probably guess where I felt most at home.

Saying that, one of the more interesting questions came from someone at SOAS, where I was asked how I defined empowerment in the context of my work, who it was exactly it was being empowered, and who was claiming it. It was an interesting discussion, and something I've touched on in the past (see "Whose revolution is it anyway?" from the May 2008 archive). The talk reminded me of my seminar days at Sussex University, where Development Studies students were rewarded for (often severe) critical analysis of thirty-five years of international development failure. Not only were the students wary that they might be hearing about something that may actually be working, a couple of staff members joined in for good measure. There's nothing like being challenged, that's for sure.

To remove any doubt about who it is being empowered, and who's claiming the empowerment, I generally put my end-user hat on. Speaking from their perspective makes it generally much harder to argue. I've had enough contact with a growing number of FrontlineSMS users over the past three years to know what it means to them. If FrontlineSMS had helped just one of these NGOs I'd have been happy. The truth is that it's helping many, many more.

If the SOAS crowd were expecting a technical or theoretical answer to their question, they were about to be disappointed. I've always tried to remain user-focussed, and all of my FrontlineSMS blog posts are based on feedback to explain and demonstrate impact. During conference presentations I only briefly introduce the FrontlineSMS 'platform' (essentially a laptop, a phone, a cable and a pile of code). What most people are interested in hearing is the meaningful, practical, tangible kind-of stuff that happens when people start figuring out the kinds of things they can do with it. This is where the rubber meets the road, and this is what formed the basis of my answer.

To me, the empowered includes NGO fieldworkers in Afghanistan who receive daily security messages and alerts. During a recent Taliban attack FrontlineSMS was...

... essential for us getting the word out quickly. E-mail was down, voice was spotty but SMS still worked. We also had female staff at a school near the incident and were able to tell them to stay put till things quietened down. All my staff made it home safe today

It also includes patients and staff at St. Gabriel's Hospital in Malawi where, in the words of the staff at St. Gabriel's Hospital, FrontlineSMS has "adopted the new role of coordinating a far-reaching community health network serving 250,000 Malawians". And in Aceh, two FrontlineSMS-driven projects - one run by the UNDP - is successfully helping increase income-generating opportunities for smallholder coffee farmers and their families. Many more agriculture-based projects are on the way.

In Iraq, Aswat al-Iraq news agency have implemented FrontlineSMS as an information dissemination tool within a number of locally based news organisations who were struggling to come to terms with local mobile operators. According to the agency:

The effectiveness of FrontlineSMS is evident as we can create, manage and update the profiles of the clients' groups we created. We now send messages to at least eight countries using different operators in Europe and the Middle East, with the messages delivered to all the numbers at the same time. We are keen to continue using FrontlineSMS as we predict that the demand for our services, via the software, will grow in the future

And in Azerbaijan, another local NGO - Digital Development - are using FrontlineSMS to reach out to voters in the forthcoming Presidential elections (the software is being used to encourage youth participation in the electoral process. Not every country has a Barack Obama). According to Digital Development, "FrontlineSMS has been a game-changer for the 'Civil Society Coalition of Azerbaijani' NGOs and the 'Society of Democratic Reforms in Azerbaijan'. The ability to properly manage our text messaging campaigns has added 100% value to the effectiveness of our work". Earlier this year Digital Development pledged to sign up 80,000 voters via SMS to swing 2008 presidential elections through innovative get-out-the-vote activities, including their "Count to 5!" campaign (pictured).

Many of these users, of course - NGOs, and the communities they're reaching out to - don't care what underlying technology delivers a message, or the theory underpinning the application of mobile technology in a developing country context. As long as they get a message and as long as it's useful, timely, relevant and actionable, that's all that counts.

And, using FrontlineSMS, that's just the kind of message increasing numbers of NGOs find themselves being able to deliver.

Message pending

I've just spent the weekend in Paris. Lovely you might think - and you'd be right - but not because of the sightseeing or famous French cuisine (although we did get a taste of the latter). A few of us got together to share ideas and thoughts on Freedom Fone, a Knight News Challenge-winning project building a media distribution platform providing news and public-interest information via land, mobile or Internet phones. Since the "social mobile" space isn't a particularly big one, sharing project-level ideas and experiences over an intensive weekend workshop made a lot of sense. There was particular interest in the decisions and processes which lead to the redevelopment of FrontlineSMS, something I'm always happy to share, particularly with good friends and colleagues (old and new).

Today, activities such as this sit in stark contrast to the early kiwanja days, where I'd be largely asked to comment on what other people were doing. The last couple of years has seen a gradual shift, so much so that I'm now at the point where I rarely get invited to speak at a conference if the topic isn't FrontlineSMS, social mobile or grassroots mobile activity (see "Staying Connected. And Relevant"). With a number of new projects in the pipeline it's looking like this trend is set to continue.

Getting a social mobile product to 'market' can be a challenging and time-consuming business. The FrontlineSMS concept is well over three years old, but only now do we have something significant to offer grassroots NGOs (the earlier version was more a proof-of-concept). The challenge has now shifted from concept design, fundraising, project management and launch, to one dominated by outreach and promotion. Fortunately, people seem to want to hear what we have to say.

The next ten weeks are busy and exciting in equal measure, with a flurry of conference and workshop activity starting with a Telecommunications Industry Partners Strategy Meeting at the World Economic Forum in New York this week. Shortly after comes Open Source in Mobile (OSiM) in Berlin, where we'll be sharing our experiences developing mobile applications in the social mobile space. It's a new topic for the conference, and great that the organisers, Informa Telecoms, are beginning to take more of an interest in the subject.

Later this month sees a return to New York for the Clinton Global Initiative (CGi) annual meeting where we'll be announcing the new "FrontlineSMS Ambassadors" initiative. An invitation to sit on the technology panel at Social Capital Markets 2008 in San Francisco on 15th October is followed by an appearance in Maine for Pop!Tech. October comes to a close in London where I'll be talking at a Chatham House event - “Technology: a platform for development?” - about my take on non-profits and mobile technology.

Finally, November kicks off with the fascinating A Better World By Design gathering in Rhode Island, where twenty-five speakers have been invited from all fields to discuss a wide range of world challenges and issues. Then, after an invitation to sit on the panel of a public meeting at the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington, we finish off with something completely different with a presentation of our Silverback mobile phone game at Net Impact in Philadelphia. A nice way to end, for sure.

These are still early days (if you forget the last three years!). The new FrontlineSMS is beginning to make considerable inroads in the NGO world, and with increasing numbers of non-profits planning FrontlineSMS implementations, this is certainly not the time to take our foot off the gas.

Staying connected. And relevant.

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.

The Social Mobile Long Tail 2.0

A few months ago I finally got round to diagramming what I thought mobile applications development in the not-for-profit space looked like. I came up with this, and called it "Social Mobile's Long Tail". It was based on the original Long Tail concept, first talked about by Chris Anderson in a Wired Magazine article, when he used it to describe consumer demographics in business (something quite different).

(A larger image is available via the kiwanja.net site here)

My thinking was this. Looking at the mobile applications space today we have a number of high-cost, well-publicised, large-scale mobile-related projects which tend to cover national (and sometimes international) needs. These "large" systems play a crucial role in helping larger bodies, sometimes as big as government departments, provide mobile services to their target audiences. They are generally aimed at the higher-end of the market, where only the larger or resource-rich NGOs reside. Way out there on price, complex to develop (assuming you wanted to) and near-on impossible to replicate, they're almost completely out-of-reach of your average grassroots NGO. These applications and platforms sit in the red part of the Tail.

In the orange section we move into the more mid-range systems - solutions developed by individual NGOs for a specific need, campaign or project. These are generally less complex, which makes their chances of replicability slighter better, but still difficult for many grassroots non-profits with few technical resources or hardware at their disposal.

Finally, in the green section - the truly long part of the long tail - we have the low-end, simple, appropriate mobile technology solutions which are easy to obtain, require as little technical expertise as possible, and are easy to copy and replicate. From my own experiences the number of NGOs present in this space is by far the greatest, making it the area to focus on if we want to create the highest amount of mobile-enabled social change. Add up all the value here, and it easily outweighs the rest along the higher (more lucrative) parts of the tail.

I use this diagram in many of my conference talks and presentations, and it seems to go down very well. It was interesting to see some of the staff at Nokia Research, where I spoke last month while I was in Palo Alto, grabbing their camera phones to snap a picture of it. I'm always thinking about ways I can refine it though, and Jim Witkin - a colleague - suggested adding an extra axis. This is now the one on the right, representing the number of NGOs in each of the Long Tail segments.

There are probably better ways of depicting this, but for now I'm happy with this. Suggestions, however, are always welcome.

Three years on, but still some way to go...

I'm writing this from seat 7D at exactly 38,000 feet somewhere between Forssa and Cambridge. Normally seat 7D would be in first- or business-class, but unfortunately for me I'm on a Ryanair (low cost airline) flight. Nothing fancy here. I'm returning from a short combined work and pleasure trip to Finland, where exactly three years ago I was knee-deep writing the first version of FrontlineSMS.

It was 'seat of the pants' stuff back then. I remember giving a very early interview about the software to Charity Times, even though it was only a third complete and it wasn't totally clear what it was or wasn't going to do. If that wasn't enough, I was also asked for a URL so people could go online for more information. "Of course", I said. With no website yet in place, programming was quickly put on hold for an afternoon while one was hastily deployed. In the absence of an obvious graphic to use for the main banner, and no logo to speak of, I took the liberty of taking a photo of the forest outside (the same forest I used to stare into while trying to decipher numerous unfriendly VB.NET error messages). My forest banner - which did resemble something of a 'frontline', I guess - held firm for two-and-a-half years until it was finally replaced when the new website - properly planned and commissioned, I hasten to add - went live in May.

A lot has changed in three years, and we're not just talking website banners. The initial launch, back in late 2005, went largely unnoticed. I remember spending my evenings trying to identify people who might be interested in writing about it, but it was new, was written by somebody nobody had heard of, had no users, nobody knew if it worked (not even me, to be honest) and nobody knew if anyone would want it. Talk about an uphill struggle. Mike Grenville at 160Characters was the first to see some potential in it, and his post got the ball rolling. A few other sites followed suit, most liking the thinking behind the program more than the program itself. Things slowly began to move, and a few enquiries came in from here and there. One was from Kubatana, who have the great honour of being the first organisation to take a punt on FrontlineSMS (they still use it to this day). Significantly, another email was from the MacArthur Foundation. The huge significance of that mid-November telephone conversation with Jerry wasn't to become apparent for another year-and-a-half or so.

Today, news of the latest version is effortlessly working its way around the web and my Inbox is regularly hit with NGO and press enquiries, people wanting to know if they can help in any way, and a stream of messages of support (there are one or two negative individuals, but luckily they remain well in the minority). There are some great, hugely supportive Blog posts out there, including those by Erik Hersman, Mike Grenville, Sanjana Hattotuwa and Clark Boyd, but also some insightful, short and unusual ones. FrontlineSMS is work in progress, and people seem interested enough to want to come along for the ride.

Cellphone 9 described FrontlineSMS as "The NGO Twitter", while Unthinkingly thought it was "a thoroughly wonderful idea in many ways … If you’re into international rural research with mobile phones. A tool worth watching very closely, it’s what I think is the leading platform of the mobile research 'industry' if there is such a thing". Chromosome LK won the Dramatic Headline competition with their "FrontlineSMS and Sri Lankan Gays" (referring to its use in Sri Lanka by a gay rights group), while Aydin Design decided that one of the really exciting things about FrontlineSMS was "the speed of development - with low resources, putting it in the hands of people now - so they can do things to improve their lives - now", which is exactly what it is trying to do. Isis-Inc - who's strap line is "Technically, it's about sex" (?) - concluded their coverage with "Yay FrontlineSMS!! Access meets elegance!!".

It was Clark Boyd, however, who hit the nail right on the head when he wrote:

Today, FrontlineSMS announced version 2.0. To get a handle on what goes into this, think about it. This platform has to work on hundreds of different handsets and modems, and in languages ranging from Swahili to Cantonese. And it needs to work with Windows, Mac and Linux. Not child's play, and not something that's been done with millions of dollars of backing from major funders

Not one to sit on my laurels, I'm already working on ideas for the next version of FrontlineSMS, and a number of exciting related initiatives, with the support of another major US foundation. FrontlineSMS is a major step forward in kiwanja's efforts to build affordable, appropriate technology solutions for the grassroots NGO community.

But we're by no means there yet...

FrontlineSMS and the culture of the goodie-bag

This week sees the launch of the new and improved FrontlineSMS (or, at the risk of jumping on the bandwagon, FrontlineSMS2.0 as I prefer not to call it). As well as support for Windows, Mac and Linux, we're also launching a new website and, through a growing band of global volunteers, gearing up our awareness-raising campaigns. Although this feels like something of a fresh start, FrontlineSMS already has users in over forty countries around the world and continues to generate a buzz of excitement among NGOs who come into contact with it. Next week will also see the new FrontlineSMS debut at Global Messaging Congress 2008 in Cannes, where I'm doing a keynote address on the use of mobiles - text messaging, more specifically - among the global NGO community. This follows on from my February talk at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona.

Although most mobile industry events continue to be dominated by money-makers, aspiring money-makers and deal-breakers, it's refreshing to see NGO work finally gaining traction. Clearly, as more and more companies turn their attention towards emerging markets we'll see an increasing emphasis on the 'bottom of the pyramid' at these kinds of events.

With the exception of my twenty-five minute talk, the remainder of the two-day conference turns its attention back to mobile advertising, the mobile web, user experience, messaging business models, the role of IM and the future of mobile messaging. There will also be the chance to unwind with colleagues at the Global Messaging Awards bash, which I helped judge last month. It's going to be a very interesting couple of days, and I'm looking forward to hearing from some of the leaders in their field and exploring ways of leveraging some of this innovation for the benefit of the non-profit community.

And, just to be sure that on their way home no-one forgets the considerable impact of mobile technology to promote positive social and environmental change around the world, delegates will get a FrontlineSMS goodie-bag. I won't spoil the surprise, but let's just say that the contents will help remind them of the considerable challenges many mobile users face in the developing world.

Thanks to Wieden+Kennedy for the cute photo.

London calling

In a sense, kiwanja.net is something of a deception. With so much going on so much of the time, it exudes the aura of a small, tightly-knit organisation, a team of people busily working their way through a range of mobile and ICT-related projects. If, back in 2003, I had called the site kenbanks.com as I originally planned - thank goodness it was taken - this confusion probably wouldn't arise today. Many people assume there are at least a couple of people behind kiwanja.net, nGOmobile or FrontlineSMS. The deception is well and truly driven home when I get emails asking to speak to someone from my London office. One day, my friend. One day.

The last couple of weeks or so - a few days either side of my return to Stanford, in fact - have been particularly productive. Here's a wrap up of some of the latest kiwanja.net News.

kiwanja.net was appointed a member of the Program Committee for the W3C Workshop on the Role of Mobile Technologies in Fostering Social Development. Scheduled for Sao Paulo in June, the Workshop aims to understand the specific challenges of using mobile phones and web technologies to deliver services to underprivileged populations in developing countries. A Call for Participation for the 2008 event went out at the end of February.

A talk on the uses of FrontlineSMS by grassroots health NGOs, and a live demonstration of the software, took place at Stanford University's Texting4Health Conference. This followed closely on the heals of FrontlineSMS's inclusion in a new UN "Compendium of ICT Applications on Electronic Government". The first in a series of volumes, this one focuses on the use of mobile technology in the areas of health and learning.

After a series of discussions which started last autumn came an appointment to the Advisory Board for Open Mind, a non-profit organisation which houses Question Box, a project developing a simple telephone intercom which connects rural people to the internet. After blogging about it a few days ago (see the entry below), Question Box was picked up by the popular Boing Boing website.

After successful outings with the Global Mobile Awards 2008 and kiwanja's own nGOmobile competition, 160 Characters appointed kiwanja.net a judge for the forthcoming 2008 Mobile Messaging Awards. FrontlineSMS, which was short listed for a 2007 Mobile Messaging Award, will be at the centre of a speech I'm giving in Cannes - where the 2008 winners will be announced, and where I'll be making the non-profit keynote address on the use of SMS by grassroots NGOs around the world.

On the subject of Awards, FrontlineSMS has been nominated in the "Equality" section of the Tech Awards, an international Awards program that honours innovators from around the world applying technology to benefit humanity.

kiwanja.net made its fourth appearance on the BBC World Service, this time talking about the recently announced winners of the inaugural nGOmobile competition. The interview, broadcast on Digital Planet, profiled the projects in Kenya, Uganda, Mexico and Azerbaijan and covered more broadly the continuing relevance of SMS as a tool for grassroots NGOs in the developing world.

The Social Mobile Group on Facebook, set up by kiwanja in November 2006 (and which has just hit the 1,400 member-mark) was praised in a blog posting by Social Media Guy in an entry titled "Facebook Groups Done Right". The use of Rotating Group Officers, relevant discussion topics, the presence of an external site for non-Facebook users and a voluntary Members Directory were all highlighted as innovative ways of developing and maintaining groups on the platform.

Finally, "Design Traditionalist", a blog run by Alan Manley (a lecturer in product design in India) has named the kiwanja.net website among several others in its "Good site" section. As someone forced to do their own web design and development (it would normally be a job for the London office, right?) it's always quite pleasing when a qualified observer has a "positive interaction".

Maybe I won't make those changes after all...

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.

The community conundrum. Continued...

Last week I was called up by a Researcher at Berkeley wanting me to take part in a survey. After a conference in February this year, intriguingly entitled "The UN Meets Silicon Valley", a number of initiatives were now beginning to emerge (I was invited to the conference, but it didn't really seem like my kind of thing, despite having had the pleasure of working with the organisation recently). Yes, the gathering was over eight months ago, but we are talking the UN here (I did say this wasn't my kind of thing, didn't I?). According to the official conference announcement:

The United Nations meets the Silicon Valley to explore how technology and industry can bolster development. Prominent members of industry, academia, and the venture capital community will take the stage alongside members of the Strategy Council of the Global Alliance for ICT and Development to discuss the partnership between the public and private sectors in the field of ICT and development

It turns out that one of the key outputs from the conference was a call for the creation of some kind of community website, where technology companies in the Valley could connect with the ICT4D community 'out there' and become a catalyst for great things. The research taking place now hopes to determine what this community might look like, how it might work, and what it might actually do. Although its aims may be admirable, the thought of yet another community drives me to despair. I'll happily be proved wrong - I wasn't obstructive and did make a number of suggestions during my 30 minute conversation with the Researcher - but I can't help but wonder where our continued obsession with community lies and why it continues to be something we find so hard to crack.

I'm no expert, but I guess you can put online communities into at least two categories - those built around small, micro-specific interest areas - such as a ban on a particular product or company, or the running of a local sports club - and those at the opposite end of the spectrum, the macro-non-specific areas. There are probably millions of examples of the first category, but far fewer of the second. Facebook and MySpace are the two obvious global gorillas that spring to mind (interestingly, the Groups feature in Facebook quite likely provides the platform for many of the newer micro-specific groups, many of which are humorous in nature and seem to serve no specific purpose other than to be funny). When we look at building communities for the more serious ICT4D, or mobile-related communities, it does no harm to look at how the Facebook ecosystem works. Why, for example, has it proved relatively painless for me to attract over 850 members to the Social Mobile Group, a group I set up to tap into the wider interest in mobile phones beyond the activist and professional communities? What motivates people to join that group, rather than some of the others outside of Facebook (or even within Facebook, for that matter)? Tough questions.

For me, one of the key issues has always been one of motivation. You know, the "Why should I make the effort to register myself on this site?" conundrum. Very few sites have really cracked this because few have been able to effectively deconstruct this motivational puzzle. And even when people are convinced that it's worth their while registering on a site, getting them active is another thing. After all, you may be able to lead someone to a community, but you can't make them post. Maybe one key advantage of Facebook is that once you're registered you can show your support for multiple causes or interest groups with a couple of simple mouse clicks. If the act of registering is the problem, how to we get around that? No registration equals no idea who the members are, and what kind of community is that? Or, is knowing who's in a community a defining factor of that community?

My Facebook experiment has expanded recently with the creation of the FrontlineSMS Supporters Group. Within the next few months the main FrontlineSMS website will be re-launched with a range of new features for the growing family of FrontlineSMS users, and others interested in mobile use in developing countries. When it comes to building a true, active community around it though, I remain hesitant. But one thing's for sure - I'll continue watching what's happening on Facebook. I'm sure the answer lies in there somewhere...

(For an earlier Blog posting where I look at the more prominent mobile-based sites - community and otherwise - check out "View from the front row" in the August archive)

The unpicking of FrontlineSMS

Going by the title of this Blog post you might be expecting a little online session for prospective FrontlineSMS users. You know the kind - what it is, what it does, where it's been used and so on. Well, however useful that might be, this posting is more for my benefit. It's time for a spot of thinking out loud...

FrontlineSMS started life in 2005 as a classic example of evolutionary prototyping - in other words, the act of throwing something together and then sticking it out there and waiting to see what happens. Apart from a hunch and a small grant from a couple of early converts, there was little proof that anyone would be interested in the software, let alone make the effort to use it. I remember to this day talking about it during an interview with Charity Times in the early summer of 2005. I was still in Finland at the time, writing the code, when it dawned on me that it might be a good idea to put together a website if I was going to start talking to major industry magazines. (Incidentally, the Charity Times interview was already lined up - I just managed to convince them that it would be good to put out a "call for trialists" in the article). So programming was put on hold for a day while I very quickly put together a website. (In case you were wondering, the top banner on the FrontlineSMS website is actually the view from the lounge window where FrontlineSMS was written. It seemed kind-of relevant, in the absence of anything better to put there).

So, FrontlineSMS was let loose on the world during the last couple of months of 2005, and it was then a case of sitting back and waiting to see what happened. There never was a big plan, no big intention, no big vision. Not only did I not have the budget or capacity to do much else, I didn't know what else I could do. But herein lay the beauty of the project, for me at least. If it was going to be a success then the very people it was meant to empower would need to play a big part. I never wanted to force anything onto anyone, never wanted to have to "sell" the idea, so it was down to grassroots NGOs to somehow find out about FrontlineSMS and then find a use for it. If that didn't happen then there probably wasn't a need in the first place. If that was the case, I thought to myself, I'll let my hunch go and move on to something else.

Well, as it turned out the hunch wasn't a bad one, and FrontlineSMS has come on a long way since that heady Finnish summer two years ago. In addition to there being funding (thanks to the MacArthur Foundation), there now is a plan, and a vision. But despite there being more structure to the project, the software continues to surprise me - and that's why it's such a great project to work on. Okay, the Nigerian election monitoring was great, as was its use in the Philippine elections shortly after (this wasn't so widely reported) and the overall response from the community. But despite feeling more in control in recent months, it turns out that FrontlineSMS is doing some pretty exciting stuff out there that I'm only beginning to hear about. (Keeping in contact with grassroots NGOs working in pretty remote areas presents its own challenges, so I do have an excuse). So my learning continues...

So, what have I learnt recently? Well, two things in particular. Over the past few months it seems that FrontlineSMS has not only been merrily sending out security alerts to field workers in Afghanistan (a conflict zone if ever there was one), but it's also been providing market prices to several thousand farmers in Indonesia. None of this should surprise me - FrontlineSMS is a tool, after all, and it can be used for many different things. I've always maintained that the software would end up being used for things I'd never dream of, and on that note at least I have been proved right.