Today Frontline turns 10 years old! And we've come a long way. Frontline started as a way to make communication easier, using SMS as a way to reach everyone quickly and efficiently. We were founded on the idea that increasing access + efficiency = impact, and that's what we've done ever since.
This year we deployed our Android SMS gateway app — FrontlineSync — to public beta. We decided to build FrontlineSync to make it easier for our users to connect the power of FrontlineSMS to the GSM network. Connecting to the mobile network can be a barrier to users, so we wanted to build a resilient and easy to use platform that would work everywhere.
Worldwide, media outlets are increasingly mastering two-way communications channels. Radio and television stations are equipped to receive text messages, phone calls, and social media inputs. Staff can then decide to respond over broadcast, or back through the incoming channel. Yet these communications are often restricted to a single node; one community radio station, or a single television outlet, connecting to its own audience. There are often gaps in transmitting that information to other outlets who might also find that information relevant.
Here at FrontlineSMS, we’ve been making software for a long time. When we first released Version 2 of our software, a little over a year ago, we were one of a few SMS management platforms available- one of even fewer that was free and open source. At the time, we were proud to have around 25,000 downloads and an active user community. You can imagine our surprise when we checked our download numbers last week and learned that FrontlineSMS has been downloaded more than 100,000 times- more than 75,000 times in a little over a year. We were so excited, we got a cake. You have to understand, when things get serious at FrontlineSMS, we get serious about getting a cake.
In my previous post, I argued that established, traditional newsrooms tend to be most comfortable accepting citizen reporting or user-generated content during a large-scale, widespread emergency event. In these circumstances, newsrooms often accept photo and video submissions from the public, or even seek them out on Instagram, Vine or Twitter. Professional journalists or editors may curate tweets or blog posts to summarize the experience of citizens. They may also make a public request for input from those affected, or to clarify incoming information.
Citizen reporters broke much of the news, though they still needed broadcast media to help spread it. In some cases, citizens were able to capture iconic photos of events. Others were able to tell compelling stories about how the emergency affected their lives, including obeying the "stay in place" request by government officials during the manhunt. It has been widely reported how quickly social communities also got information wrong, including falsely accusing suspects. But I've seen a nearly equal number of reports showing how quickly these communities were able to self-correct their own misinformation.
“Our dev team does SCRUM, with user-centric, test-driven development”. We’re proud of that statement, but also very aware of how unsubstantiated that claim can sound. We’ve all heard the stories of the tech companies with 6-month-long ‘iterations’ and 3000-page specification documents that nonetheless brand themselves Agile. These horror stories could push some to follow their agile approach of choice to the letter, for fear of being swept downstream into the dreaded waterfall, but at FrontlineSMS we feel we’ve adapted much of the industry’s best practices and most trusted tools to create a process that gives us confidence in our code, and the ability to create an ever-improving product for our users.
Do you remember when grocery stores didn’t know you were pregnant before your parents? Or when newspapers couldn’t find naked pictures of you by looking through your phone? Boy, those were the days (When did I get this old?). Still, there’s no escaping it. Things are digitizing. Everywhere. Whether you’re registering to vote in Washington State using Facebook or banking on your mobile phone in Kenya, there are, all of a sudden, a bunch of third-party organizations involved in the most intimate parts of your life that weren’t there before. And, for the most part, that’s a good thing. Services are delivered more quickly, collective action is easier to organize, and you can do, well, almost everything, better.
Seemingly every major news event worldwide is heightening participation in news. People are eager to share updates and photos of an unfolding news event, ask questions of media outlets, and share important information. But there are two important aspects to this type of participation: (1) people are most interested in sharing news about the community around them, specifically with others in their community and (2) the mechanism by which they choose to share information is dependent upon personal habits and access. In other words, people write about their immediate world using their 'home' or go-to platform.
It's Social Media Week this week, and in recognition of this and our seventh anniversary next month, we asked our Founder, Ken Banks, to reflect on the role that social media has played in the history and development of FrontlineSMS.
In a recent BBC Future article I wrote about the "democratisation of development". In it, I argued that the dual rise of the world wide web and mobile technology had opened up the opportunity for everyone to contribute to solving some of the world's bigger problems. Today, someone with an Internet connection and a software development kit can write a health-, agriculture- or human rights-focussed application and begin building a global user base within days, if not hours. To quote from my article, there are likely more people working on solving social and environmental problems in the world today than ever before in human history. Clearly this can't be a bad thing.
An Internet connection and a software development kit, along with the odd phone, cable and GSM modem - a luxury item back then - was exactly how FrontlineSMS got going in 2005. Slightly ahead of the curve, it took advantage of the increasing numbers of mobile phones in the hands of communities in the developing world and allowed non-profit organisations working with those people to better communicate with them. The idea and software development were carried out in relative isolation. It took the Internet and gradual rise of social media to truly open up the opportunity. Without either of those the project would not be where it is today. Without it, very many others wouldn't be where they are today, either.
When my IT career began in the 1980's, software was still mailed out on floppy disks, and software updates were few and far between. Clearly, anyone interested in software development had a clear problem of distribution, not to mention promotion. Back then I found out everything I needed to know in trade magazines. If FrontlineSMS had been born back in those days it would never have taken off. Without funds for promotion, and without any way of connecting easily with users, or getting the software to them, it would have gone nowhere. I often wonder how I'd have mailed floppy disks to users in remote Sierra Leone, or Indonesia, even if they had managed to hear about it and want a copy. The Internet changed all that. Today, the FrontlineSMS website is the equivalent of a double page spread in a glossy computing magazine, and the download button the equivalent of dropping floppy disks in the post. Not only are things much much quicker, they're as good as free, and the reach is enormous.
Social media has played a considerable role in the success of FrontlineSMS, too. The project never had a marketing and promotion budget, so in the early days it was all about maximising every free channel that was available. Blogging was the first. People were kept up-to-date with latest user statistics, case studies, conference talks, guest articles, grants and snippets of news. We pride ourselves in giving our users a voice and letting them tell the world how the software has impacted their work, and this strategy worked incredibly well. Comments were left on other blogs writing about technology and development, and often they linked back to FrontlineSMS articles and posts. It probably took a couple of years, but blogging eventually got us the early traction we needed.
To show how long FrontlineSMS has been around, Facebook wasn't really up to a huge amount back in 2005 (although it was clearly going places). As the user base grew, we took advantage of its increasing reach by cross-posting blog entries and setting up group pages. Facebook, as Twitter has done more recently, crucially helped take the project to a new audience. Whereas blogging had largely promoted it among the technology-for-development (ICT4D) community, Facebook allowed for more serendipitous connections to develop. One of those directly lead us to Wieden+Kennedy, a design agency who later worked on the first revamp of the FrontlineSMS website, and the development of the now infamous o/ logo. Since then, Facebook and Twitter have been crucial in helping us promote the use of the software, in sharing news, and creating buzz around new software releases and new grant funding.
At another level, social media has been central in allowing us to recruit volunteers and staff. Twitter now effectively acts as our "Volunteer, intern and vacancy" bulletin board, with increasing numbers of staff coming through connections first made on Twitter. When Laura Walker Hudson joined us a couple of years ago a tweet was not only the catalyst, but the very fact we were following each other signified, in my mind, a solid long-standing interest in who we were and what we were trying to do.
Without the world wide web, and the now ubiquitous social media platforms that sit on top of it, it's hard to see how FrontlineSMS would have made any ground at all. As we hear all too often, ideas are one thing but execution is another. Execution, however, is much harder if - armed with that great idea - you're not able to tell people about it. In Social Media Week we, at FrontlineSMS, acknowledge the role it has played in our own story and, along with our countless thousands of users around the world, say thank you for all the good things it has helped us and our dedicated community make possible.
As occasionally happens, Ken and I find ourselves on opposite sides of the world at conferences this week. Ken is at Mobile Web in Africa 2010, in Johannesburg, and I'm hereby asking him to tell you all about it here when he gets a minute. o/ I'm at Design for Persuasion in Ghent, Belgium, with a room full of people who've never heard of FrontlineSMS - this is only the second time I've done this kind of event, but it's something we're committed to doing because that's how we get the word out to new audiences. As I did after the Digital Indaba in July, I thought I'd post the gist of my talk here. You can also listen to an AudioBoo which I recorded in a far more coherent manner than the actual talk, shortly afterwards.
Sidenote: I showed, as I always do, Ken's favourite diagram of 'social mobile's long tail'. Related but different is the persuasion map we're all developing (read: wrangling over) live at the conference, at BJ Fogg's suggestion. It maps technologies along axes showing prominence versus usefulness. SMS has already moved from unknown to well known, and from useful to not useful, a couple of times. Will be interesting to see where it ends up - or who gives up first...
Since I joined the team back in March I've spent a lot of time emailing our users and begging them for stories and feedback about their experience. You can read a version of this plea here! Many of you have given generously of your time and energy to write and tell me your thoughts on the platform and the challenges of implementing using SMS.
Something that surprised me a bit was the low proportion of users who were utilising more than the most basic functionality in FrontlineSMS. Many, perhaps 90-95%, are using only the functionality up to and including keywords to automatically respond to incoming SMS, or simply organise incoming SMS. But not all are aware of additional plugins like the Reminders module and the enormous potential of Medic's PatientView. Even auto-subscribing people to groups via SMS is a step beyond what many have time to set up.This might be controversial - do people disagree? Am I getting a false picture?
If not, the low take-up of advanced features is probably to do with capacity and time - both for many of the small community-based organisations who are our target user, if we have such a thing, and for larger NGOs and international organisations. Indeed, we know at times people struggle to get basic FrontlineSMS functions working effectively and meshing well with their existing work. We're tremendously excited about the potential of new functionality and technology, and small groups of users will be able to make excellent use of them - but for the majority of users, basic troubleshooting, support and advice are critical.
In the coming weeks we'll be working on our plans for the software in 2011 - stay tuned for more from this from our Lead Developer, Alex. Our role in providing user guides and resources, advice and support, and even training is something we're also looking carefully at. As ever, we'd welcome your thoughts.
Friday morning saw me zooming up Portobello Road in west London, cursing the tourists and looking forward to a large flat white with some new acquaintances - I was meeting with a couple of people have just started to use FrontlineSMS for campaigning. This is an increasingly common, and always delightful, part of my job. I generally pepper people with questions, exclaim 'that's interesting' every ten seconds, and scribble furious notes. Often, people ask for advice - what's the best way to fit this into our programme? How should we pilot? How much will it cost? The thing is, I'm not the expert, hence all my questions - but I know where to find the real pros.
FrontlineSMS are a diverse bunch, based all over the world, as our new Member Map is beginning to show. You're working on projects in all sorts of fields, from safe motherhood, to community cohesion, to citizen journalism, to minority rights activism, and all points between and beyond. And YOU are the FrontlineSMS implementation experts. We know the theory, and of course we know the software, but there's no substitute for experience when it comes to finding ways around the real world pitfalls and problems that users encounter. So if anything, I'm less an expert myself, and more of a matchmaker, linking people using FrontlineSMS in similar ways; or a librarian, remembering stories of past solutions and pointing them out to people encountering a similar problem.
So where do we find these examples? Well, face to face meetings are probably the richest way for us to find out what you're up to. We'll go anywhere! Send us an email and we'll hop on a plane, train or death-defying local form of motorbike transport and come see you. Failing that, we often give examples from our guest posts, or from email correspondence with unfailingly generous people all over the world who have millions of things to do, and yet still find the time to sit down and tell us what they're up to.
We're also working with a couple of our users to write up glossy, jointly-branded case studies, which get into a bit more technical detail than a guest post can, try to show the impact FrontlineSMS has had, and even list local suppliers. The idea is that FrontlineSMS users should be able to use these documents themselves to explain the SMS portion of their project to their own donors and stakeholders. They'll also be an invaluable resource for others looking to implement a similar programme. Watch this space for the first case study in the next few weeks.
At a more basic level, we need more data about who's using FrontlineSMS - we need to know who you are, where you are, and what you're doing. People like numbers - what, where, how many. For this reason, we added a small tool to a recent version of FrontlineSMS that offers to send back anonymised statistics to us (more on that in a future blogpost, as they've only just started to come in).We'll also be running a user survey in September to try and get a better picture of how FrontlineSMS is being used. Finally, in 2011 we'll be working on allowing you to register your copy of FrontlineSMS.
All this information gathering has three purposes:
- We find that it's only when we get to know you that we start to hear what we should be improving, what not's working, what else we should add. All the new features we've added (Translation Manager, Forms, and the HTTP trigger) have been in response to your feedback. And it's only when you tell us that we know something's not working - users reported a problem with the software on Monday morning, and we had it fixed and a new version uploaded within a few hours.
- As I said above, you're the experts. Hearing from you means we can share more with other users, and help give people ideas for how to use FrontlineSMS in their own work.
- We can explain to our donors and supporters what FrontlineSMS is achieving in the world, which enables them to keep supporting us, and in turn, lets us keep doing all the things we do to keep FrontlineSMS evolving and keep the community flourishing.
Your stories keep us improving; keep us innovating; and keep the lights on in the office. Better still, they help inspire other users. Do you have a story to tell?
A couple of weeks ago I had the great pleasure, and honour, of joining a wonderful panel, including Carel Pedre, Haiti DJ and activist, and Rory Williams of Carbonsmart.com, at the 5th Digital Citizen Indaba in Grahamstown, South Africa. The brief was to talk about digital communication in the context of natural disasters and climate change. I've spent the last three years working on humanitarian policy, so it was a real treat to bring past and current preoccupations together and let them go for a little walk, arm in arm. As ever though, time ran short, so I thought I'd repost the gist of the presentation here.
Thinking through what to say, I went back to the basics of understanding what happens in a disaster, and what local, national and international organisations, communities and individuals can do to mitigate their effects and help people recover when they happen. I came across this excellent visualisation of the phases of disaster management and response by the University of Wisconsin's Disaster Management Center, via Özge Yalçiner's thesis.
What's striking about this graphic is how little of it is taken up by what we might think of as classic disaster management - maybe a third of it - if you imagine it as a clock face, from about 8 'o' clock to midnight. Even then, the bit that generates most of the donations and media coverage lasts even less - by the time we get up to ten or eleven 'o' clock, when the slow, laborious process of recovery begins, the world's attention has usually moved on, barring major anniversaries and scandals. I think we're seeing this with Haiti right now. But fully half of the wheel is taken up with understanding and preparing for disasters before they happen. Another big slice represents the critical prediction and early warning analysis in which governments and local knowledge play an essential part.
Much of this work, all the way around the wheel, requires community participation - and quite right too. Requirements analysis and needs assessment need local knowledge and community input; reconstruction must be community-led and owned to be successful. Then follow the wheel round to between midnight and 1 'o' clock - there's a segment devoted to gathering disaster histories and experiences, both to learn and to help plan and prepare for future emergencies. Again, this is a key point of community action. Between 2 and 3 'o' clock, vulnerability analyses bring in community maps, workshops, focus group discussions, and other techniques to make sure that interventions and community support mechanisms reach the right people and places at the right moments. And last-mile disaster preparedness and early warning systems and mechanisms just won't work unless they are truly owned by the communities who have to enact them.
This will come as a surprise to none of you, given the focus of this blog, but: I think there's a significant opportunity here to use SMS to help communities to engage with these processes and get their views heard. Complaints and response systems, data-gathering, early warning and evacuation alerts all have and should be delivered using SMS, given its ubiquity in areas that are otherwise hard to reach. Two-way communication using an SMS hub running FrontlineSMS would enable you to send alerts, information about distributions, advice and even messages of support and solidarity; and more importantly, receive information about what's happening on the ground, invaluable local knowledge, and feedback on the success of programmes, and allow people to express what they are feeling. The Haiti experience has shown that this is possible in an emergency setting, and the important work of evaluating the success of those programmes is ongoing - the next step being to build on this learning to improve our understanding of best practice for SMS in emergencies. And as I write, agencies now experienced in using SMS in the fraught days after a disaster are thinking about how to maintain those links, and forge new ones, as they move into the 'recovery phase'. But many organisations are beginning to use SMS in the longer-term, more gradual process of helping people to mitigate and prepare for the risks they're exposed to - we know many are using FrontlineSMS.
We didn't get time to talk much about this on the day, but maybe we can carry on the conversation now. What do you think?
I really enjoyed the event and the thought-provoking discussions about digital activism. I'm very grateful to the DCI team for asking us to be part of the day, and to the lovely participants, who very obligingly joined in with a bit of what I like to call FrontlineSMS Pilates.
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.
The FrontlineSMS team is growing. In this Guest Blog post, Laura Hudson - the new FrontlineSMS Project Manager - tells us why she came on board, what she intends to do in her new role, and outlines some of her early thinking. "It's exciting and a bit nerve-wracking to represent something as revolutionary as FrontlineSMS at the best of times, but two-and-a-half weeks in to a new job as Project Manager for FrontlineSMS, attending the World Bank's Innovation Fair on Moving Beyond Conflict was an eye-opening experience. The Fair was attended by innovators and technical experts from all over the world, and was a great opportunity to swap stories and questions, make connections, and plan future collaborations.
Five years on from the first version, and thanks to Ken's tireless work to raise awareness, FrontlineSMS is a familiar name to many in the mobile and social entrepreneurship field. Still others had heard about it and were keen to try it, and I met at least one implementing partner I hadn't encountered before!
Lots of our discussions had to do with what you do after you've had the great idea - how to get it from concept to reality, to operating 'at scale'. So much of the success of FrontlineSMS has had to do with just two things: a great concept; developed with the support and input of a strong user community. I wanted to reflect a bit on what we're doing to continue to develop along these lines, and we'll hear more in future from our lovely developers, Alex and Morgan, on the next few months in the FrontlineSMS labs.
In some ways FrontlineSMS is already scaling - the software has been downloaded from our website over 6000 times, and we have a number of organisations working directly with us to build on the FrontlineSMS brand and software to develop plugins and implementations in specific sectors - including FrontlineSMS:Medic and FrontlineSMS:Credit. The field is so fast-moving and collaborative that new possibilities pop up every day - so much so that it could be hard to settle down and focus on our core business - developing the software.
In the coming months, we're going to work on a strategy that will set our direction for the next five years, and support an operational plan for the next two years. We'll be looking at how to consolidate our support to users (more on that in a second) and what we should be looking at next - picture messaging, for example, or examining what sort of interface might be useful with online services like Mxit in South Africa.
Since the beginning, Ken's mantra has been 'support the users, and all else will follow'. Priorities for the next year include improving our support to our users, and providing more online resources and step-by-step help, such as decision-making trees and thematic guides. And as for any organisation, it's important to know what we've achieved.
As a service provider, supporting those who deliver on the ground rather than delivering ourselves, this will take the form of figures and case studies on how many projects using FrontlineSMS, how it's going, and if possible, approximately how many people they are reaching. To find this out we'll be contacting users directly, running competitions, and linking users direct to donors in innovative ways - watch this space.
It's an exciting time for us and for all those out there helping our project and others like it to achieve great things and hopefully, and most importantly, help to make a real difference to people all over the world".
Laura Hudson Project Manager www.frontlinesms.com
Tonight in Santa Clara, California, several thousand people will be standing on the stage with me as I collect a Tech Award for FrontlineSMS. It's been an incredible four years - the last two in particular - and it's amazing to think how far we've all come. FrontlineSMS stirs genuine enthusiasm and excitement everywhere I go, and people resonate just as much with the story as they do with the simplicity and impact of the technology. The Tech Awards is a prestigious Silicon Valley-based international awards program that honours innovators from around the world who are applying technology to benefit humanity. This is the second time FrontlineSMS has been nominated, snapping up one of three awards handed out this year in the "Equality" category. Fifteen awards in total are being given out on the night, along with one to Al Gore who's being honoured with the "Global Humanitarian Award 2009".
I may be the one picking up the FrontlineSMS trophy, but this is very much a team effort if ever there was one. This would never have happened without the faith of donors, an incredible (and growing) user community, volunteers, partners, numerous bloggers and members of the media, academics, advisors, designers, lawyers and solicitors, photographers, competition judges, programmers, members of the public, students, techies, and friends and family. There are simply way too many to mention. Remove just one piece and it all comes crashing down.
This Award is also, more importantly, a celebration of the art of the possible. It shows what's possible if you build tools for underserved places - where they're often most needed - and what's possible if you remain totally focused on your goal. It also shows what's possible if you don't lose sight of your users, and if you focus on building solutions and not just technology for technology's sake. And it shows that you don't need significant amounts of money or abundant resources to build tools which can have real impact.
The story behind social mobile tools are an important motivator to budding entrepreneurs, and I'm happy to continue sharing that story for as long as people find FrontlineSMS an appropriate, useful and relevant tool in their social change work. Thanks to everyone for making the journey as rich and exciting as it has been, and I look forward to continuing to work with you all as ours - and your - work continues. There is still much to do.
Northern Zambia, August 1993. We set off from Chilubula - where we were helping build a school - for another village a couple of hours away. They didn't have a school. They didn't seem to have much, in fact. As our pick-up approached, children ran out to greet us, throwing themselves onto their knees. Many of them saw us as saviours, visitors from afar who had the power to build them schools, drill them wells and change their lives in unimaginable ways. While some people enjoyed the attention, for me it was an uncomfortable experience. It may be hard to not be the "white man in Africa" when you're white and in Africa, but that doesn't mean you have to behave like one. Humility is lacking in so many walks of life, yet a lack of it seemed even more misguided in the environment in which we'd found ourselves.
Since then, on my many trips - they've ranged from as brief as a week to as long as a year - I always grapple with visibility, the feeling that whatever we do it should never be about us. How do we facilitate the change we want to see without being so totally central to it? I remember Jerry, a colleague at a primate sanctuary in Nigeria where I worked in 2002, towing me along to meetings with government officials because "white faces opened doors". I always went along, but insisted he did all the talking. They were his plans, his ideas, and it would have been wrong for me to take any of the credit for them.
Jerry organised an incredible environment day in Calabar that year. He's managed to do the same every year since. The doors thankfully stayed open. Job done, perhaps.
The dilemma of visibility has been with me from the very beginning - 1993 - and I still grapple with it today. I don't have the answer, but I do know that putting end-users first at every opportunity is the right thing for me to do. Create tools that enable other people to head off in any direction they choose increases the distance between me and their solution. That's what they want - independence, empowerment on their terms, credit for their actions - and doing it this way gives a little of the invisibility we seek, too.
Not having intimate knowledge of every single thing FrontlineSMS users are doing with the software may be a challenge when it comes to funding and reporting, but it has everything to do with trust, respect and genuine empowerment. It's not until you try to do something like this that you realise how difficult it is to achieve. I don't think enough people really know how to "let go". Too much innovation and too much noise still centres around the technology and not in the approach. Maybe it's time we saw a little "innovation in the way we innovate".
Development is littered with contradictions, and my work is no exception. These things still trouble me, but at least I believe we're on the right path - not just technically, but more importantly, spiritually.
This video is also available on the FrontlineSMS Community pages
It's been another landmark day in the short history of FrontlineSMS:Medic. For those of you who don't know, today saw the launch of their latest initiative - Hope Phones - which, generally speaking, encourages people to dig out their old phones and give them a new lease of life in the hands of a community health care worker (CHW) in a developing country.
Hope Phones will make use of the nearly 450,000 cell phones discarded every day in the United States, and allows donors to print a free shipping label and send their old phone in to The Wireless Source, a global leader in wireless device recycling. The phone’s value allows FrontlineSMS:Medic to purchase usable, recycled cell phones for health care workers. According to Josh Nesbit:
Hope Phones lets you give your old cell phone new life on the frontline of global health. That's powerful. Just one, old Blackberry will allow us to purchase three to five cell phones for health care workers, bringing another 250 families onto the health grid via SMS. Old phones can help save lives
Why it's not about the phones
What really excites me isn't the simplicity of the idea, or the great execution, or the branding (more kudos to our good friends at Wieden+Kennedy), wonderful as all those things are. It's not even the number of retired phones this could rejuvenate, or the impact that all of this could have on the ground, incredible as it promises to be.
No. It's all about mobilisation. To take and adapt a phrase:
Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed students can change the world. Indeed, it's the only thing that ever has
FrontlineSMS:Medic, and Hope Phones, has come out of nowhere, and it's challenging our perceptions of what's possible. Sure, global health is a seriously big beast to deal with, and few of us - if any - will ever have the muscle needed to tackle that particular monster. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't do anything. Indeed, there is a lot we can do.
Talk is cheap
While large multinational donors and governments battle it out, dotting the i's and crossing the t's, people need help. Every day. These people can't wait. And people like Josh, who have spent time on the ground understanding how rural hospitals tick, know all-too-well the impact that a simple cellphone can have in the hands of a committed CHW. With little more than passion, drive and an amazing ability to mobilise and motivate, Josh has pulled together an incredible team of equally committed individuals - students - from universities all across the United States. While adults generally critique and find reasons not to do things, they've gone out and done.
We all know what we can't change. The real challenge therefore is not only figuring out what we can, but acting on it. Talk, like politics, is cheap. Lives are not.
It's about time we challenged old models. And that time is now.