user empowerment

Rethinking socially responsible design in a mobile world

"The Curry Stone Design Prize was created to champion designers as a force for social change. Now in its fourth year, the Prize recognizes innovators who address critical issues involving clean air, food and water, shelter, health care, energy, education, social justice or peace". Yesterday was an exciting day for us as we announced FrontlineSMS had won the prestigious 2011 Curry Stone Design Prize. This award follows closely on the heels of the 2011 Pizzigati Prize, an honourable mention at the Buckminster Fuller Challenge and our National Geographic "Explorer" Award last summer. It goes without saying these are exciting times not just for FrontlineSMS but for our growing user base and the rapidly expanding team behind it. When I think back to the roots of our work in the spring of 2005, FrontlineSMS almost comes across as "the little piece of software that dared to dream big".

With the exception of the Pizzigati Prize - which specifically focuses on open source software for public good - our other recent awards are particularly revealing. Last summer we began something of a trend by being awarded things which weren't traditionally won by socially-focused mobile technology organisations.

Being named a 2010 National Geographic Emerging Explorer is a case in point, and last summer while I was in Washington DC collecting the prize I wrote down my thoughts in a blog post:

On reflection, it was a very bold move by the Selection Committee. Almost all of the other Emerging Explorers are either climbing, diving, scaling, digging or building, and what I do hardly fits into your typical adventurer job description. But in a way it does. As mobile technology continues its global advance, figuring out ways of applying the technology in socially and environmentally meaningful ways is a kind of 21st century exploring. The public reaction to the Award has been incredible, and once people see the connection they tend to think differently about tools like FrontlineSMS and their place in the world.

More recently we've begun receiving recognition from more traditional socially-responsible design organisations - Buckminster Fuller and Clifford Curry/Delight Stone. If you ask the man or woman on the street what "socially responsible design" meant to them, most would associate it with physical design - the building or construction of things, more-to-the-point. Water containers, purifiers, prefabricated buildings, emergency shelters, storage containers and so on. Design is so much easier to recognise, explain and appreciate if you can see it. Software is a different beast altogether, and that's what makes our Curry Stone Design Prize most interesting. As the prize website itself puts it:

Design has always been concerned with built environment and the place of people within it, but too often has limited its effective reach to narrow segments of society. The Curry Stone Design Prize is intended to support the expansion of the reach of designers to a wider segment of humanity around the globe, making talents of leading designers available to broader sections of society.

Over the past few years FrontlineSMS has become so much more than just a piece of software. Our core values are hard-coded into how the software works, how it's deployed, the things it can do, how users connect, and the way it allows all this to happen. We've worked hard to build a tool which anyone can take and, without us needing to get involved, applied to any problem anywhere. How this is done is entirely up to the user, and it's this flexibility that sits at the core of the platform. It's also arguably at the heart of it's success:

We trust our users - rely on them, in fact - to be imaginative and innovative with the platform. If they succeed, we succeed. If they fail, we fail. We're all very much in this together. We focus on the people and not the technology because it's people who own the problems, and by default they're often the ones best-placed to solve them. When you lead with people, technology is relegated to the position of being a tool. Our approach to empowering our users isn't rocket science. As I've written many times before, it's usually quite subtle, but it works:

My belief is that users don’t want access to tools – they want to be given the tools. There’s a subtle but significant difference. They want to have their own system, something which works with them to solve their problem. They want to see it, to have it there with them, not in some "cloud". This may sound petty – people wanting something of their own – but I believe that this is one way that works.

What recognition from the likes of the Curry Stone Design Prize tells us is that socially responsible design can be increasingly applied to the solutions, people and ecosystems built around lines of code - but only if those solutions are user-focused, sensitive to their needs, deploy appropriate technologies and allow communities to influence how these tools are applied to the problems they own.

Further reading FrontlineSMS is featured in the upcoming book "Design Like You Give a Damn 2: Building Change From The Ground Up", available now on pre-order from Amazon.

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.