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Inspiring Innovations: Pop!Tech Fellows 2010

This is the third year that I’ve gone to Pop!Tech. I’m part of their Fellows program this year, along with Ken Banks of FrontlineSMS, as a faculty/Senior fellow member helping with the event for the incoming 2010 class. As usual it’s a surprising number of interesting and intelligent people that are in the midst of changing the world.

The Fellows

One of my favorite things about the program is how we’re shuttled off to a beautiful setting in the Maine woods to spend time with experts from a number of different fields. It’s a time for contemplation on the reasons that you do what you do, as well a chance to gain access to experts who will help you build and evolve your organization to fit your vision.

This year, I know a number of the Fellows, making it feel like this is also a meeting of old friends.

Funnily enough, I had to come all the way to Camden, Maine in the US to hear about an innovation in Kenya. One of the Fellows is Rose Goslinga, the founder of Kilimo Salama (meaning “safe agriculture” in Swahili). She has created an innovative micro-insurance program designed for Kenyan farmers. The project is a partnership between Syngenta Foundation for Sustainable Agriculture, UAP Insurance, and telecoms operator Safaricom.

The service has been so wildly successful that Rose is missing the Fellows program due, she’s still in Kenya in the midst of scaling the service nationally.

Building Mobile Apps for Africa

(Note: I’m going to ask you to contribute to this at the end, so start thinking…!)

I just got back from another trip to Kenya. This time I spent a week with Ken Banks as part of a workshop on social media in Africa, put on by some really smart people (thanks Mika and Linda!). As generally happens when we get in a room together, we start talking over some ideas that are bigger than what either of us are up to at the moment.

This time the discussion revolved around developing mobile phone applications in, and for, places like Africa. It’s becoming quite popular to create mobile products and services, but it’s still fairly new. It has only been a couple years since we first started seeing applications focused on this specific kind market. What have we learned? Are there any best practices on design and implementation? Is there a notebook for new developers to go to to learn what to do (and more important, what not to do)?

Anthony at SM4SC

19 tips from someone who’s been there

As Ken states, “In my experience, many social mobile projects fail in the early stages. Lack of basic reality-checking and a tendency to make major assumptions are lead culprits, yet they are relatively easy to avoid.

If there’s anyone who knows this field it’s Ken. He’s not only a thinker in this space, but he’s a doer as well. His application, FrontlineSMS, has cut it’s teeth here and he’s had to answer all the hard questions, which everyone else has benefited from. He has successfully created a basic platform that many other applications can build on.

Make sure you read Kens observations and tips on building mobile phones for developing countries.

Here are a couple:

  • Never let a lack of money stop you. If considerable amounts of funding are required to even get a prototype together, then that’s telling you something – your solution is probably overly complex.
  • Ensure that the application can work on the most readily and widely available hardware and network infrastructure.
  • Bear in mind that social mobile solutions need to be affordable, ideally free.

My contribution

  1. The next generation of Africans are more mobile literate than you (or me), so when you develop something make sure you keep it open enough for them to evolve its use.
  2. Develop for the common denominator – that is SMS services only. If you have the time, and see a need later, then go for the fancy Java apps.
  3. Data services, like SMS are a good starting point, but don’t overlook the use and integration of voice. This is especially relevant in areas where local language dialects and literacy are an issue.
  4. If you can, provide a basic service, and let the local users develop a plan for how to use it in their area.

Your contribution

Here’s where you chime in on what you think people should know before they build a mobile phone service or product for Africa. Got any tips for? Lessons to remember? Make sure you do/don’t do something?

Help Prototype the “Ultimate” Activist Messaging Tool

Ken Banks is the creator of FrontlineSMS, which is used in Ushahidi as a way to allow local phone numbers to be used for incoming messages. There’s a dependency that I’m not a big fan of though – you have to know how to download it, setup and activate it on your computer. That’s a huge barrier to entry.

As Ken just posted, we were roommates at last months Pop!Tech Fellows program. We’ve known each other for years, but this gave us a chance to talk at length around certain ideas that had been frittering about in the back of our heads. One such idea was how we could get rid of the need to own a computer to run FrontlineSMS (and from my perspective, sync with Ushahidi).

An independent mobile hub

a Micro-SD card and USB GSM deviceIf you have someone trying to run an operation in a developing nation, you don’t always have the luxury of having a computer and/or an internet connection. What if you could run this whole system locally from a microSD card, slotted into the side of a USB GSM 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.”

Doing this would effectively remove the computer (the largest expense) from the system entirely.

That’s a very powerful idea. By taking away something, you make it more powerful and more useful to the user. It means a lot for those who are trying to remain under the radar and it means they could do their messaging effectively, and with a lot less knowledge of the system, than is currently needed.

Building a prototype

Both Ken and I would like to hack a prototype of this together, so if there’s anyone interested in helping us do this, please let us know. If there are any MAKE fans out there, this might be right up your alley. We’ll both be in Nairobi from Dec 7-12, so if anyone there is game we’d love to do it then. This can also be done remotely too, so anyone want to work on getting FrontlineSMS native to a device such as this?

[Note: this type of device isn’t just useful for activists at all, I can think of a wide variety of businesses and individuals who could use it, it’s that in our context activism plays the largest role.]

FrontlineSMS, Clay Shirky and Project Masiluleke

Ken Banks at PopTech 2008

Ken Banks, who I’ve become even better friends with since we roomed together for the PopTech Fellows program, spoke today about FrontlineSMS. With his British accent, talk of Daleks from Dr. Who, and witty comments he won over the room.

Matt, Clay and Chris at PopTech 2008

Two of my favorite speakers were in the first session of the day, Clay Shirky (Here Comes Everybody) and Chris Anderson (The Long Tail). Just read their books, it’s probably the best advice I can give you.

PopTech 2008

Project Masiluleke

From the PopTech Blog:

“In Zulu, the word masiluleke means “lend a helping hand” and “give wise counsel” – a concept at the heart of a new project announced this morning at Pop!Tech. Project Masiluleke, which spun out of a talk by HIV campaigner Zinny Thabethe at Pop!Tech 2006, is attempting to wrestle back some initiative in the HIV-Aids crisis in Africa.”

PopTech 2008

When the team who worked on this went through the numbers, the impact and the process created to attack the issue of HIV in South Africa, it was incredibly emotional. Robert Fabricant of Frog Design worked on this, and I’ve learned first-hand how this man can laser in on strategic design challenges – and they did the same for this project.

Robert of Frog Design at PopTech 2008

Really, this was an all-star team, Gustav Praekelt – one of the most knowledgeable mobile phone specialists in Africa – is helping to run the program. It’s done using the 120 character free space in “Please Call Me” SMS system that’s used in South Africa. They tack on messages to get people to come to get HIV treatment in private, so that they don’t have to worry about what stigma attached to that treatment.

FrontlineSMS (v2) is Reborn & Ready for Use

One of the guys that I’ve been fortunate enough to get to know over the years is Ken Banks. He’s a tireless believer, and more importantly practitioner, in the field of mobile phone as change agent in the world. His FrontlineSMS mobile phone software has been making waves from Chile to Nigeria, and it’s use is only accelerating.

Since its initial release in 2005, FrontlineSMS has been adopted by NGOs in over forty countries for a wide range of activities including blood donor recruitment, assisting human rights workers, promoting government accountability, keeping medical students informed about education options, providing security alerts to field workers, election monitoring, the capture and exchange of vegetable (and coffee) price information, the distribution of weather forecasts, the co-ordination of healthcare workers, the organising of political demonstrations, the carrying out of surveys and the reporting and monitoring of disease outbreaks.

As of today (9am GMT), the new and improved version of FrontlineSMS will be unveiled. The software will continue to be made available for free to non-profits, available in Windows, Mac and Linux formats in six languages; Chinese, English, French, Portuguese, Spanish and Swahili.

Knowing Ken personally has a few perks, like the chance to see the new version early and know the amount of work he’s been putting into making this come into being. On top of that, Ushahidi will be utilizing FrontlineSMS as an extension to the new version of the tool we’re creating – and I know that InSTEDD plans to do the same. You know you’ve created something remarkable when you’re starting to make an impact on the NGO and the technology sides of the world.

Keeping up with Ken is difficult, as he’s a road warrior constantly speaking at conferences or in the field with his software. My suggestion is that you join the his Social Mobile Facebook group, catch him on Twitter, or read along on the Kiwanja.net blog.

Ken, congrats on this, I know it’s been a long time coming. Next drink is on me! 🙂

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