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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?

WhiteAfrican and Kiwanja at PopTech 2008

Having a tourist picture moment with Ken Banks of Kiwanja in Camden, Maine right before the Pop!Tech conference begins next week. We’re both Pop!Tech Fellows this year, which is turning out to be way more fun than we ever imagined.

(Note Ken Banks goofing off as usual…)

This reflection is in the door to the Camden Opera House, where the event will take place next week.

DSC_0420

Here I am hanging out with Andrew Zolli, the curator of Pop!Tech, at the Zoot coffee shop. We spent way to much time talking camera lenses and then running around the area taking pictures. Fun times!

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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