March 24, 2009

Social mobile: A moral duty to do more?

kiwanjaIs the future of social mobile an empowered few, or an empowered many? Mobile tools in the hands of the masses presents great opportunity for NGO-led social change, but is that the future we’re creating?

In The White Man’s Burden – Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good,” William Easterly’s frustration at large-scale, top-down, bureaucracy-ridden development projects runs to an impressive 384 pages. While Easterly dedicates most of his book to markets, economics and the mechanics of international development itself, he talks little of information and communication technology (ICT). The index carries no reference to ‘computers,’ ‘ICT’ or even plain old ‘technology.’

But there is an entry for ‘cell phones.’

smallbeautifulE. F. Schumacher, a fellow economist and the man widely recognized as the father of the appropriate technology movement, spent a little more time in his books studying technology issues. His seminal 1973 book – Small is Beautiful – The Study of Economics as if People Mattered” – reacted to the imposition of alien development concepts on Third World countries, and he warned early of the dangers and difficulties of advocating the same technological practices in entirely different societies and environments. Although his earlier work focused more on agri-technology and large-scale infrastructure projects (dam building was a favorite ‘intervention’ at the time), his theories could easily have been applied to ICTs – as they were in later years.

Things have come a long way since 1973. For a start, many of us now have mobile phones, the most rapidly adopted technology in history. In what amounts to little more than the blink of an eye, mobiles have given us a glimpse of their potential to help us solve some of the most pressing problems of our time. As the evidence mounts, I have one question: If mobiles truly are as revolutionary and empowering as they appear to be – particularly in the lives of some of the poorest members of society – then do we have a moral duty, in the ICT for Development (ICT4D) community at least, to see that they fulfill that potential?

Continue reading

March 4, 2009

Chipping away at the SMS literacy barrier

kiwanjaWith all the excitement surrounding Monday’s launch of FrontlineForms, we almost forgot the other improvements we’ve made to the FrontlineSMS software. As well as support for IntelliSMS – another Clickatell-style online aggregator – we finally got round to adding Unicode support which, to the non-technical, means you can now send and receive messages in foreign scripts, i.e. non-Latin or non-Roman character sets. Projects in India and the Middle East have been asking for this, and it’s exciting to see it finally delivered (thanks Alex!).

FrontlineSMS Arabic

Although there are still very real literacy issues for SMS-based social mobile projects, at least allowing messages to be sent and received in the local language – assuming handset support is available – removes at least one more barrier. We’re excited to see how much this ends up being used, and what further opportunities it opens up for FrontlineSMS users around the world.

March 2, 2009

FrontlineSMS: Data collection just got easier

kiwanjaIt’s been a hectic few months, but we’re finally there. Today we’re excited to announce the release of the new FrontlineForms, an SMS-driven data collection tool that seamlessly integrates into our existing and growing FrontlineSMS platform.

Sure, data collection tools already exist, but many require mobile internet access to function, degrees in Linux to get running, or PDAs or the kinds of phones that just aren’t available to the masses in most developing countries. FrontlineForms runs on most high- and low-end Java-enabled phones, can be downloaded directly onto a handset over-the-air, doesn’t require internet access beyond installation, and utilises the already-proven simple user interface of FrontlineSMS. In short, FrontlineForms compliments our existing focus on empowering the social mobile long tail with an entry-level, usable data collection tool.

According to my thinking, tools for the long tail need – among other things – to run on readily available hardware wherever possible, and be simple to install and easy to use. These innocent little criteria can create huge challenges, though. Writing an application which runs on all desktops (Windows, Mac and the various flavours of Linux), that interfaces locally with the widest range of phones and modems, and connects remotely with a data collection tool which runs on as many Java-enabled handsets as possible is a huge technical challenge. Many other mobile solutions concentrate on one desktop operating system, or a small family of mobile phones (sometimes just a single phone), which is all fine if you want to concentrate on users higher up the long tail. With our focus on grassroots NGOs, we don’t.

Continue reading

March 2, 2009

Monitoring blog conversations

How to track what they’re saying about you in the blogosphere

Guest post by Josh Bancroft

With millions of blogs out there, it can be hard to keep up on all the latest postings about topics you’re interested in. Traditional search engines, such as Google, can take days to index all the blogs on the Web. But with blogs, we talk about news, events and everything else in almost real-time.

This led to the birth of blog search engines. These services try to crawl/index as many blogs as they can, to provide more timely search results than other search engines. Also, these services target blogs specifically, rather than trying to index every single site on the internet, so they’re much more focused on what people are saying.

Since blog readers usually prefer to read in a news reader (or aggregator), rather than in a browser, these blog search services all provide RSS/XML feeds for the results. This means that you can search once, then subscribe to the results feed, and from then on, new posts that match your search criteria automatically show up in your aggregator.

Some bloggers (myself included) create “ego feeds” – search feeds for their own name, URL, and other keywords that can help find out when other people are talking about you, to you, or linking to you. This is like having feelers all over the blogospherethat will let you know when someone is talking about you.

Prolific blogger Robert Scoble uses this as the preferred method of getting his attention, rather than sending him email, or posting a comment. He encourages people to post on their own blogs, and link to him. With the blog search feeds he has set up, he’ll see what gets posted. Some have said that this method of back and forth communication via blogs is an effective replacement for email.

Search services

Here are some services and sites that provide blog searching services. Each service has pluses and minuses. Try them out, and see which ones you like best and best fit your needs.

This article originally appeared on Josh Bancroft’s Blogging Academy blog. Republished with permission.

Note: Feel free to add additional resources in the Comments below.

February 23, 2009

Mobile + open source = medical diagnoses on the fly

FrontlineSMS:MedickiwanjaToday sees the launch of an exciting new initiative – FrontlineSMS:Medic – by a growing team of students mobilising around the practical application of mobile technology in global healthcare delivery.

FrontlineSMS:Medic combines Josh Nesbit’s pioneering work on “Mobiles in Malawi” with a mobile version of OpenMRS — an open source medical records system — and an exciting new remote diagnosis tool. In this guest blog post, Josh Nesbit and Lucky Gunasekara talk about the origins of the project, and their plans in the coming months.

Josh: I should be heading off to class, right about now. I’ll go, but not without telling a story, first. A convergence of ideas and people marks the launch of FrontlineSMS:Medic and the team’s embarkation on a quest to do mHealth the right way.

Many of you are familiar with the role FrontlineSMS, a donated laptop, and a bag of recycled cell phones have played in connecting community health workers (CHWs) in Malawi to a rural hospital and its resources. Text messaging is now an integral component of the hospital’s infrastructure. FrontlineSMS has proven intuitively easy to use with strong user buy-in. The program is horizontally scalable, and incredibly cheap to run, matched with indisputable savings in time and costs. Enter Lucky.

President Clinton introduces Lucky

Continue reading

February 23, 2009

How does mobile giving work?

nelson-mandalaKatrin VerclasMobile fundraising is taking off — or so at least hope nonprofits hard hit by the economic downturn. Organizations are looking for a new channel for people to give on the spot, wherever they are, with their phones and a quick text message.

Mobile giving via SMS in the United States and many other parts of the world, has been out of reach because of high carrier charges — up to 50% of a donation would go to the telcom — unacceptable to most charities.

But this has changed in the last two years. Mobile donation campaigns in the United States that go through the Mobile Giving Foundation are not subject to the high carrier fees. The Mobile Giving Foundation charges a smaller percentage fee — currently 10%. As a result, in 2008 the field of mobile giving in the U.S. attracted the attention by organizations large and small, including by such brands as UNICEF, the Salvation Army, and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

in England, there is also talk about establishing an entity similar to the Mobile Giving Foundation that would negotiate a no-fee arrangement with the operators and vet charities for SMS giving campaigns.

Continue reading