Ken Banks, founder of kiwanja.net and FrontlineSMS, devotes himself to the application of mobile technology for positive social and environmental change in the developing world. He has worked at the intersection of technology, anthropology, conservation and development for the past twenty years and, during that time, has lived and worked across the African continent. He is a Pop!Tech Fellow, a Tech Awards Laureate, an Ashoka Fellow and a National Geographic Emerging Explorer. His latest project, Means of Exchange, is looking at how everyday technologies can be used to democratize opportunities for economic self-sufficiency, rebuild local community and promote a return to local resource use.
Q: You’ve been working in this field for some time – is it surprising to you that there is no “best practice” guide for ICT4D, or is this to be expected in a field that is being transformed so rapidly by changes in technology?
A: A lot of people have opinions on what works in ICT4D and what doesn’t. Just because a particular tool or lesson might apply in one place doesn’t mean it will work everywhere. This oversimplifies the issue of replication, scale and getting things to work in what are often very different environments. The idea of “best practices” almost assumes that there are commonalities that you can apply globally. This may be true in some cases, but it won’t be true in all.
Q: What about your experience in creating and growing FrontlineSMS – what factors have you found to be important in building a successful ICT4D project?
A: There are a handful of important factors – I can list off my top 10, in no particular order.
- Build for what people already have in their hands. It’s critical to understand the hardware and device landscape, particularly which technologies your users have access to and ownership of. Many projects still have this problem – looking at smart phones or other top-of-the-range technologies that don’t work for the people they’re trying to help.
- If your product needs an installation guide, that’s a barrier. When ICT4D tools are developed, there are often things that need to be plugged in, connected or configured. Any installation process needs to make sense to people – especially people who need convincing that they can do it themselves. If people can get a tool to work on their own, they often feel incredibly empowered.
- Projects have to be sustainable, but by charging users you often put barriers up to adoption. The target users of your ICTD tool may not be able to pay, or have a mechanism to pay. Good business models in the field are few and far between. Joel Selanikio’s ‘freemium’ model with Magpi may be one of the best. It certainly seems to work.
- If you need to fly in and out to carry out installation, you’re going to struggle to get to scale. For ICT4D projects to scale, you need replication on the ground by users to other users. If users can share, learn, and replicate among themselves, there’s a chance you’ll get a viral effect. Some projects try to generate a degree of financial sustainability by creating a need for users to draw on paid services – but for many this becomes a barrier.
- If you build your ICT4D tool to work without the Internet, then it will work anywhere. Always start off with assumption that there’s no Internet. Too many projects that fail start off with the opposite assumption. Not only that, just because a user has a smart phone doesn’t mean that they are online. They may swap out their SIM card so frequently that their phone isn’t configured to access the Internet, or they may not be able to afford data services, or they may not live in an area with reliable data coverage.
- Community is absolutely critical. This is often the hardest thing to create because you can’t force people to engage. In ICT4D, community is the Holy Grail. You want to create an environment where users can connect and provide technical support to one another – one where you don’t get in the way. One thing I always used to ask myself with the FrontlineSMS community was, if I stopped providing support to it tomorrow, would users take up the reins themselves?
- We need to think of appropriate technology as a discipline. The ICT4D field would undoubtedly benefit if there was a stronger appreciation for the ethos of the appropriate technology movement. We need to keep E. F. Shumacher in mind when building tools to ensure that they are designed to work with the local environment, culture, and people in mind. So much of what we see doesn’t work, and yet people continue to do it.
- Collaboration is key. There isn’t enough collaboration in the development space as a whole. Everyone wants their own project with their own name and sense of objectives. Some people also see ICT4D as competitive, pitching tools against one another when, in reality, no one ICT4D tool is inherently better than another. It all depends on the context in which the tool is being used, and that can vary a lot.
- Think beyond technology. Good technology has a certain spirit and meaning, and can connect with people on a non-technical, higher level. How you feel when you buy an Apple product, for example. There’s something special about it, it feels part of you. FrontlineSMS has done an amazing job of not only helping people do their work better, but feel better about themselves. It empowers and encourages. Tools need to engage, entertain and connect with the user on multiple levels.
- Don’t lose sight of the bigger picture. People often get carried away with the technology, so much so that it can be easy to forget why you started doing what you were doing in the first place. Ask yourself every day why you’re doing what you’re doing, and whether it gets you any closer to that wider goal. Looking to simply build a cool app isn’t likely why you got started. Keeping the big picture in mind, and the challenges you’re looking to help people overcome, reminds you to stay focused.
Q: The United Methodist Communications agency first reached out to you in 2008 and now has a number of active projects using FrontlineSMS. What are your thoughts on the importance of ICT4D to the work of the United Methodist Church?
A: Anybody anywhere trying to improve peoples’ lives naturally wants to figure out how to best maximize their impact, and how to get the biggest bang for their buck. It’s refreshing to see a church looking so openly at how technology can improve their work. The [United Methodist] church is going out with the single objective of improving the lives of their community. This is something they’ve dedicated their lives to. To them it’s not just a job, but something that needs to be done, and that’s their purpose in life. For me, that’s exactly the right way [for ICT4D] to be done. Start with the problem. People like technology because it can do good things for them, just like a spade or a ruler can. At the end of the day, you can’t eat a mobile phone.