Quote of the Day: The developing world is filled with the carcasses of dead Daleks – Ken Banks of Frontline SMS

Frontline SMS
I love a talk that starts with a good sci-fi analogy. This is how Ken Banks, the creator of Frontline SMS, began his lecture on mobile innovation in developing countries at the Better World by Design Conference.

Dr Who is a Time Lord who travels through time and space in an old-school police box. His sworn enemies are the Daleks, merciless genocidal robots that managed to conquer the entire universe. Brilliant machines, they were nearly an unstoppable force.

Dalek Design Flaw
Illustration from Flickr User mutantman

Unfortunately they had a few notable design flaws. They had a wee bit of trouble with stairs. Banks’ point is that tech however good doesn’t work everywhere. The appropriateness of a given design is all about context and the ultimate needs of the end user. Many people designing for consumers in emerging markets fail to understand this fact and thus the developing world is filled with the carcasses of dead Daleks.

iPhone vs Nokia 1100

To drive this point home he compares the iPhone, which many would describe as the pinnacle of good cell phone design, to the humble Nokia 1100. The 1100 is the best selling phone in the world. It’s cheap, run for ages boasting 10+ hours of talk time and a week on standby, has a simple menu and is rather impervious to dust and humidity. This unassuming no frills handset with its long battery is part of the cell phone revolution that brought connectivity to millions.The iPhone, though gorgeous, has only 4 hours of talk time and a hungry need for daily recharging. It is not optimized for harsh conditions or places with unreliable access to electricity. Or for people who always forget to plug their cell phones in at night, for that matter Oh and it’s not possible to remove/replace the battery yourself. FAIL.

Ethan Zuckerman writes (based on a similar talk):

Banks reminds us that there’s a huge gap between software developers and practitioners. People who develop mobile applications often don’t understand the context in which they’re going to be used. “Tech people who write things requiring Nokia 95s [or iPhones] really don’t understand that people in Uganda don’t walk around with those kinds of phones.” It’s important to introduce developers to the people who actually use these tools to ensure they’re appropriately designed.

Frontline SMS, free software that enables users to send and receive text messages from large groups of people, runs on the simplest of systems. It’s a two way messaging hub that requires a computer, a GSM cell phone, and a way to connect the two (usb, serial cable, bluetooth or infrared). In envisioning the program, Banks wanted to create an activist Swiss Army Knife. It is designed for NGOs, grassroots organizations and activists to get info out and to receive info from their constituency.

Some Applications

  1. Coordinating health workers and collecting field data
  2. Emergency alerts and updates to embassy staff (Czech Republic)
  3. Conducting interactive surveys
  4. Providing security alerts to field workers
  5. Election monitoring
  6. Providing market prices to farmers
  7. Reporting and monitoring avian flu outbreaks
  8. Community outreach and information distribution

Ethan Zuckerman writes:

One of the major applications for FrontlineSMS is election monitoring. Banks tells us about a project that allowed 800 Filipino election monitors to coordinate their work via SMS, performing very thorough monitoring of elections. A similar project in Nigeria put the ability to monitor elections into the hands of private citizens, not official election monitors. The results were interesting – the citizen monitors were very interested in getting good news out about the Nigerian elections, combatting the perception Nigeria has for corruption and for election violence. This may not be a completely accurate picture of the recent Nigerian elections, but it shows the desire of the people in Nigeria to combat negative reporting and stereotypes about the country.

Tech Considerations

The current iteration of the software works on any GSM phone that features the AT command. It doesn’t currently work on Blackberries, Symbian phones, Windows Mobile, or iPhones. Ironically it doesn’t work on the 1100 either. A list of specific phones namely Nokia, SonyEricsson and Motorolla models is available here.

An important thing that Banks mentioned in this talk is the need to educate people around the risks of tech use. For instance, it may not be obvious to people is that your (cell phone) location can be triangulated even if you don’t have GPS.

Cell phones are two way radio transmitters that work by connecting to a nearby tower and exchanging data. Despite the FCC’s limitation on maximum power output of a cell phone, they are still able to connect with towers miles away at UHF frequencies … Because cell phones put out a constant RF output (sometimes pulsed) they can be tracked using the tower triangulation method where the network administrators can find your precise location with their administrative network access. [From IT Digest via Google Answers]

From what I understand this is how E911 location tracking and Google’s new mobile maps feature works for cellphones.

Banks tells a story of activists who were sending messages from a moving vehicle to minimize their chances of getting nabbed.

Don’t feel bad if you were unaware of this possibility. In Italy, CIA agents were undone by their cell phones.

Great Frontline SMS review from Mobile Active

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Video: RISEPAK, a Web 2.0 tool for disaster response [Harvard Social Enterprise Conference]
iPhone: “Don’t you know that you’re toxic”
Appropriate Technology and Text Messaging
12 days of Xmas: 5 cell phone rings