When I asked the Ginger Man if they could host a crazy crowd of ICT4D and mobile4dev geeks rolling in to network and share stories from the frontlines of technology and development, they replied simply, "bring it."
I forward that sentiment on to you. If you hack, build, or implement tools all the way from water pumps to LED lanterns to OLPCs to citizen journalism software, bring your best toy, story, or idea for how technology can support global development, promote equality, and topple authoritarian regimes.
Bonus: Learn about the upcoming Ashoka/Changemakers collaborative competition on building sustainable models supporting access, freedom of speech, information quality and privacy! You can read the background on our googly adventure.
Monday, March 12 starting at 5pm at The Ginger Man (301 Lavaca)
In Austin for SXSWi? A Geek? (ok, granted) Interested in changing the world? Building off of last year's amazing ICT4D meetup during SXSW, we're back at it this year with the second annual ICT4D Happy Hour: Geeks, Drinks, and Doing Good. We're also planning more than a day in advance this time (wow!).
We'll gather on Monday, March 14, 2011, starting around 5pm for a happy hour at a downtown watering hole (Hopefully the Gingerman like last year). Bring your favorite ICT4D toys (OLPCs, solar-powered GSM thingamajiggers, mHealth diagnostics and other gizmos) and your best ideas and inspiring innovations to talk about while sharing drinks with your colleagues from across the street and around the world.
Herein, a mix of quotidian tasks and big goals for us to prepare for a 2011 mHealth Summit. mHS10 was a great conference, and represents a seachange in the field compared to last year. It had a selection of amazing speakers, lots of academics and implementers, and overall just the right crowd.
Still, there remain some changes I'd love to see for the conference itself, and I'll follow up with some bigger challenges that the mHealth world needs to deal with, based on the themes from this year's conference.
First, keep the music if you must, but add lasers and a fog machine. If you were there, you know what I mean.
As you might have guessed from my tongue-in-cheek #mHS10 drinking game (pilot=1 shot, 1k flowers=2, feature phone=3, "going global with sms phone support" = finish bottle), I got a bit tired of "Pilot-itis," which was finally called out as a problem on stage by Christopher Bailey of the WHO during the Wednesday morning plenary.
This pilot-itis was my biggest overall frustration with the discussions and presentations this year - a seemingly endless march of "new" pilot programs around (1) SMS for outreach/awareness (2) SMS and mobile for low-touch scheduled reminders and interaction or (3) Apps for various forms of monitoring. Perhaps it's my relative unfamiliarity with the health field, but do programs do controlled studies every time they plan to release a new paper, or put a PSA ad at bus stops? There is so much that can be done today, with a few hours of hacking, to advance at least #1 and #2 above, settle on a few solutions, and move on to more impactful territory. Take a page from Nike (who have one of the most successful fitness monitoring apps in the wild) and Just Do It.
Is hardware hacking becoming more accessible in the development context?
A positive psychologist friend once explained the concept of (watch as I butcher the terms and descriptions) "flow" to me. I understood it as working on things which are interesting, difficult, but not so overwhelmingly difficult that you can't make clear progress on. Importantly, also not so easy that you just breeze mindlessly through. Good logic puzzles, programming, and such things are often found on this razor's edge between too difficult and too easy.
Hardware hacking has long been a task which only a small, geeky set of people can really enjoy a flow state while exploring the dark magics of hardware.
Last night I shared some pints with DC-area OLPC fans , Mike Lee showed off an Acer he'd hacked a Pixel Qi screen into. Now, this is not a hack for the faint of heart (yet), but it's pretty amazing in the world of the mostly-sealed, non-user-hackable laptop setups to be able to swap in a new screen, especially not one provided in a kit from the original manufacturer.
Mobile is hardly "new" anymore, but we're seeing increasing tools for peer-to-peer communications and decentralized development. Instead of SMS reporting for mHealth metrics or election observation (both amazingly powerful), we have Ushahidi and a team of volunteers from colleges and Haitian diaspora communities across the world saving lives in Haiti after the earthquake by synthesizing and translating reports from on the ground into actionable, trustable pieces of information.
Instead of training-and-visit agricultural extension work, we have tools like Patatat which are building group email lists through SMS messaging, enabling farmers (or anyone) to collaborate on their work, market prices, crop diseases, and so on - with increasingly little need for anything at the center. And of course there's twitter, which, while still "centralized" as a website, enables un-mediated communication amongst basically anyone in the world with a cell phone and a good text-messaging plan.
Where the last SMS4D Technology Salon reminded us of the unique gift of mobile technologies to be based where there impact will be, The Cloudy SMS4D Salon really drove home mobile as a multifunctional tool whose true impact is tied more to the usage than the technology itself. While we gathered to discuss SMS4D, we really talked about heath reporting and outreach, education, and community-building through knowledge management and sharing. It just so happened that these health projects were using SMS codes to report longitudinal child health statistics.
Data gathering in health, and even knowing when to gather data, is a huge burden, often relying on community health workers doing the healthcare version of the T&V system of the agricultural extension world. Waiting around for a planned infrastructure is hopeless, but working with the more incremental nature of mobile can improve reporting rates and reduce errors -- "utter chaos works everywhere" being the best quote of this tech salon. Childcount builds on existing SMS reporting to enable community health workers to rapidly register children, note any symptoms or diseases they might have, improve patient tracking (and thereby reducing duplication), and schedule immunizations and outreach. The SMS "encoding" builds off of a simple and familiar paper form, which is handy for training (but less useful than a mango tree, as we'll see). The runner-up quote from this Salon dealt with discussion around the potential risk of intentionally fabricated data -- "humans are awful at falsifying data" -- digitizing and quick, auditable reporting exposes both errors and lies.
Winning the award for innovative ideas in mHealth was the HappyPill project -- instead of boing old SMS, HappyPills uses "flashing" - where you call a number and hang up immediately to "ping" someone. Usually, flashing is just a free way to ask someone to call you back, or you can sometimes work out extensive codes -- one missed call is just saying hi, two is call me back, three means an emergency, etc.. HappyPills takes this basic, essentially binary interaction and applies it to help improve adherence rates for prescription regimens. A medical center can send out flashes to their patients, and the patients are reminded to take their pills and would then flash back to signal that they took their medicine. It's naturally not foolproof, but hugely more cost effective (almost cost-free) in comparison with sending a community health worker out to the patient on a motorcycle to witness their pill-taking.
It turns out that people are not just willing, but economically motivated and excited to use (and pay for) basic SMS-based services to improve their numeracy and literacy skills, improving their ability to communicate cheaply over their phones as well as better navigate market prices. In these low-technology communities, Tostan's Jokko Initiative is creating a curriculum to enable this via SMS, and they have also come up with an amazingly simple methodology to introduce people to menu systems using a mango tree metaphor which gracefully transitions from the concrete (planning a climbing route on a real tree to get to a specific mango) to the semi-concrete (the same, on a diagram of a tree), to the abstract (the tree diagram becomes the menu diagram, the mango a specific function). Anyone who thinks that is basic has never shown their grandparents a new shiny piece of technology, or had their entire worldview of user interface challenged by someone physically pointing a mouse at a screen).
Patatat is an early-stage solution which puts SMS into the role of a community town hall/newsletter/email list. It removes not only the normal geographic barriers that a listserv gets around, but also infrastructure barriers, so (for example) farmers across a region or the world can share knowledge around their crops without relying on the grid and hardwired phones/Internet to do so. This also centralizes costs to one "host" and minimizes it to the community, so a farmer could send one SMS (free to receive, costs to send), and the host would re-broadcast it to the entire "community." With Twitter already showing that it can (technically) report earthquakes faster than the earthquake itself spreads, this rebroadcasting tool also has clear applications in emergency announcements, citizen journalism and a myriad of other fields.
So, was this technology salon about technology, or was it about development projects? Sure, all of the projects discussed at the salon happened to use server and cloud-based SMS technologies. They also probably use paper, transportation, and people. That the technology is now moving from the focus of a project to being a (cool, exciting, powerful, still new-and-shiny) tool in the toolbox is truly heartwarming. It means it is maturing into a cross-sector role and not into another silo (sorry, a "cylinder of excellence" in the parlance of our times).
The Technology Salon on SMS4D covered a lot of ground in a few hours, but the reverberating sentiment was the power of mobile technology at the local/regional level. Part of this is a bit of sour-grapes with the hard challenges of scaling mobile solutions globally, which is as much a problem of cross-provider functionality as it is capacity. The value however is in reminding us that development solutions - while they may be globally replicable - are rooted locally.
The Technology Salon went through an inspiring round of implementations and use cases of on-the-ground efforts using texts in cross-sector development situations. Microfinance solutions, tying the payments to the notifications via mpayment were the purview of CreditSMS, lowering the costs of each loan by dramatically reducing transactional costs, allowing MFI account managers to deal with the exceptions (late/missedpayments) instead of burning time tracking payments to records and managing each interaction. mHealth, a favorite topic of Tech Salons had use cases in using SMS to replace timely and costly travel to report medicine stock levels and local disease trends, but also mobile-centric medical records management and remote, low-cost diagnostics tools, all using SMS:Medic.
I made it to South By Southwest this year, where I immersed myself in innovative ideas for open-sourced businesses, technology design for good, social media for change, and the general awesome insanity of SXSW.
The absolute best part of this conference is the new world of twitter-powered discussions. At a talk yesterday, the entire Q&A session was run over twitter. The presenters paused a few questions in and asked for a show of hands of anyone who was not using twitter. In a large crowded ballroom, no one raised their hands. Every session ends up having a running, silent conversation and collaborative note-taking.
On Sunday afternoon, I worked with CrisisCamp DC's Heather Blanchard and @HastingsCJ to organize a meetup for ICT4D practitioners at the Gingerman, which turned our great. Lots of faces were put to twitter-names, connections were made and beer was consumed.
Few, if any, tweet-ups will compare, however, to Monday night's Good Capitalist party that Ashoka's Changemakers co-hosted with a variety of other social entrepreneurship groups. Without a dime of marketing money spent, it had 2000 RSVPs and over 600 people who made it by to network, learn about social entrepreneurship, and enjoy the wonderful outdoor Austin weather..