Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Considering the Social Mobile Long Tail

I was recently reminded of Ken Banks' blog post from 2008, where he introduces the idea of the social mobile long tail.  The idea is intimately associated with his pioneering work on FrontlineSMS and as a social entrepreneur who has been a tireless promoter of low cost ICTs and local innovation, particularly in the developing world.

Image of the social mobile long tail
Ken Banks' depiction of the social mobile long tail

Our project is situated in the green area on the social mobile Long Tail with our emphasis on low cost, low complexity deployments that are relatively easy to replicate.  Making the technology accessible and finding ways to give users the confidence to experiment and innovate on their own is a central objective of our work. - looking back and moving forward online discussion Nov 25th-Dec 6th

A special online conference on e-Agriculture: looking back and moving forward is starting on November 25th

To participate you need to be registered on the e-Agriculture Community platform. Registration is simple at

Over the last several years, there has been significant progress in improving communication and decision making in rural areas through the application of new technologies. Multi-stakeholder partnerships have formed, and time and money have been invested. Now more than ever there is a need to reflect on experiences and strategize for the future.

In 2014 and 2015 reviews of successes and failures in improving agricultural and rural development with ICT will be part of the WSIS+10 events and the MDG review. Multiple local, national and regional events will provide inputs. The e-Agriculture Community has been invited to make its own inputs, and Grameen Foundation has kindly offered to lead this activity.
Join the discussion from 25 November through 6 December in this important online discussion. Share your experiences and interact with our distinguished panel of Subject Matter Experts:

Md. Shahid Uddin Akbar, CEO, Bangladesh Institute of ICT for Development
Stephane Boyera, CEO, SB Consulting
Esteban Gallego, MANA Manager (Regional Food Security Program)
Kiringai Kamau, Value Chain Analyst, VACID Africa
Hillary Miller-Wise, VP, Information Services, Grameen Foundation
Pablo Ramirez, Ethical Sourcing Manager, Starbucks
Gerard Sylvester, FAO Asia-Pacific
John Tull, Director, Mobile Agriculture Innovation, Grameen Foundation

If you have questions or need assistance, contact


Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Adoption and use of SMS at Bottom of the Pyramid

One of the key objectives of our project is to explore ways in which low cost ICTs can enhance knowledge mobilization by working within the context of everyday social practices.  Our view is that we need to find ways to introduce ICTs that will not be disruptive to existing KM-related activities but instead be seen to improve those practices in some tangible way.  Through this approach we believe we can increase the likelihood that an ICT-enhancement will be adopted and sustained over time because it will add real value to the community and to its knowledge mobilization activities.

Photo of Nokia phone showing Dialog Tradenet service
Dialog's Tradenet service uses SMS to help match buyers and sellers
of goods, including those involved in agriculture.

For this reason I am pleased to see that our thinking about the importance of understanding social practices as the context for ICT adoption seems to be reinforced in findings from 2012 study by Kang and Maity called "Texting Among the Bottom of the Pyramid: Facilitators and Barriers to SMS Use Among the Low-Income Mobile Users in Asia".  The study draws on extensive data collected through LIRNEasia's Teleuse@BOP survey completed in 2011.  The survey is part of a larger initiative launched by LIRNEasia a few years ago:
Teleuse at the bottom of the pyramid, or Teleuse@BOP, pioneered by LIRNEasia in 2005, is a unique series of cutting edge demand-side studies on ICT use among the BOP. It was one of the first large regional studies to assess demand for ICT services among emerging Asia’s BOP in a systematic way. The studies have proved useful in making government understand the significance of telecom, especially the mobile, at the Bottom of the Pyramid. [link to source] 
Teleuse@BOP4, conducted in 2011, concentrated on the use of mobile phones at the BOP, with an emphasis on how they generate value for this segment of the population in Asia.  Kang & Maity drew on the survey data to look specifically at text messaging to determine the users/non-users of SMS, the barriers to SMS adoption, and factors driving SMS use at the BOP.  They note the growing attention that SMS has received in the ICT4D community and challenge the assumption that widespread adoption of the mobile phone at the BOP is synonymous with (or otherwise) translates to similar rates of SMS-usage.  As result, ICT4D initiatives (not unlike our own) turn optimistically to SMS-based interventions:
This newly introduced connectivity at the BOP invites a hope that development intervention services can be delivered directly to the hands of the poor. Indeed, many development agencies and NGOs are exploring the potential of mobile phone as a cost-effective platform to carry development services such as education, healthcare, financial, agricultural programs. Spurred by the evidence of the mobile phone’s positive impact on economic activities ... and the successful cases like mobile banking service in Kenya ... mobile phones are increasingly perceived as a smart catalyst to development. (p. 2)
In our case, we are looking to platforms like FrontlineSMS to support community-based initiatives using text messaging for both peer-to-peer and broadcasting applications (see Helen Hambly's post on Radio Plus for the broadcasting application).  If the communities of practice with whom we are working do not use SMS then it would seem we have a fundamental obstacle to the success of the project.  The Kang & Maity study sheds some light on what we might expect when it comes to SMS usage in Sri Lanka.

For example, the study found that only 32 per cent of mobile owners contacted for the survey have ever used SMS either for sending or receiving information.  Of those who do use SMS there was little difference by gender, but they did tend to be younger (over 70 per cent are less than 35yrs of age), urban, with higher reported daily incomes and education levels.

However, among the SMS users, the study found that 66 per cent used it at least once or twice a day.  Most (70 per cent) were aware of various information services available through SMS but few actually used these services (17 per cent).

When non-users were asked about barriers, the study found that cost and language barriers ranked low. It seems the key factors reported by non-users are related to "technical usability" (i.e., difficulty with the interface, typing, etc.) and lack of understanding of the technical procedure in using SMS.    A few (17 per cent) were unaware that their phones had SMS capability.

The study concludes that adoption rate of SMS (as of 2012) was still low among the BOP in Asia and that adoption of information services beyond voice calls is "still limited" (p. 21).

The findings are important because they confirm in some ways what I could observe during our rapid prototyping sessions with the farmer communities I met during the recent field visits.  Many of those attending the sessions needed assistance with text messaging.  It reinforces our view that technology stewardship will be an important consideration in the use and adoption of low cost ICT services for knowledge mobilization.

When it comes to encouraging adoption and use of SMS within these communities of practice, Kang & Maity give support to our approach using rapid prototyping grounded in an understanding of everyday social practices:
... we found that the main drivers of SMS adoption is useful content and services that can appeal to the BOP by increasing efficiency in organizing and managing their everyday activities. … Rather than offering a package of information that is perceived as “useful” by the providers, it is important that the utility of the SMS-services be understood from a perspective of the users at the BOP. The design of such m-services also needs to be contextualized sufficiently to address the direct and visible benefits relating to the BOP’s everyday activities. To do so, we suggest that the ICTD practitioners should take a closer look at the everyday needs of the users at the BOP, and design services perceived as useful by them. (p. 22)
SMS is a particular technical implementation of a larger category of communication we can refer to as short messaging, which would also include various instant messenger tools and micro-blogging services like Twitter.  Short messaging clearly has an important and growing role as a low cost, practical communications method and one that could hold important benefits for enhancing knowledge mobilization.  

One of our tasks going forward is to work with organizations in Sri Lanka that comprise a community of practice that we can study more closely in terms of their current short messaging use as it relates to KM-related activities.  Social practices theory provides a backdrop for the methods we hope to introduce to help the technology steward understand and communicate the user perspective, while rapid prototyping with open source software tools like FrontlineSMS give them the means to quickly and cost-effectively deploy and test m-service ideas to determine their usefulness and "direct and visible benefits."  Bringing the user community into the innovation process is vital to the process and its ultimate success in providing real value to users, which seems to be the key to encouraging adoption of short messaging and other innovative methods of communication.