SIMLab: An interview with CEO Laura Walker McDonald
Many of us are familiar with FrontlineSMS, the platform that allows people to harness mobile technologies for social change, built in 2005 by Ken Banks. Over the last 11 years, they have had significant impact across the world, with over 200,000 downloads and lots of offshoot products like Frontline Cloud, Frontline Sync, Frontline Legal and Frontline Radio, to name a few.
FrontlineSMS was in fact spun out of SIMLab, a non-profit that housed the company until SIMLab themselves incorporated as a new for-profit company in 2014. One of the main goals for SIMLab was to be able to tackle some of the many barriers to responsible, effective use of inclusive tech in social change work that are nothing to do with software or hardware, and everything to do with humans, organisations and design. SIMLab wanted to be able to be an independent organisation that could provide advice and guidance to practitioners, without being limited to one channel or technology.
I spoke to SIMLab CEO Laura Walker McDonald over Skype recently to learn more about their current and future plans.
Tell us a bit about the philosophy of SIMLab – why do you do what you do?
Laura: SIMLab firmly believes in the potential of low-end technologies to bring about social change, bridge the digital divide between lower and higher income communities and help governments meet the needs of their constituents. The last bit is especially important, because people without access to technologies like broadband are especially under-represented in how we talk about change, and why. SIMLab wants to lead by example by supporting important work in this area and developing toolkits and resources for people to advocate for a better way of creating and using technology for social change.
Was this human-centred design approach intentional, or a more organic evolution?
Laura: It was very organic. Human-centred design is now practised by a lot of design agencies; we’ve always been about using this approach in our social change work. Our goal is to make people think about data, ethics, broader issues and engaging with people in a different way, so our approach has always been human-centred, in a manner of speaking.
I have a human rights and humanitarian aid background, which can often be full of complicated jargon. I wanted to be able to translate technology into language that made sense for people. Human-centred design helped this process, in diagnosing what levers would be the right ones to move. It was very much about developing a language for this way of working.
What were the big learning moments for SIMLab over the years?
Laura: FrontlineSMS developing software was a very big moment for us. Most of what SIMLab does builds on that technology – in fact everything we've done in the last couple of years in the tech implementation space, and all the projects we’ve developed as a result, has happened as a result of having had the experience of helping people figure out how to use FrontlineSMS in their work. We realised these lessons apply to all software and all channels, not just FrontlineSMS and mobile.
We were funded by the DFID on the Last Mile Mobile Money project (which closed at the end of 2015), to build a mobile money management tool to help SMEs, NGOs and microfinance organisations transition from cash to mobile money in Kenya. It is a technology-oriented project that has evolved to suit the needs of the partner, as we switched to helping them use what worked best for them over time. What I am proud of is that we did ‘adaptive programming’ - a new big buzzword - without knowing what it was called. When our partners told us that they needed something different than we’d thought, we did that instead, and it was only when we did the evaluation that we realised that we’d been at the cutting edge of best practice in development. A bit scary when you aren’t sure the donor is going to be ready to pivot with you!
We also recently worked on a project about SMS-based accountability to beneficiaries in humanitarian aid in Tanzania and Somaliland. It closed last month and was a consortium project with World Vision and INTRAC, a tender delivered for DFID. What’s been consistent about SIMLab is the fact that we work very transparently, we believe it is important for us to know what not to do as it is to know what to do. This sets us apart; our insistence on publishing everything we learn in an unflinching way in the public domain (Editor’s note: it is worth reading this third-party commissioned evaluation report of the rural mobile money project in Kenya, for an indication of how transparent they genuinely are in their work). This is unusual in the social impact space; we have an environment where it’s very difficult and the incentives are not there to be transparent about your failures. Donors don’t want you to spread news about the fact that you spent their money if you didn’t make an impact, particularly where development budgets are being squeezed by governments all over Europe in the current climate of austerity combined with multiple major emergencies (Ebola, Zika, migration etc). And agencies don’t like to talk about their failures either for fear of donor disapproval and not getting new grants.
What are your thoughts on the impact of mobile phones and smartphones more specifically, in developing countries?
Laura: There isn’t a lot of accurate data on real adoption rates. Smartphone subscription rates are high, but a couple of years ago the GSMA said that it thought actually only 3.5bn individual subscribers exist, who own 7bn phones between them (and the flourishing 2nd-hand market). A lot of people have multiple SIM-cards. In general, about 90% of humans live within reach of a mobile phone, but there are differences in meaningful access based on things like culture and gender.
Also, all smartphones are not created equal. Most people use Android phones in the developing world. But basic phones have much better battery life and function even with a cracked screen and so on, which are important when you consider the conditions in which people in emerging markets sometimes live: extremely high temperatures and patchy access to electricity. There has been a lot of media coverage about the sub-$50 smartphones recently but those are less good in terms of functionality. In designing sites for the developing world we should work hard on mobile optimisation for terrible screens, bad browsers and low bandwidth. Even if we do that, we’re already at a place where there is a two-tier internet - the stuff that will work on a terrible connection and phone, and the stuff that won’t.
Anecdotally, feature phones are disappearing. Most people upgrade to a smartphone over time. But there is a clear divide between the haves and the have-nots. The biggest difference is in terms of access to power or electricity. The most pernicious thing in those parts of the world is electricity – women for example have very low incomes and hold down multiple jobs; they have no time to go and charge phones. It is important to acknowledge the difference between having a smartphone and actually being able to use it the way people like you and me do.
But there are also some interesting stories: in 2008 when Cyclone Nargis hit Myanmar, they couldn’t bring in the normal international humanitarian response because Myanmar was a closed country at that time. Eventually, as the response wore on (several weeks) they gradually opened up. As a side-effect of the response and the disaster, the mobile networks which were tightly controlled and limited, and extremely expensive, have opened up, expanded and dropped in price. Linked but separate things. So we’re seeing a nation go from almost no mobile to almost full mobile coverage in a matter of years, and in the smartphone age. So though people had money by then to buy basic phones, they waited till they could afford to buy a smartphone for status reasons.
But basic phones still have their uses: in areas where there is very little network coverage, most people use basic phones as media players, to play audio primarily.
What does SIMLab think about educating people in technology? In order for them to get the best out of technology, is there a need to guide them in how to use the technology in the first place (without sounding patronizing)?
Laura: We take a very fatalistic approach to this. Education usually help in contexts where we need to get something specific done, but otherwise we prefer to go with what people already know. The market tends to educate people for you – we think of different situations as they are, and respect what people know in those situations.
Sometimes people who enter new countries in an aid context think that it is incumbent on them to educate people, but they don’t do the potentially very interesting thing of using what people already have. For example, in terms of education, people in developing countries listen to the radio all the time, so that is a very useful education tool.
Recently, SIMLab announced a new email-based course on mobile tech for civil society organisations. Could you tell me a bit more about this?
Laura: Sure. It was initially funded by the UN Democracy Fund (UNDEF) to provide training on FrontlineSMS technology to help around 35 civil society organisations use it better. It’s an email-based course, because lots of users in the emerging markets don’t have access to broadband; they are tethering or using a modem. We learnt from past experience that people often can’t access web-based material easily, they prefer things like PDFs (which have to be small in size) or audio for ease of access (they prefer audio even over video, which meant we transcribed a lot of videos into audios to make it easier to access). We took the approach of ‘how can we get rid of every download that we can and still make it easy for people to access the course?’
We also created the course to be consumed via plain-text email so that it requires the lowest bandwidth possible for a course like this.
What projects are you working on at the moment?
Laura: We are supporting Landesa to speed up land titling for landless families in Odisha, India using SMS; and a large 11-country research project on how inclusive technologies impact human security and community policing, either positively or negatively.
How does SIMLab work with technologies like Ushahidi, which is also about emergency response?
Laura: We don’t have a specific system as such; we’re not a solution looking for a problem. We work with whatever software providers exist in the local markets to build the best solution. The SIMLab way is to always ask the question first, then determine the software that helps answer the question best. We have worked with Ushahidi in the past; it’s more of a back-end solution and we’ve integrated it as part of a hybrid solution.
As the CEO of SIMLab, what is the culture of SIMLab like, how do you make sure that your vision is translated accurately across geographies?
Laura: SIMLab is based across the world; I’m based in Washington DC, but we have one person in London and one soon in Nairobi. We usually work on the ground through partner organisations depending on the need. Our aim is to figure out how to make available resources work best for small and medium organisations, and towards this end we try and bed in our culture so that people know what it means to be part of SIMLab. We say No a lot, and we trust that the people we hire have the strength and conviction to understand why we say No.
Thanks so much for your time, Laura!