I’m excited to return to Kampala for the ICT4D conference representing the Digital Impact Alliance. When I left Kampala in 2012, my home of two and a half years, many things were different. I left UNICEF having grown and trained the software development team that took U-Report from concept to a platform of over two hundred thousand users. Our team learned many of the challenges of SMS and web-based applications along the way, from architectural challenges at scale to silly little things that can sink your entire program in the training phase, all hinged on a single character choice in your report message format. The general lesson however is a common one in technology: the devil is in the details.
In 2012, RapidSMS (U-Report’s base system) was still a fledgling, somewhat untested platform, with notions of feature parity and competition with FrontlineSMS. The primary funding for developer contributions was directed by UNICEF, and the community was (perhaps overly) cautious as to what constituted “custom project work” versus what belonged in “the platform.” The Digital Principles were yet to be codified, although their precursors had been discussed in 2009 in the form of UNICEF’s Innovation Principles. It seemed that every time a new SMS-based program was established anywhere in sub-Saharan Africa, the same hard lessons had to be learned around the difficulties of basic interoperability with the mobile network operators. Uganda established a moratorium around the proliferation of T4D pilots. I wrote a blog supporting the move, open standards, and product reuse in general. Perhaps the only constant in the T4D ecosystem is ICTWorks’ attraction to the provocative. U-Report, for its successes in Uganda, was being prepared for replication in other countries and globally, although the software itself was in no condition to meet the challenge.
Comparing 2019 to 2012, the T4D landscape has the same mix of the new and the familiar as Yusuf Lule Road in central Kampala. RapidSMS graduated to RapidPro, which is now a candidate “building block” (more below) and featured in impactful product suites such as mHero, as well as U-Report deployments worldwide. The Digital Principles are not only codified, but an industry standard with over 170 endorsers and growing. Integration with mobile network operators remains a challenge, but aggregators are rapidly increasing coverage and service offerings. I still lament bad funding models, but open source and reusable, more mature products are flourishing.
There is a convergence emerging in the sector around bringing principles to practice. This is more and more evident as the Digital Principles community grows, in the various toolkits and training materials developed and the establishment of the Digital Principles Advisory Council, which will have its’ first convening just prior to ICT4D in Kampala. It’s also evident in the work DIAL, GSMA and others have done to better understanding the demand for mobile network operator services and how to connect more people with critical goods, services and information via mobile phones. And it’s evident in the focus on product reuse, a priority for UNICEF in their catalog of digital public goods, Digital Square in the focus of their investments , as well as DIAL in ours. DIAL envisions a future where a Whole-of-Government or whole-of-organization approach to building software products eschews the sector-specific focus of past efforts, framing software product development investments around reusable “building blocks” that can achieve all SDGs, and not just one project’s goal during a particular project lifecycle.
At ICT4D, DIAL will be bringing practical guidance from decades of cumulative experience in T4D deployments across a broad range of challenges in the space. We hope to see you there!
Check out all of DIAL’s sessions at the 2019 ICT4D Conference below: