Shhh! We’re working…

It’s got a bit quiet.  Sorry.  Lots and lots going on.

And all of it is exciting.  There’s a few fantastic projects coming together and other stuff we’ve just started on, and we’re expanding.  I’ll update as soon as I can.

In the meantime, if you’re looking for something to read, Mary Meeker’s 2014 report is out.  By the time you’ve finished reading it we’ll have updated some news.  Have a read here:

(tl;dr – mobile big, TV changing, good UI is king, mobile ad still under-indexed, nothing in there about emerging markets or mobile money though…)

ICA Mobile Preconference 2014

Later this month in Seattle the great and good of the mobile social research world will assemble for the ICA Mobile Preconference.  I was lucky enough to attend last year when it was at the LSE, and enjoyed papers as diverse as research looking at how people retain messages and photos of loved ones on their phones as a memento mori after a bereavement to how emerging market users are using mobile to maintain social contact.

It’s a fascinating group, and a great discussion that’s been running for over ten years now.  Sadly work commitments prevent me from going this year, but I’m pleased that Caribou Digital is able to sponsor the dinner in Seattle and look forward to being involved more in person next year.

MasterCard Foundation project & Reading in the Mobile Era

First – I’m happy to announce that the The MasterCard Foundation are officially Caribou Digital’s first major client!  I’ve enjoyed working with them for a number of years, and have a great respect for the team there and the potential of the Foundation to have a huge positive impact in the world.  I’ve been lucky enough to be invited to their dinner event in New York during UN/CGI week these past few years, when I’ve heard testimonies from their scholarship students that show how much they gain from the programme.

Focused on financial inclusion and education opportunities for youth in sub Saharan Africa, the Foundation has a keen focus that means it has the potential for sizeable scale impact.  I’ll be working with the team to understand the role that technology and innovation play in their investment strategy, and will also work in parallel with Dalberg in developing the overall 3-6 year strategy with the management team.  A hugely exciting project and a great group of people to work with.

Very closely connected to this thematically, one of the things that’s always fascinated me about technology and literacy was the chicken and egg situation that internet connectivity brings to quasi-literate users.  Do we need to invest heavily in literacy programmes to enable people to use a largely text-based global body of internet content, or will affordable access to internet connectivity provide the access to content that shows the utility and benefit of literacy to people, creating a strong demand for literacy development and increasing reading?

My hunch has always been the latter, and anecdotal evidence has shown this to be true.  Now a new research report from UNESCO, Worldreader and Nokia seems to suggest that this is true:

“The study shows that mobile reading represents a promising, if still underutilised, pathway to text.  It is not hyperbole to suggest that if every person on the planet understood that his or her mobile phone could be transformed – easily and cheaply – into a library brimming with books, access to text would cease to be such a daunting hurdle to literacy.”

Fantastic that we’re starting to see some serious research support this theory.  The Guardian has a great summary here, and I owe thanks to the indefatigable Wayan Vota for tweeting the link to the report.  We’ll be publishing the output of the USAID workshop on content I facilitated in March pretty soon, and having seen the early draft of the document I think it ties in very well with the UNESCO report.  It’s great that we’re building a good understanding of the role appropriate content on ubiquitous technology will play in massively increasing literacy globally.

Right.  I’m off to Toronto via Washington DC to start helping people fund projects to do exactly all of the above.  Exciting!



Video of UCSD talk/Steve Song on “frickin’ laser beams”

Firstly, IR/PS put up the video of my public talk here. Thanks again to UCSD for allowing me to be a visiting fellow, and particularly to Craig McIntosh for doing the public Q&A with me.

Secondly – a fantastic article here by Steve Song on what Google & Facebook are missing when they look at connectivity for the last billion. The problems he lists are exactly the ones I’m looking at addressing in one of the projects Caribou Digital will be able to talk about soon.

2013 Brookings Blum Roundtable

Last August I was kindly invited to participate in the Brookings Blum Roundtable on the role of the private sector in international development.  It was a fantastic meeting and the proceedings have been published here.

Notably the third tranch of the discussion revolved around the USA’s role in increasing private sector development and opportunities, which very swiftly descended into a discussion on Congress’s role in approving budgets, which was timely around the time of the furlough, but there’s some good stuff in there.


UCSD Visiting Fellowship

My visiting fellowship at EMPAC, part of IR/PS at UCSD comes to an end – and it’s been excellent.  Beyond the pleasure of being joined by many friends from other organisations for the round table on sustainable digital economies, there has been no end of thought provoking conversations, lectures and talks with students and faculty.  Everything from a detailed discussion on the role of digital economies in conflict states to the potential to crowd source the location of clean water for ninja miners in Mongolia… it’s been a blast.  More importantly, it’s been a chance to validate my approach with Caribou Digital with world-leading economists.

I’ll start writing notes up and link to the video of my public talk in the next week or so, but first a few days R&R in Santa Monica with my family.  This is just a short post to thank UCSD.

The next few weeks and months are also busy with work, as the initial projects I’m committed to start to ramp up, so I’ll post here more frequently on how they’re developing.  I’ll also tinker with this blog in the coming weeks as I go more public with Caribou Digital, updating my LinkedIn profile, and talking more openly about who my first clients and projects are.

MasterCard Foundation visit/UCSD Roundtable notes

Lots going on at the moment.

I’ve just returned from an excellent visit to the MasterCard Foundation, and was privileged to speak at their innovation day alongside CGAP, MasterCard Labs and Accion Ventures.  I always learn at least as much as I (hopefully) give at these things, and my major take-away this time was the excellent work CGAP have done with their construction of Digital Finance Plus.

We’ve long talked about the potential for digital payments and mobile money to be the rails upon which many new interesting businesses and services could travel, and this is starting to turn from hope to reality.  The huge amount of activity in what can loosely be called ‘m-utilities’ is one example of an industry adjacent to connectivity/ICT that is starting to be intrinsically woven into a digital future.  The killer app in emerging market digital economies will be transactions – and I use the term transactions wisely as it’s a range of transactions, from data to payments, that will drive the sustainability of these services.  Digital Finance Plus is the first time I’ve seen someone put some sensible structure and nomenclature to the concept and it should be a rallying point for many working in this space.

Which is a nice segue into where I’m heading next, as Tilman Ehrbeck, the CEO of CGAP, is presenting Digital Finance Plus at the roundtable on sustainable digital economies I’m hosting at the University of Southern California, San Diego in April.  I wanted to do this as part of my Visiting Fellowship at EMPAC, UCSD next month, and at the roundtable – which will be Chatham House rules but will include representation from USAID, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, MasterCard Foundation, Mozilla Foundation, GSMA, Dalberg and others – we’ll be discussing what economic sustainability will look like for digital economies in emerging markets, building up from digital payments as an alternative to advertising revenue.  I’ll be hosting with a good friend and extremely learned colleague Brooke Partridge from Vital Wave.

I’ll also be speaking more personally about how I see this area emerging in a public talk on the subject.  I’m looking forward to the chance to explore these ideas with many bright people, the output we’ll get from the meetings during the Fellowship, and also the warmth of the welcome (and the sun!) for me an my family in San Diego!  Much as I loved my trip to Toronto, it’ll be nice to go from -12C windchill to >20C sun…



Notes from USAID Content Workshop

This week I was in DC facilitating a workshop on mobile content at the kind invitation of USAID.

It’s a hell of a topic to pick, given that it can encompass just about everything and anything, but it’s a topic I’d wanted to discuss in a room with smart people for some time, and we were lucky enough to do that over a couple of days.  Remarkably we stayed on topic, which was thanks to the excellent people in the room, and I think we produced some good guidance both for our immediate practice in this area and for USAID themselves.  I’ll publish the formal write up once we have it, but some quick notes here.

Top Down Content

There is no end to the amount of content being produced by development organisations that is useful.  A common refrain from participants at the workshop was ‘the content is already out there’.  But there are major market failures in the aggregation, distribution and localisation of this content.  This is something I’ve discussed many times in the past with USAID and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation teams – that there’s probably a major business in properly preparing existing content sources for digital distribution.  This missing middle function is just not being funded as an activity.  It seems as if projects are rewarded for creating new content with valuable impact potential to change behaviour, or rewarded for innovating in the mode of delivery to reach more users, but the bit in the middle is lying fallow.

This leads to a many problems – where this work is being done within a project, it’s costly replicating this process across all projects and disincentivises people from sharing their hard work.  Where this is not being done, content handed over from expert organisations is often not usable in newer digital distribution platforms, which delays launches, causes budget creep, or makes those projects fail completely.

Suggestions to solve this during the workshop were many – as well as a lot of experiences shared about exactly how costly and time consuming this process is – but simple recommendations that could be acted on included making donors more aware of the work needed, enabling them to better fund projects to counter this, and the very nice idea of creating a ‘content git hub’ where funded organisations can source and improve and re-use content in their programmes.  The last of these sounds the most exciting and feasible, and is something I’d recommend the upcoming ‘mobile hub’ (a project being formulated by a group of donors) concentrates on.

Bottom-Up Content

There was also a good conversation about user generated content.  Some discussion on how to sort/curate user generated content where there are health or education topics – one of the ironies of the increasing excitement about using social media to source content from users is it replicates the kind of ad-hoc, informal distribution of often inaccurate and sometimes dangerous content that most development projects are actively trying to prevent.

What was interesting was some shared data on contributions to Wikimedia by language, that points to the brutal Pareto principle in user generated content, and how this doesn’t scale downwards when we’re looking at languages with few users, and more importantly few connected users.  I don’t think translation companies with good contracts in International Development are going to go out of business any day soon.

What is interesting is how some people asked ‘what can social media platforms do to help us?’ – which to me is the wrong formulation of the question.  Development projects have become used to owning, or curating and managing, the distribution channels their content has been delivered over.  It’s very much been a supply-side push culture.  In more established popular media we have become adept at recognising how new consumption patterns demand better content creation, and have even done this with early mobile content as well.  Social media is no different, and we need to understand the topology better, and learn from the activities of sites like Buzzfeed better.  After all, this kind of shift in audience consumption of media is a regular occurrence.

Which ultimately leads us to the real content question – once users drive a demand-led content world rather than the supply-driven one we’re used to in development, why should we think they want the content we produce anyway?

(Thanks to Matt Locke at Storythings for the Buzzfeed links, and @Southern_Seas for the NY Times article.)

This is for everyone?

Dan Hon’s excellent daily news letter has been running a continuing narrative about the Californian Ideology, largely prompted by some of the more extreme arguments being raised about the role of the creators of digital value in society.  (If you want the tl;dr version of that last link, there are creators in the world who are pretty much the only people of value, and servers who run basic services (like education, legal support, food) who provide sustenance to the creators, so they can create more value.  It’s a hard read to stomach.)

He points to this excellent article on jobs creation and destruction in the digital age in the Economist.  It’s a great article, if a little far-reaching and inconclusive, which is all it can be, but it’s smack on my current thinking of the impact of digital economies in emerging markets.

I remember the Californian Ideology from way back in the Nineties.  I was running a new multi-media MA course at University College London, and Barbrook was running his hypermedia course at University of Westminster.  He had a similar academic background to me, but whereas he was continuing to mix Critical Theory with practical web-building instruction, I was probably heading my students more in the direction of industry (a direction, it turns out, I was heading in myself).  So I understood his ideas, but felt at the time it was too Luddite, perhaps.  I was excited by the web industry I saw emerging around us, excited by the possibilities.  I have always been a firm believer in the positive impact of technology, and Barbrook seemed to be pouring cold water on a little too early.

20 years later, it seems less so.  We’re not a plucky upstart any more, and the digital industry is set to be the oil industry of the 21st Century.  By this I mean it will have the same dominance in politics, economics and society that the oil industry had in the 20th Century, that it will be unavoidable for adjacent industries to use its products, and that the fault lines that emerge in the digital industry in the 21st Century will have the same far-reaching effects that the many fault lines the oil industry exposed in the 20th Century.

If I’m allowed to stretch the analogy further; we’ve come to use a vaguely pejorative term – the extractive industries – for Big Oil.  I think I want to coin a similar phrase for the digital industry – the digitally extractive industries – to make the allusion that we’re mining personal data instead of oil, but it’s still unclear how the value from this extraction is shared in a sustainable way.  At the moment, it’s mainly driving advertising.

When we look at emerging market digital economies, we can use this as a cautionary tale and also an opportunity to think differently.  It is not a given that digital economies in emerging markets will be carbon copies of those that have emerged in the rest of the world.  Clearly there are going to be a majority of similarities in the services themselves – people’s needs from digital services aren’t substantially different globally, and if the service is reduced to a largely homogenous set of tools then it can meet a largely homogenous set of human needs.  But the business models that support these digital services are unlikely to be similar – there is little in the way of digital advertising in emerging markets outside of elite urban users, and without significant economic development producing a viable middle-class with disposable income, it’s unlikely to emerge at the levels that current digital service business models need.  This is a problem if 97% of your revenue comes from digital advertising.  It’s also a significant problem for the vast majority of adjacent industry players, start-ups and partners that are reliant on your platform of services to support their business models.

But here’s the opportunity.  Emerging markets do have transactional services that are booming and are very specific to their countries.  Perhaps digital services will become sustainable via rather more traditional transactional revenues.  Perhaps they’ll need to employ people to support these traditional transactional revenues.  Perhaps digital businesses in emerging markets will look different, more integrated and crafted to the topology of doing business in these countries, and as a consequence will share value a little more, create employment, contribute to the societies they exist in a little more, be additive as well as extractive.

We need the lure of the reward for start ups and entrepreneurs, that significant concentration of value flowing to the pioneers who take risks, to encourage people to explore the huge potential for digital services in emerging markets.  But we also need to make sure it doesn’t stratify already vast impoverished and divided societies into two-tier cultures of creators and servers.  It’s already distressing to see the impacts of inequality in the heart of the Californian Ideology in San Francisco.  To see this replicated, to see a lucky digital elite coasting through Nairobi in wifi enabled buses on the way to their jobs as supreme creators, would be tragic, and uncomfortably redolent of a former age.