WHO IS SEAN MCDONALD?
“From a communications technology perspective I really believe that some of the most important work that we can do is improve systemic efficiency and the number of people who work through that system.“
Why are you interested in diplomacy, international aid, or humanitarian aid? Were you exposed to the field from an early age by a parent or grandparent? In Sean Martin McDonald’s case, the answer is yes. Sean’s grandfather is former Ambassador John McDonald who has been a big influence on Sean’s professional endeavors, attraction to international affairs, and the world’s greatest social problems. Ambassador McDonald is one of the authors of multi-track diplomacy, or the connection of non-state actors in diplomatic activities. This style of diplomacy has been extremely influential throughout Sean’s personal and professional life.
Sean is the CEO of FrontlineSMS, a professional SMS management tool that connects online and offline populations in several of the world’s poorest nations. Frontline technologies is used by thousands of organizations to reach tens of millions of people, saving lives, improving healthcare and building inclusive societies. Frontline was named the #1 Technology NGO in the world and was listed by the Nominet Trust Social 100 in 2014.
This video provides a great explanation of how the tool works, but in the simplest terms, it can help organizations understand the power of SMS communication while automating certain pieces of it. According to Sean, his role as CEO is to figure out: “how do you build really open, really useful, really accessible tools that also provide a sustainable future for us and our users?”
As we learned through our TOR podcast with Jacob Korenblum, mobile technology is becoming a major theme throughout development and aid. FrontlineSMS is one of the world’s most successful mobile technology products with over 100,000 downloads. As the company’s leader and visionary, Sean’s primary question is “how do you evolve and progress social systems through technology?”
Sean’s interview is also packed with great advice for graduate students and young professionals. For example, although he does not have a tech background or degree, he became CEO of FrontlineSMS by connecting with people in different communities across different career paths and organizational settings. Sean’s advice is to always keep an eye out for “Partners” you work with, saying “Good organizations always have an eye on talent and acquire people they have the best experiences with.”
Sean is a Trustee of the Awesome Foundation DC and an affiliate with Harvard University’s Berkman Center. Sean is an advisor to Digital Democracy, DoSomething.org, ECPAT USA, the Law Without Walls Program, TechChange, and UNDP. Sean is a lawyer, barred in New York. He also holds an M.A. in International Peace and Conflict Resolution from American University.
You can connect with Sean here:
IN TOR 074 YOU’LL LEARN ABOUT:
- Sean’s “serendipitous” path as a non-techie towards leading one of the best tools for international development.
- Sean’s upbringing and links to U.S. diplomacy and development work.
- How Sean took advantage of natural and political upheaval to create an experimental testing ground.
- Sean’s view of the future of technology in international development.
OUR CONVERSATION INCLUDES THE FOLLOWING:
- Institute for Multi-Track Diplomacy
- American University’s International Peace and Conflict Resolution (IPCR) graduate program
- International Relief and Development (IRD)
- MetroStar System
- Google Impact Award
- U.S. Ambassador John W. McDonald
- Technology in\for international development
- Inclusive technologies
- SMS communications and management tools
- Land title rights
- Indian elections
- Natural disasters
- Nairobi, Kenya
- Washington, DC
- State of Odisha, India
EPISODE CRIB NOTES
At the iHub Nairobi
A coworking space (also in DC) for tech startups and NGOs.
FrontlineSMS has unfolded here.
Building really open, useful, accessible tools for sustainability.
Inclusive technology. Potential, access.
It started as SMS engagement, now it’s much more. SMS is still growing and it’s the most accessible tech tool available.
Today it is about a granular understanding connection and administration, information management.
Communication in development is based on request and response, back and forth exchanges. Interaction with people determines the kind of response and eventual assistance, most of it through SMS.
Grandfather (Ambassador John McDonald) was involved in development, believed cooperation must not be left only to governments.
Ambassador McDonald was also founder of the Institute for Multi-Track Diplomacy and a writer.
Bringing more people to solve problems in international development was an interest right when Sean was in law school and in the American University’s IPCR program.
Started at IRD. Institutional education for Sean. Wanted to look beyond walls early on.
Looking for “Things that are moving the world and social systems,” found the answer in technology.
Moved to MetroStar System, first technology job, involved in international development consultancy. First day: Haiti earthquake.
Loving tech and its impact without a tech degree
It’s always been about making connection in systems.
People able to have feet in two different places have more opportunities.
MetroStar got involved in Haiti, turned to be a very large effort. “This is what deploying technology in one of the most difficult situations looks like.“
Met FrontlineSMS, started his involvement and his questions about people and technology and its transformational power.
Google Impact Award: SMS in Land Title rights in India’s Odisha state. Sean’s dream project. Launched, then a cyclone strikes. Then the largest presidential elections in the world with political changes. It turned into a highly experimental field with positive outcomes.
Another one is at the beginning of FrontlineSMS, team was leaning into rewriting the platform. Use of agile practices. Opinions of non technical people (Sean’s among those), are the origin of some of the best features of an app. Version 2 launched with success.
Measures of success
At first, just sheer downloads.
Digging beyond, it is all about making what an ordinary user must do faster, more intelligently and efficient.
FrontlineSMS has done “Very transformative measurable work.“
There has also been less measurable, very inspirational work, disaster response for example, do what they believe in.
CEO at work
“I think about results every 45 seconds.“
Questions, sometimes uncomfortable, about the required level of engagement in a given situation, and the level of user data needed and desired to have.
From a donor-driven model to interaction-based cost model, looking for more valuable services and models, efficiently. “We’re still in startup mode.“
Sean wants to continue at the helm of the organization.
Question of how much information is worth, as granular as possible.
FrontlineSMS is great at finding the value of the smallest bit of interaction and the vision is to become even better at it, benefit users, organizations, people.
Striving for “symmetric value,” keeps Sean invested.
Keep an eye on partners, high level management always looks for good partners.
Be able to pursue what you want, while making it clearer and clearer what that is.
“I hire people based on what they’re in it for. You can always learn skills.“
Sean has seen many times large markets originating from just a strongly interested community of volunteers.
Please share, participate and leave feedback below!
If you have any feedback you’d like to share for me or Sean, please leave your thoughts in the comment section below! I read all of them and will definitely take part in the conversation.
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