We are occasionally commissioned to write introductory articles about the mobile revolution and implications for NGOs for various publications. Here is one broad overview of some areas where mobiles are deployed in civil society.
Cellphones have become the most ubiquitous communication device in the hands of human beings. There are an estimated 3.5 billion mobile phones in use and there is coverage in even remote corners of the world. Cellphones have revolutionized not just the way we work and organize within cultures and societies, but have the potential to change how NGOs (non-governmental organizatios) operate.
Mobile phones are already experimentally used in multiple ways by NGOs. We at MobileActive.org have been tracking how organizations in areas such as health and disease prevention, economic development, humanitarian relief, democratic participation, and advocacy are using mobile phones to make their work more effective and efficient.
Following are a few examples of what we have seen and where we think mobile phones have potential to be used more strategically by NGOs.
One of the areas where cellphones are already used is in microfinance and economic development. In microfinance organizations, trials are underway to transmit payments via mobile and for assessing credit on the spot by field officers. Likewise, mobile phones are used to access send job information to day laborers, and provide weather and agricultural information to farmers.
In fact, a recent study found that the introduction of cellphones in Indian fishing villages with fisherman calling and negotiating prices off the boat with their mobiles, increased their profit by 8% and decreased consumer prices by 4% through greater efficiency. Other studies indicate that a reduction in excise taxes and increase in mobile infrastructure can increase GDP by more than a percentage point.
Another area of interest are in democratic participation, and particularly election monitoring and getting out the vote: The National Democratic Institute has been testing the use of mobile phones in broad-based election monitoring in six election now, most recently in an important election in Sierra Leone in late 2007. There, a coalition of local citizen groups and hundreds of volunteers used their own phones to report hourly via coordinated text messaging from 500 polling stations on any election irregularities.
In many contested elections, especially in emerging democracies, speed of reporting is of the essence. It is critical that NGOs and independent civil society organizations report data accurately and quickly even before official results are released, especially when fraud is feared. Mobile phones have been an important tool in this regard. They are, of course, not a new phenomenon in election monitoring; after all, cell phones have been around for a while now. But prior to NDI showcasing that text messages or SMS are a viable and reliable communication medium in elections, mobile phones were used merely to transmit reports verbally that then still had to be transcribed in a time-consuming and error-prone manual process.
In the last few years there have been rapid improvements in mobile services as competition in the wireless industry has increased worldwide, and there is growing interest and understanding on the part of NGOs that systematic election monitoring is not as difficult as it first may seem. As election monitoring via SMS becomes standardized and NGOs gain experience, there is no reason for mobile phones and SMS not to play a greater role in other areas of civic participation. For example, imagine citizen oversight of public works projects where people might report on whether a clinic is actually built as indicated in a local budget. Other applications may be monitoring and accountability of elected officials, and dissemination of voter registration information such as the address of where to register, or the nearest polling station.
Several pilot projects in the United States and in Scotland showed promising results in increasing voter turnout by text message reminders. The future is bright for innovative ways in which cell phones are used by citizens to participate and engage in their countries as the mobile revolution unfolds.
In healthcare, mobile phones are used already in a variety of areas already; not surprising given the relatively greater monetary resources available in this field. Cellphones are used to systematically monitor disease outbreaks in countries such as Rwanda, for example and to increase patient compliance in tuberculosis treatment. There is compelling evidence, for instance, that text message reminders increase patient’s taking their medicine and allow them to take their medication at home rather than having to go to a clinic every day. In a trial in 2003 in South Africa that has since been repeated elsewhere, a daily reminder was sent to patients , complete with personalized messages, jokes, and lifestyle hints. "You get a lot of different type of messages," said a patient in an interview, "like 'Did you Know Nelson Mandela had TB' or 'Beware TB is contagious'. They keep you informed and mean you never forget to take your drugs." Since then there have been numerous pilot projects in Asia and Africa that show great promise in using mobile phones in patient management and monitoring.
Promising may well be SMS information lines that the public queries to receive information about a specific topic.
There are already numerous HIV information lines that provide prevention and disease information. A recently launched mobile phone service in South Africa, for example, provides HIV testing station locations through the use of SMS. South Africans can send an SMS to the short code "31771" with the word "HIV" followed by the name of their town or postal code. The service then responds with the location of the two nearest traveling testing units. A similar service in Mumbay, India by the Heroes Project provides prevention, testing, and counseling information via SMS to people concerned about HIV. The service received 25,000 inquiries in its first month of service alone.
Now imagine this scenario: A woman in Johannesburg, South Africa, stands at the fish counter in her local supermarket and texts the name of a fish to a phone number. Within seconds, she receives back information via a short text message informing her whether the fish is legally and environmentally harvested and advising her whether “to tuck in, think twice or avoid completely.”
The consumer is using FishMS, a text service of Sassi (The Southern African Sustainable Seafood Initiative) and the World Wildlife Fund to help consumers make informed choices about the seafood they purchase.
Sassi now has taken this system into a mobile environment - just in time environmental information in the super market. Jaco Barendse, coordinator of SASSI, says that cell phones are "the ideal way to combine technology and information with the variety of seafood available and the growing awareness among seafood lovers, chefs, food buyers and so on that the ocean's resources aren't infinite. It also "demonstrates to retailers and restaurateurs that those consumers are willing to use their spending power. When shoppers and restaurant patrons start texting to check whether the “Catch of the Day” is okay to eat, it'll hopefully help drive suppliers buying habits.”
FishMS is one of a growing number of environmental text message information services available to consumers and citizens that provide just-in-time information about the toxicity of products, ambient air quality, or the environmental impact of products and companies.
Text message-based information services are proliferating. For example, Climate Counts lets a consumer text in the name of a product or company to a US short-code (a five-digit phone number) to receive back information about how serious companies are about stopping climate change - and how they compare to their sector competitors. The information, in the form of a scorecard that is delivered via text message back to the user, reflects the self-reported efforts of companies to address climate change.
SMS information channels are increasingly the rage for just-in-time information for the savvy omni-consumer. According to recent IBM consumer research, this information is increasingly influencing buying behaviour. Fifty-three percent of consumers surveyed by IBM used the Internet to compare features and prices among retailers in the 2006 holiday season. Two-third of teens surveyed said they use cell phones to text friends while shopping for input, and 25 percent accessed the Internet from a mobile device while in a store. And an astonishing one in ten consumers reached out to friends and family via text message while shopping to get input.
NGOs are exploring other uses of cellphones within an advocacy context: Greenpeace Argentina, for example, has an urgent alert network of 30,000 ‘movile activistas’ who can be contacted by the push of the ‘send’ button via text message during legislative action campaigns.
It is clear that NGOs need to become savvier and more innovative in their use of cellphone technology. It is also clear that this medium has enormous potential in ways that we have not even thought about. There is no limit to grassroots innovation around the world in creative uses of mobile tech to advance civil society work, and we are looking forward to your stories.