Page last updated at 09:49 GMT, Monday, 14 July 2008 10:49 UK

Mobile development rings true

By Ken Banks

Elephant

Elephants might not be able to make phone calls, but that doesn't stop them carrying mobiles. It doesn't stop crocodiles or seals, either.

Today from Kenya to South Africa, from Sweden to Greece, conservationists are using mobile networks to track a range of endangered species using GSM technology.

The advance of mobile technology has touched just about every aspect of the non-profit world, whether the focus is wildlife conservation or human health, and we've only just begun to scratch the surface.

It's easy to forget just how young the mobile industry really is.

The real beauty, of course, is that few people saw this coming.

The potential for mobiles in conservation and development work is huge, and evidence of their use is increasing
Ken Banks

Back in 2003, while I was researching for one of the early publications on the use of mobile phones in international conservation and development, there wasn't a huge amount to report other than largely scattered anecdotal evidence.

Back then, many believed that people in developing countries, particularly those living off a couple of dollars or so a day, would never be able to own a phone. How wrong they were.

Today, in Sub-Saharan Africa, 30% of the population own a mobile, equating to in excess of 300 million people.

Many more have access to the technology through Shared Phones, Village Phones or family and friends.

Direct link

This explosive growth is largely down to a vibrant recycling market and the arrival of $20 phones, but is also down in part to the efforts of forward-thinking mobile manufacturers, some of whom spend increasing amounts of time trying to understand what people living at the so-called "bottom of the pyramid" might want from a phone.

Mobiles with flashlights are just one example of a product that can emerge from this brand of user-centric design.

Advert for torch phone
Some handsets are "much more than a phone"

Seeking to appeal to the needs of people lacking any kind of reliable lighting in their homes, some phones are now marketed with a strong emphasis on them being "much more than a phone". Innovation doesn't just happen in the West.

Local entrepreneurs are also getting in on the act, setting up shop wherever they see a need - which is almost everywhere - providing charging and repair services to help people keep their phones up and running for as long as possible.

The end result of all of this - the manufacturer's "formal" activities and this hugely impressive grassroots "informal" activity - means that more phones are getting into more and more hands, and staying there for longer.

Mobile phones are today providing a direct line of communication to farmers, doctors, patients, nurses, teachers and youth, or anyone else the non-profit community might seek to engage.

This is allowing patients to be sent reminders to take their medicine, or market prices to be sent to farmers, or to enable citizens to help monitor elections, or activists to report human rights abuses.

Text solution

The potential for mobiles in conservation and development work is huge, and evidence of their use is increasing. Many grassroots non-profits, however, still struggle to successfully implement them in their work.

A key problem is that many of the phones circulating through recycled markets are generally older, legacy handsets.

Man text messages
Text messages are often the only data services available

Thanks to the ingenuity and efficiency of the many mobile phone repair shops, it's not uncommon to find people happily using phones six or seven years old.

But providing data services of any kind, let alone a full web experience, is a bridge too far for many of these devices.

The solution is often the humble text message (SMS).

But in a world where the mobile phone is regularly touted as the device which will help close the digital divide, text messaging isn't necessarily the solution people had in mind.

While many developers concentrate on building smart applications for smart phones, grassroots non-profits with only SMS at their disposal are largely left behind.

Building applications for a target audience limited by their own unique blend of cultural, geographic and economic constraints can be a real challenge, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't try.

For the past three years I've been working on my own solution, and it will come as no surprise that it's based on the text message.

Health check

FrontlineSMS is a messaging hub which allows non-profits in developing countries to manage bulk two-way communications using a mobile phone attached to a laptop computer.

When I built the first version in 2005, I was surprised to find that almost all bulk messaging software was web-based. Getting online on the edge of Kruger National Park, or in a remote Kenyan village, is a challenge to say the least.

Man at phone charging station
Local entrepreneurs keep even old phones up and running

Today, FrontlineSMS is being used by grassroots non-profits in over 40 countries for a wide range of activities, and was used in Nigeria to monitor the 2007 Presidential elections.

In Malawi, a student from Stanford University - armed with just 100 second-hand mobile phones and FrontlineSMS - is currently helping a rural hospital revolutionise healthcare for 250,000 people.

There the software is being used to connect St. Gabriel's Hospital in Namitete with 600 community health workers over 100 sq mile (260 sq km) area.

For the first time, drug adherence monitors are able to message the hospital, reporting how local patients are doing on their TB or HIV drug regimens.

Home-based care volunteers are sent texts with names of patients that need to be traced, and their condition reported.

Leaders from the "People Living with HIV and AIDS" support group use FrontlineSMS to communicate meeting times.

Volunteers can be messaged before the hospital's mobile testing and immunisation teams arrive in their village, so they can mobilise the community.

Essentially, FrontlineSMS has adopted the new role of coordinating a far-reaching community health network.

SMS has been the surprise package of the mobile industry but, despite its dominance, obvious limitations remain.

There may be better and smarter technologies around the corner, but for many grassroots non-profits looking to help people today it remains a hugely relevant and powerful tool.

Mobile phones may present us with the best opportunity yet to bridge the digital divide, but we mustn't lose sight of the bigger picture and must always remember that the technology comes last, not first.


Ken Banks is the Founder of kiwanja.net, where he devotes himself to the application of mobile technology for positive social and environmental change throughout the developing world



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