Ken Banks, founder of FrontlineSMS, has predicted that a $30 mobile phone will soon be available in Africa that will drive a new wave of innovation.
This could change the game for all of us. As soaring numbers of people use mobiles, rich & poor, rural & urban, will NGOs join in the flood of cheap, mass two-way communication or be washed aside?
More specifically, which applications will poor people like and use most?
Mobile banking is well established along with mobile trading. NGOs are full of excitement about areas like mHealth (e.g. health records & advice on phones) and mLearning (e.g. educational support by phone). This year’s World Telcomm Day, May 17th, focused on using mobiles for rural communities.
But Facebook is the number one non-email website in Africa. Surprising? What does this mean for NGOs?
For instance, they show how mobile phones can slash the cost of running surveys. Farm Radio International used Mobile Researcher running on researchers’ phones to survey 4,500 people in 5 countries in a month. It cut the need for data-entry, halved the length of interviews and allowed real time analysis of the data.
Smartphones offer much more: a new way of “handing over the stick” and letting local people lead conversations. They allow people to connect together and share information – powerful drivers of empowerment.
In Tanzania, Daraja is encouraging citizens to text in problems with their rural water supplies. The texts are forwarded to district officials and local radio stations, generating political pressure to improve services. The pilot has been encouraging, though fewer people have sent in texts than expected. This is a striking finding, along with whether women have access to phones.
Emoksha is developing similar tools in India, allowing citizens to monitor local services and elections.
In Haiti, Oxfam ran a complaints line on a dedicated mobile phone number and invited local people to comment on their earthquake response work. That’s just the beginning. Local people with smartphones will create powerful new ways of holding NGOs to account – and linking up directly with our donors.
In a few years time, NGOs really could set up Facebook pages for their beneficiaries as well as donors. Just imagine what could be on them: project details & photos, interactive comments, community groups, campaign targets and links to government officials & donors. They could also tie in to wider initiatives, for instance using the International Aid Transparency Initiative standards.
NGOs will need mobile tools that are useful to local people as well as decision makers – sometimes easier said than done. (E.g. see this critique of whether Ushahidi actually generated useful information in Haiti) There will be on-going issues about whether local people bother using our apps and whether the most excluded remain excluded. But the prizes are great.
Just think of the mass market possibilities. Suppose all NGOs collaborated (just for a moment!). They work with many millions of people. What apps would be most helpful for them, on a local, national or global stage? How about a simple tool where people can easily report their access to a range of basic services and rights – or rate the performance of service providers, whether NGOs, private companies or governments?
Bottom-up development apps on internet phones that serve the needs of the poor will shape the next generation of NGO work. We should be creating them now.