(Balancing Act) --
Three hundred and eighty people gathered from all over the world in
Johannesburg recently to discuss how mobile phones might be used for
social and political purposes in developing countries. The organisers
and hosts Sangonet had expected 150 people but the topic clearly touched
a nerve. The event crackled with the kind of energy that happens when
people gather on a topic for the first time. Russell Southwood looks at
the issues raised by the event’s subject.
At the core of all this energy was a very simple notion. The technology
device of choice for the majority of people in developing continents
like Africa is the mobile phone. If you want to deliver messages to
people or get them to respond then SMS or voice is an obvious route to
But mobiles are not just a delivery channel but are fast becoming a
media in their own right. National consumer surveys in Balancing Act’s
report African Broadcast and Film Markets showed that between 3-9% of
respondents in a variety of countries named the mobile as one of the
most used daily sources of information.
But like the old Hollywood saying, there were only really five stories
at MobileActive 08. These were identified by snappy tags like M-health
or M-education: indeed, M- almost any development sector you care to
think of. Well, there were actually eight areas of M-something: health,
education, rural livelihoods (agriculture), governance (political
campaigning), disaster warning and women.
Mobiles are now being used to: send out bulk mailings to key target
groups (nurses); mobilise supporters; poll people and gather data; to
provide answers to enquiries; to offer information support for
activities; and raise funds. The majority of this activity is based on
the 160 characters available in SMS. In other words, it’s an
instantaneous, wide angle media but you can’t say that much using it.
But you can send several messages to overcome this limitation. However,
as one-long time veteran of using technology for development in Africa
told me:”Everyone knows how to use it and most people have access to it.”
The sheer inventiveness of many of the different services was
impressive. For example, I attended a presentation by Zimbabwe’s
Kubatana.net who used the call centre functionality of Asterisk to
create Freedom Fone. This was designed to counteract the tight control
of media in that country by allowing users to phone in and listen to
short radio-style programming. In the example aired musician Thomas
Mapfumo talked of a campaign of “tough love” towards the Government.
The early pioneers of using mobiles for social purposes go back in
Africa to the funding of the agricultural pricing service pioneered by
Senegal’s Manobi in 1998. But like a lot of new development-based
activity, the use of mobiles seems to operate in a memory-free present
tense. The early precursors of this activity were those who gathered at
the beginning of the millennium to try and use the Internet as way to
break out of seemingly intractable development issues: technology would
provide a magic pill that opened up new solutions. On the one side you
had the wild-eyed (often American) tech enthusiasts and on the other
side, the mumbling choir of African policy makers who seemed to want
something called the Information Society. And somewhere in between were
the development professionals who were trying to make sense of it all.
The hopes for technology as a magic solution were dashed upon the rocks
of a lack of infrastructure, a consequent shortage of users and the
inability of the mumbling choir to remove the policy blockages to
achieve the much-mentioned Information Society. The disillusioned and
pragmatic headed in a number of different directions. Some of them moved
from focusing on the Internet to thinking about how to use mobile
phones. People like Peter Armstrong of One World who set up an SMS jobs
service in Nairobi’s Kibera were part of this group. Others started
campaigning to change both the fundamentals of price and infrastructure.
Whilst others, like Geek Corps founder Ethan Zuckerman (who has been a
moving force behind encouraging blogging through Global Voices) moved
off in new directions. The absence of those promoting the Internet at
MobileActive perhaps reflects these changes.
The Internet enthusiasts had to break through the standard development
response which might be cruelly summarised as: how can you spend money
on technology when poor people need _________ ?(insert the word
reflecting your own particular work area). For whatever else, this
interest in technology did, it began at the edges to challenge
long-established funding patterns and the thinking around it.
But it also initiated a debate about the efficacy of different types of
media. The Internet was compared unfavourably with radio and in time
also with mobile phones: something always had to be the answer to
everything. But in reality, no-one thing is ever the answer to
everything. People make use of a range of media and any process of
communicating with them will be “hybrid”: in other words, it will be
sent and received using a range of methods.
The same righteous position-taking about what approach was morally
superior was also present at the conference, best exemplified by a
person who seemed to pop up at almost every session I attended and make
the point that voice messages were more effective in communicating with
the poor than text SMSs. Whilst the position has a useful grain of
truth, it rather ignores the many millions of messages sent by the
functionally and completely illiterate every month. And as I learned,
the presence of SMS writers (who have sprung up alongside letter
writers) in places like Pakistan, who charge the illiterate to send
messages they compose for them.
Unlike the initial world-changing promises for the Internet, those
working with mobiles make more modest claims. Cell-Life which works in
HIV-AIDS information says that missed appointments at Themba Lethu
clinic in Johannesburg among the 9,000 patients using TxtAlert has
dropped from 10% to 3%. SocialTxt which uses the 120 unused characters
on the “please call me” message to insert calls to action about HIV-AIDS
has driven an increase in people calling national helplines. One call
centre reported that over two weeks 41% of users had accessed services
following a campaign of this sort.
These claims are merely illustrative of the various ways in which
mobiles can change social circumstances favourably. Others included:
using MIXIT to teach basic maths; mobilising protest by using SMS;
“dating” agricultural growers with produce buyers using text alerts
(TradeNet in Ghana); getting people to speak out against domestic
violence (WOUGNET in Uganda); gathering data using Java-apps to create
simple menus; weekly farming tips to farmers (CELAC project in Uganda);
using a mobile phone on a table for conference calls with farmers; and
many, many others.
So whilst NGO professionals now make far greater use of PCs and the
Internet in their work (according to the Worldwide Worx survey for 2007,
99% of South African NGOs use e-mail), there is a growing
acknowledgement that mobile phones can be used effectively for wider
communication. As Peter Benjamin of CellLife told me:”There’s a huge
demand for information. Very good information already exists (in the
HIV-AIDS field) and there are high levels of cell-phone usage. (For most
of the people we want to talk to) e-mails and the Internet are from
another planet. The mobile is the device in the hands of the majority
and it can do interactions.”
So if it’s such an obviously good idea, why can’t I name more
successful, long-standing projects that have begun to change the
fundamentals of communication or the lives of people? On the fingers of
one hand, you have the aforementioned jobs service from One World and
Safaricom’s M-Pesa service (which was initially funded by DFID through
Vodafone) and errrr…that’s it? Readers may wish to write and tell me
what a fool I am for forgetting to mention other long-standing projects
but I doubt that I will find myself using the fingers of more than two
The immediate and seemingly reasonable response is that many of these
projects are in their early stages. There did not seem to be a single
project I spoke to at the conference that was not a pilot: in other
words it will be funded for a year to three years and then may
disappear. However, the early pioneers stretch back further and few have
found their financial feet or scaled up in such a way that they have
made a significant major impact. Indeed one might ask: with so many
pilots around, when are we going to see some flying?
An uncomfortable circle of circumstances involving what the service is,
who might use and how it is funded chases its own tail to no little or
no effect. You need scale to demonstrate effect. Scale takes time and
money to establish. SMS itself in Africa did not spring out suddenly
newly-formed with millions of users, it took time to develop. With
certain notable exceptions, donors and foundations are keen to seed but
do not take a long view.
Impact only comes with scale. A few hundred users is hopeless, a few
thousand users is promising, a few hundred thousand users is suggestive
and over a million means you’re actually getting somewhere. For complex
systems, like agriculture, you need to have “critical mass” across
several countries. Faced with the daunting cliff of “scaling-up” or
“rolling-out”, some in the development community go squishy and start
saying things like cultures are different and things work differently in
different places. But whilst this is undoubtedly true, these are what we
know technically speaking as “excuses”.
Mobile phones and the practice of using them differs from country to
country but that hasn’t stopped them rolling out in every country in the
world. The same will be true for services on mobile phones and their use
as media: ways will be differ but certain things will be the same and
the challenge is to make it so useful that people can’t fail to want it.
It’s not about technology, it’s about what makes people’s lives easier.
The big abstract concept areas of development (like health) may sound
important and “do you good” but they have to fit into how people lead
their lives and their sense of priorities. For as Mark Davies of
TradeNet (who wrestles with the complicated issues affecting farmers)
said:”It’s all about understanding the agents of change and that’s
anthropology not technology.” People in development all too often think
they know what’s good for people and for all the rhetoric about
“bottom-up approaches” simply fail to observe what people are saying or
To be fair, that listening process is not as simple as it sounds. Gary
Marsden of University of Cape Town ran a session that looked at the
important relationship between potential users and developers. The
design community’s version of “bottom-up” is “user-centred design”: the
user becomes part of the design team in a warm, humane Scandinavian
version of co-creation after you show them a prototype.
The real difficulty faced by developers, according to Marsden, was that
the potential users had no familiarity or conceptual framework to make a
useful input. To use an analogy, it would be a bit like showing a
pre-automobile, horse-rider a car and asking for design input. Why are
there no stirrups? One Mexican group simply watched closely the intended
users making use of the tools provided and used paper to sketch out what
might happen with them.
But this observation probably applies better to more complex apps for
computers or menu-driven apps for mobiles, not SMS. But even with SMS
simple design flaws can upset the process. One application for data
collection using SMS involved using the hash key as separators but the
hash key was different when the phone was in SMS mode for some users.
The conference had a session on “sustainability” which is one version of
development-speak for: how will it pay for itself? I was unable to
attend this session as I was speaking in another session but having
closely grilled two or three people who attended, there didn’t seem to
be a whole lot of answers that were aired.
In truth, there are only three broad, long-term answers and none make
very comfortable listening for those who want these projects to succeed.
The user pays, the Government pays or as with other media, a sponsor or
advertiser pays. There is an interesting sub-set of the user pays which
is political issues and the campaigning that goes with them: Greenpeace
Argentina can use phone calls to find supporters and ask some of them
for funds to pay for this work. If it’s important to you and you want it
enough, you’ll find a way of paying for it.
The development sector usually assumes that if people are poor, then a
service will need to be “free-at-the-point-of-delivery”: it costs money
to have the service but it comes out of general taxation. But at one
level poor people are not so different from the more well-off. The
Orange Foundation ran a scheme in a poor part of Mali’s capital Bamako.
Mothers would bring their babies to be weighed and the weights of the
babies would be mailed to a paediatrician. He or she checked their
progress and if and when weight progress fell below a certain level,
advice or medication would be provided.
There were 300 subscribers paying US$1.05 a month and by any description
this is a health insurance scheme. As with using mobile phones, the poor
will pay for what they really value. Therefore one challenge is to
produce a service that they really value and large number can afford to
pay a small amount for: Safaricom’s M-Pesa has 2.5 million users because
it is a service that is really valued by its users. No capacity building
workshops were run to help users, they taught themselves based on the
service’s marketing information.
There will be some services that cannot be commercialised because they
are simply a public service: these will either need to be fundraised for
or ultimately become part of the budget of Government. For the latter,
the justification for spending will be two-fold. It communicates more
effectively with a group of people and/or it is more cost effective. So
for example, collecting data electronically is challenging but almost
certainly quicker and cheaper than its paper and physical collection
equivalent. But for African Governments, it implies overhauling a
sclerotic and often inert civil service by moving money out of existing
ways of doing things into new more effective ways of doing them.
In terms of advertising and sponsors, the level of activity needs to be
at a critical mass to attract interest. Praekelt Foundation’s use of
advertising slogans on Call Me messages can reach 13 million people
daily in South Africa. But for only 120 characters, the few thousand
dollars they charge per million users seems reasonable. Nevertheless nw
advertising media take time to establish themselves.
But whatever the challenges and limitations of using mobiles as a media,
this one will run and run as all those involved wrestle with different
ways to make it work.
Source: Balancing Act