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MobileActive 08: Mobile messaging for the masses – an idea whose time has come

Three hundred and eighty people gathered from all over the world in Johannesburg this week to discuss how mobile phones might be used for social and political purposes in developing countries.

Three hundred and eighty people gathered from all over the world in Johannesburg this week 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 go down.

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 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 hands.

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 doing.

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. From my own experience, African users want to be helpful and will often consciously or unconsciously simply mirror back what the project’s initiators want to hear.

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. (Source:Balancing act)

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