Interview with Katrin Verclas, co-founder of MobileActive.org and co-author of Wireless Technology for Social Change: Trends in Mobile Use by NGOs
What are the major findings of the publication?
We found that there’s a lot of activity. Lots of organizations are beginning to use mobiles for social change are are realizing the potential of mobile technology. We’re really just seeing the tip of the iceberg. Right now, mobile phones are still primarily being used for staff coordination as opposed to an actual tool for advancing civil society work. However, we found that there is a huge awareness in the NGO community about the potential for doing so and quite a number of pilot projects probing that potential.
Why is the report structured the way it is, with an emphasis on areas of work, as opposed to platforms used, method of interaction, etc.? Does this speak to your target audience?
We really have two target audiences here, NGOs and the larger decision-making community. To unlock the potential of mobile technology, donors, multi-laterals, NGOs, the academic community, carriers, governments, and value-added tech firms all have to be at the table. Otherwise, we’re just not going to see it, particularly when we talk about scaling up the projects. This is really a call to action.
You found in this study that most programs still exist in pilot form. How much of this do you think is due to short-lived excitement about a new tool in the fight for social change? How will groups keep these projects from flaming out? Is scaling up simply a matter of more resources?
The three main barriers are cost, training and knowledge, and building usable open-source applications — for instance those that work on low-end handsets that are required to do certain types of data collection. A lot of these projects are able to succeed because carriers are providing free air time. Scaling those projects up is often not smart economically. We’ve found a couple of projects, in particular one in Mexico that offers peer support in rural areas for individuals with HIV/AIDS and the WFP work with Iraqi refugees in Syria, that were so successful that the carrier just couldn’t continue to support it.
Which of those is the biggest barrier?
Personally, I think they all work in tandem. NGOs always say lack of resources is a problem. We constantly hear that cost is a factor. For larger organizations sometimes it’s really just simply a matter of reallocating resources and justifying the costs. For instance, in the health sector, there is a tremendous amount of resources that have been allocated. But, if you look at the scale of mobile technology being used for patient management and data collection, its pitiful. In some ways, it’s harrowing. There should be a consortium that works together on this. There is a clear potential for scaling projects, particularly in remote regions, where there are very few physicians and a high reliance on lay workers. Sometimes this is a hard sell. In a world of limited resources, why should we be funding technology when we could be funding drugs. The other two barriers are equally as challenging to surmount. Even understanding the question — Do you need mobile technology? — requires a certain amount of knowledge.
Don’t you feel that it’s ironic that groups pushing the use of mobile technology for social change have a poor track record of sharing information with each other? How can we deal with that difficulty?
This is certainly a huge problem; we have a lot of great ideas out there that never scale, or that go unnoticed. I think that providing this connectivity is primarily the role of intermediaries. This is not necessarily the role of NGOs doing the actual work, dealing with specific constituencies and allocating extremely limited resources for cash. Should a small microfinance NGO in India really be expected to know what a health data project in Mexico is up to, and what technologies they’re using? Innovation by definition happens in silos, focused on a potential problem that is often very localized.
This is not a phenomenon limited to mobile applications used for social change. You have the same issue in the commercial sector. What we really need are channels to connect those silos. That’s the explicit mission of the tiny NGO I run. We are convening a conference in the fall in South Africa, which will be the largest to date and will include mutlilaterals, donors, carriers, users, etc. We’re going to have an in-depth discussion about what is possible and what isn’t. We’re going to start to build communities of practice. This sort of information sharing requires nurturing. There is a lot of innovation going on; the question is whether we can mix it up and find a way to share knowledge.
MobileActive is just a small part of this. Should there be others engaged in similar ways? Absolutely. Should more attention be paid to this issue in the donor community? Absolutely. It will take evangelizing, publications like this one, prodding. Movements don’t emerge out of nowhere. The Vodafone Group Foundation and the United Nations Foundation have put support behind this and that’s very encouraging. It certainly gives credibility to the process.
“There needs to be a focus on the benefits of a given system rather that the technology per se.” This is an interesting statement considering the fact that the focus of the publication is mobile technology. Can you discuss what is meant here and perhaps give me a couple of case studies that demonstrate how this has been done effectively?
The goal of this publication is to look at mobile technology from the point of view of the user. We’re not delving into how the technology works. If we can’t sell the end benefit, we fail to make the point. The interesting thing about mobile is that this is a technology that is already being widely used and is widely understood. This is not a device that is foreign, unlike computers for a lot of people. They already understand the benefit. They’ve already swallowed that fact, gotten past that barrier. So, what’s left to do is sell the benefit for a particular mission. Some programs have been successful in this regard.
For example, look at the program that pairs PDAs with nurse practitioners working in rural areas. A lot of these nurses have a lack of access to professional education. The goal is to provide that education based on the best knowledge available and to provide it in a way that is readable and condensed. There was a great idea developed about how to get these nurses to read the information. Turns out they were interested in news from the nearby city — gossip, fashion, etc. One project combined the professional education with this news. With any medicine, you’ve got to give a little sugar pill to make it sweeter. This required the group working on the project to change the way they did business, which is never easy.
There is another great example in India, where small groups of women have formed “lending circles” to lend money to each other — like microfinance, but outside of institutions. The key component here is trust, so record keeping is a big issue, especially because many of these individuals are semi-literate or illiterate. But, in a humid, termite-ridden environment, paper record keeping is a problem. So, one program developed a system through which the amount owed or paid is delineated on a standardized sheet with bar codes. The person keys the number into the phone and then scans the bar code. There is a backend where it is sent and can be retrieved at any point. It is designed to be absolutely intuitive, and because it has a clear benefit, it increases the level of trust. The technology is not innovative per se, it’s rather the way we view user interaction.