Think mobile, act local: leveraging the rapid rise in mobile phone usage for development.

AuthorMulrow, John

Late in the afternoon of February 15 someone in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, sent the following SMS (a.k.a. text message) to an emergency response center:


The SMS went immediately via the Internet to a group of Haitian Creole speakers from around the world who had signed on to help with the relief effort. Someone translated: "At Delma 33, at the park we need tent. If it rains, we are in trouble." At the same time, someone else--also on the web--found Delmas 33 on a map and identified the roadside parks where the SMS could have come from. Finally the message, translated and located on a map, arrived in the hands of the Red Cross, U.S. Coast Guard, and other relief coordinators.

With post-earthquake rains threatening to cause landslides, building collapses, and miserable conditions outdoors, this SMS signaled the urgency of the need to get shelter to displaced people scattered in parks throughout Port-au-Prince. More broadly, this message and the thousands of other texts that came through this system combined to give the relief effort an unprecedented amount of precise, personal, and geographical data to act upon.


In the weeks and months following the 7.0-magnitude earthquake that rocked Port-au-Prince and devastated an entire nation, millions of Haitians were left without food, shelter, or sufficient access to clean water. Their greatest survival tools in the chaotic aftermath became their own strength, for pulling away rubble and carrying the wounded; their spirits, for consoling neighbors and friends; and their cell phones, for calling in help and directing the aid effort. While this last tool is certainly not as ubiquitous as strength and spirit in Haiti, it has played a vital role in the relief effort.

Such a quickly orchestrated and widespread emergency communications network could only have been possible in Haiti in very recent years. In 2002 roughly two in every one hundred Haitians had a mobile phone subscription. In 2007, more than a quarter of Haitians had subscriptions, and as basic SMS-enabled cell phones get cheaper (Vodafone just announced a US$15 phone it will bring to market this year) the growth is only expected to continue. Compare it to the creeping growth rate of any other communication technology in the developing world and it's clear that the world is going mobile ... for everything.


What does this trend promise in terms of bringing greater economic and ecological security to more people on the planet? How can going mobile also mean, for example, going green? There is in fact a community of people and organizations dedicated to these questions. They fall under the term ICT4D: information and communication technologies for development. One of the mobile specialists in this community is Ken Banks, creator of FrontlineSMS, a free and open-source software program that makes it easy to conduct mass SMS-based communications such as surveys or news alerts. It's now being used by small nonprofit organizations and rural communities in over 50 countries. Banks exudes a passion for using mobile as a platform for development innovations. He speaks at mobile tech conferences across the world about FrontlineSMS. However, he'll be the first to tell you that just getting phones in people's hands is hardly a solution in and of itself.


He says that development is in need of tools and programs that "genuinely inspire people on the ground--the users. This is the only way to ensure that development is sustainable." His talks often make it clear that Banks, among many other things, is a student of appropriate technology--a term made prominent by author E.F. Schumacher in his 1973 book Small is Beautiful. Schumacher's thesis is that the strongest and smartest way to pursue development is to maximize the use of locally available labor, resources, and ideas. It's a philosophy that is almost explicitly reflected in the FrontlineSMS architecture that Banks designed.

The program must be downloaded off the Internet, but once it is on a computer it requires no Internet connection, as all communications are performed by...

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