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Shouldn’t the Word Phone be Removed from Mobile? – The Use of the Mobile Phone by Nonprofits

This was first published on the GuideStar International blog

Can you remember when a huge mobile phone was a brand new and exciting phenomenon and something that only a privileged few were within reach of... a device only seen on TV! Times have changed. The International Telecommunications Union (ITU) reported that this year there are over 5 billion mobile users. It is also not only used for talking at all and I’d suggest that the word ‘phone’ be dropped from its title. The mobile phone (henceforth to be referred to as the mobile in this post) is an important ICT tool for the nonprofit sector not only in the developed world, but even more so in the developing world where access to the Internet may not be very readily available and where innovative uses are being found for the technology all the time. A vast majority of these mobile users are in emerging and developing countries and many have leapfrogged the use of landlines to focus on developing the use mobiles and the mobile Internet. As mobile make waves in the nonprofit world, I thought it would be good to highlight a few examples of its uses and briefly examine its potential. Nonprofits in the developed world can also learn a lot from what is happening elsewhere. So what else can you do with a mobile?

  • Short Message Service (SMS)
  • Bluetooth
  • Camera
  • Multimedia Messaging Service (MMS)
  • Email
  • Games
  • Radio
  • MP3 player
  • Video
  • Banking
  • Print pictures
  • Get directions
  • Have your text messages read back to you
  • Scan in a business card
  • Text message a landline phone
  • Alarm clock
  • Get general information
  • VoIP
  • Purchase goods

Though the list above includes mobile Internet related services, some of the mobiles being used in the developing world are the most basic, and may not have some of these features. It must be noted that according to the ITU Internet user penetration has reached approximately 9.6% in Africa. Average world penetration is (30%) and the average for developing countries is (21%). However, the mobile, a small device, which is capable of having all of these facilities and can be carried in our pocket or bag at all times, will eventually be the primary way to connect to the Internet. Furthermore, it is the ability to utilize these features for multiple of purposes that makes the mobile even more important, particularly where access to the Internet is problematic, and the nonprofit world can and should learn more about its usage to better serve the public. So how can nonprofits utilize mobile phones for their work? There are many examples of the benefits of the mobile in emerging and developing economies in Asia and Africa. When resources are scarce our ability to find useful and innovative ways to use available technological tools for what we need increases and the mobile is no exception. It is an extraordinary example of one of these tools. Should availability, access and service improve so will innovation. Developing countries are examining ways to use mobiles and nonprofits can help to spur this along. Frontline SMS’ and Ushahadi’s collaboration is an example of this. Here are just a few of the many examples of how the humble mobile is being used for development:

  • For those nonprofits working on agricultural issues - The Kenya Agricultural Commodity Exchange (Kace), provides crop growers with the very latest commodity information via SMS and has helped farmers to quadruple earnings.
  • For those nonprofits working on political engagement issues/activism - When media bans were put in place at the end of Musharraf’s rule in Pakistan SMSall, or as its founder Umar Saif, says “Twitter for SMS,” or as “Twitter for the 4 billion”. (Today I can say Twitter for the 5 billion!) was used to help find missing political dissidents. Today there are over 150,000 established groups on SMSall in Pakistan.
  • For those nonprofits working on health issues - In Uganda the Electronic Mobile Open-source Comprehensive Health Application (eMOCHA) has been developed by the Johns Hopkins Center for Clinical Global Health Education and it enables health workersto build HIV awareness and provide prevention information in rural areas.
  • For those nonprofits working on sustainable development issues - NextDrop uses mobile technology to monitor and improve water flow in urban India and subsequent sustainable development.
  • For those nonprofits working on economic issues - In Kenya, the M-Pesa mobile banking service is the most popular way to transfer money via mobile. This is important for Diaspora groups. They can also use it to pay bills and purchase goods.
  • For nonprofits working on fundraising - Comic Relief in the United Kingdom raised over £7m from text message donations in 2011.
  • For nonprofits seeking to increase supporters/volunteers - Using the text message “Don’t you wish your city was cleaner and greener? Begin by planting free saplings offered by Greenpeace. Reply GREEN to 6363 to get your sapling.” to 40,000 mobile subscribers in Bangalore and Pune, India Greenpeace got 937 text backs and 149 new supporters.

A Mobiles for Development, global research study commissioned by UNICEF has found that in India upon achieving a critical penetration rate of 25%, every 10% increase in penetration resulted in a 1.2% increase in a state’s economic growth. The same report mentions a study by Ericsson and Zain, which revealed that a 1% increase in mobile penetration in Sudan caused a 0.12% increase in the country’s GDP growth rate, partly because of an improved flow of information which improved the productivity and efficiency of small businesses. According to the report the mobile has “helped reduce vulnerability and increase opportunities, improve social empowerment, reduce the need to undertake costly and sometimes dangerous travel, increase access to health and education services, as well as create more employment and business opportunities”. As more reports unveil the humble mobile's benefits, nonprofits at home and abroad should try to better understand and where necessary develop and incorporate the use of mobiles to support their work and by extension the public. You can read more about developments in the mobile sector from Mobile Active, (a project of the Nonprofit Technology Network, pending nonprofit status in the United States) that is doing a great job bringing to our attention some of ways in which mobiles are being used to promote development.

So what does the future hold for the mobile and its potential for use by the nonprofit sector? Waceke Mbugua, M-Pesa’s Marketing Manager predicts that the mobile application craze in the developed world may skip Africa because of costs. According to him it costs too much money to partner with a mobile carrier there and many don’t want to work with developers. Notably he says “greater business and user opportunities lie in mobile cloud computing. You'll see growth in the mobile Web, applications that run on a browser," as African cloud computing services "are going to explode." Legislation is also being passed in some countries to limit the sending of unwanted emails, texts and calls by imposing huge fines. However, one thing remains certain. The importance of the mobile will continue to grow and nonprofits not only in the developing world, but also in the developed world will have to increasingly use them as an important ICT tool for their work.

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