Social Change - to go, please

Submitted by Jon on Thu, 07/01/2010 - 09:50

Cross-posted at the FrontlineSMS Blog

The recent Technology Salons have been on local and sectoral implementations of mobile technology in development.

Mobile is hardly "new" anymore, but we're seeing increasing tools for peer-to-peer communications and decentralized development. Instead of SMS reporting for mHealth metrics or election observation (both amazingly powerful), we have Ushahidi and a team of volunteers from colleges and Haitian diaspora communities across the world saving lives in Haiti after the earthquake by synthesizing and translating reports from on the ground into actionable, trustable pieces of information.

Instead of training-and-visit agricultural extension work, we have tools like Patatat which are building group email lists through SMS messaging, enabling farmers (or anyone) to collaborate on their work, market prices, crop diseases, and so on - with increasingly little need for anything at the center. And of course there's twitter, which, while still "centralized" as a website, enables un-mediated communication amongst basically anyone in the world with a cell phone and a good text-messaging plan.

My favorite technology in this realm of empowerment remains FrontlineSMS. Last year, I cajoled my OLPC XO-1 into running FrontlineSMS - combining the XO's hardy but lightweight construction, full-sun-readable screen, and grid-free capabilities with FrontlineSMS's ability to run an SMS messaging center without Internet access. These two combine into a completely mobile SMS command center that can be recharged using car batteries or solar panels, moved quickly, and ditched almost instantaneously (presuming you run a "guest" OS from the OLPC's SD card slot). This applies now to a new wave of netbook computers with even better batteries (though many are not built quite as well as the XO for ... let's say "non-standard" usage).

It took a few decades, but we now have technology which is powerful enough and popular enough to support a global revolution in how "development" happens. It no longer means a visit from a white USAID SUV, or even a health worker motocycling out to check the medicine stocks of a remote clinic. A well-targeted SMS message can reach any part of the world, or just over the horizon to a colleague you want to ask a question of without spending a day and wasting gasoline in transit. More importantly, the "headquarters" of an organization is no longer tied to a central office, or necessarily needs to pay for reliable Internet to communicate with its members/beneficiaries/activists. This enables a renaissance of new local solutions to local problems, and that is exciting impact that has only just begun.

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