Blue-skying Mobile Apps: Common Forms

I missed the recent Technology Salon on Mobiles for Development (I was kind of busy with Global Youth Service Day), and was already scheduled to make it to the Mobile Active m4Change unconference the next week.

A prime outcome of the Tech Salon was a challenge from Vodafone's Terry Kramer:

Mobile network operators (MNO) want increase revenues and market share by expanding into rural areas, and see partnerships with the development community as a key market entry strategy. Specifically, Vodafone is looking to the development community for key applications that solve a common need for many and can be scaled into commercial activities.

Here's my response, an idea that's been rattling around in my head for quite some time.

A common "form" application to send out encoded questions and receive back answers via SMS.

The core would be an agreed-upon encoding/compression format for sending form questions and receiving the answers via SMS.

This standard could be coded to using existing outreach tools like EpiSurveyor, FrontlineSMS, RapidSMS, and the like. It would have a "server-side" component where you could set up a form, specify the answer types (y/n (or t/f), multiple choice, very-short-answer?) and compose the SMS messages to send.

The key (and the hard part) is having this app as common as a calculator tool on deployed phones. The app would capture the coded SMS form, present it as a user-friendly form, and take the answers and reply (again via SMS) using as few outbound messages as possible.

Anyone with an SMS-sending tool could code questions and use their tool to distribute them; and any phone with this (pre-installed) app could "decrypt" the compacted form and present it to the user.

This would make data collection much smoother, eliminate distribution of questionnaires and codesheets prior to each new questionnaire, and improve data quality.

I see immediate applications in election obersvation, human rights monitoring, and health field-worker reporting, not to mention census, and even for-profit ventures for immediate customer satisfaction surveys, more complex SMS-voting (imagine what BravoTV would do with this were it widely deployed!)