International Women's Day: Women in Mobile and Mobile for Women

Posted by KatrinVerclas on Mar 09, 2009

Today is International Women's Day and we are celebrating by featuring innovative women in the community who are making a difference by using mobiles for social impact. Many of these social innovators are indeed focusing their work on improving the lives of women - their health, incomes, and social and political well-being.  We salute you all! 

Melissa Loudon is a research officer at the Centre for Spatial Data Management at the University of Capetown in South Africa. She is also a talented mobile developer who used to work at Cell-Life, and she has written extensively for us, testing applications. Her most recent review of mobile tools for social development focused on data collection using a mobile phones.

One of the innovators in this field pushing the use of mobiles in data collection, public health, childrens' health, and open source mobile innovation is Erica Kochi, the co-director of the Innovation Team at UNICEF.  Erica's team recently received the first prize in the USAID Development Challenge for Rapid SMS. Rapid SMS and Rapid Android are two mobile applications that are already changing the way aid organizations are thinking about using mobiles in delivery, logistics, and distribution of food and health aid.  Erica is playing an enormously influential role in this field. She is also a leader in the Open Mobile Consortium, the growing consortium of organizations focused on open source mobile applications for social development. And the woman knows how to surf!

Amanda Atwood, Brenda Burrell and Bev Clark are the three women who make up, Zimbabwe’s premier civic and human rights site. Kubatana uses a variety of information communication technologies to disseminate civic information. Mobile phones and SMS play an increasingly important role in mobilizing Zimbabweans and encouraging their civic and political participation.  The all-women team at Kubatana is leading the development of Freedom Fone, an SMS-and-voice information service critically important for organizations working in repressive regimes. Freedom Fone won a Knight Foundation grant last year to recognize them for their important work.

Another Knight grantee is Datadyne, an organization focused on mobile applications for development, that based in Washington DC. Rose Donna, the co-founder of Datadyne and a computer scientist, is an eloquent advocate for open source mobile applications and the use of mobiles for social impact around the world. Episurveyor, a mobile data collection aplications developed by Datadyne, was on the first open source data collection applications used in public health in Africa. According to Donna,

The EpiSurveyor project brings high quality data collection within reach of developing country public health by creating free, open-source software that focuses on affordable, supportable off-the-shelf hardware including PDAs and cell phones, addresses the need for data by making it easier to collect, analyze, and share, and most importantly moves the center-of-development to the developing countries themselves to extend the benefits of modern ICT to places it has never been used, and to health programs that could never afford it before.

Her and Datadyne's work has been recognized with significant foundation funding and most recently with a 2008 Stockholm Challenge Prize.

One of the funders who has supported Datadyne and a leader in the field of using mobiles phones in international health is Claire Thwaites, the British-born, charming and irreverant director of the Technology Partnership between the UN Foundation and the Vodafone Group Foundation. Claire is tirelessly pushing the field of m-health ahead wit her team.  Most recently, the UN Foundation/Vodafone Foundaton announced the creation of the mHealth Alliance to support increasing the scale of the many small m-health projects by working with mobile operators and public health ministries. 

Kutoma Wakunuma's research focuses on the social and economic impact of mobile technology on gender relations. She describes her research in an interview here

Wakunuma says that, 

Mobile phones affect more than just communications. They can also reinforce society's unequal power relations. A three-year study in Zambia looks at this, partly in terms of relationships between husbands and wives.

The study found that mobile phone access and use has positive impacts for women. They benefit from faster, cheaper communication and a strengthening of family, friend and business-related social networks. However, mobile phones also provide a new focal point for social conflict between spouses and can reinforce traditional gender power differences. This happens as some husbands determine how wives use their phones, and even whether or not they are allowed to continue owning a mobile.

Interviewees consistently reported problems of insecurity, insensitivity, mistrust and jealousy, which sometimes resulted in physical and verbal abuse, particularly by men towards their wives...These findings suggest that new technologies have become another aspect of oppression of women by men, and a source of inequality between them. These inequalities are not just social: mobile phones can also reinforce economic gender differentials. Handsets and airtime are still expensive, and women may be less able than men to afford their use. However, insufficient official statistics on a range of gender concerns relating to technology mean that these new developments are difficult to analyse.

For women, the social and economic advantages of accessing and using a mobile phone far outweigh the disadvantages. But those promoting and making policies for mobile phones must understand that these new technologies create problems as well as solutions. These problems must be recognised if they are to be addressed. Among other things, this will require much greater gender awareness in policies and projects.

Another researcher in this field is Kathleen Diga whom I first met at MobileActive08 where she presented her findings about whether the use of mobile phones is reducing poverty aong women -- or is, in fact, driving women into greater poverty?  Kathleen Diga's research in a rural district of Uganda found that owning a mobile phone did both, depending on how it was used. Joshua Ogada, writing about Diga's research notes:

The research looked broadly at technology spending patterns, specifically mobile phone use in households and what people were giving up to get mobile phones. This ethnographic study in rural Uganda focused on women. The study found that the women got income either from husbands – about $1 a day, or from small business. In 2007, when the study was conducted, 3 minutes off-peak talk time on the same network cost about 40c – which equated to about 40% of the daily household budget.

Given this substantial comparative cost of communication, the question was hence what were they giving up in order to use mobiles? Giving up travel, for instance was seen as a benefit given the costs of transport. Other households were giving up store-bought food – sugar, flour, oil, etc. In this case, those who had gardens could substitute with home produce while those without gardens actually gave up food.

I was lucky enough to faciliate a panel with both researchers who are contributing greatly in this space.

Christelle Sharff teaches at Pace University in New York and runs Mobile Senegal - a series of mobile application bootcamps for students. In a recent email to me, Christelle describes the outcomes of the most recent camp in Senegal in January:

The participants were students of the University of Thies and the focus was to give them a real experience in mobile development by working on real projects with real clients (and then deploy their applications).  Three mobile phone applications were developed by the students of the University of Thies. These applications are stand-alone applications with a feature to send an SMS to an individual person. The applications, an educational game to teach children numbers, and two applications for artisans and smallholders are showcased here.

Also involved in the bootcamps is Prof. Anita Wasilewska, an Associate Professor, Stony Brook University who I first met at the New York Mobile Tech for Social Change Barcamp one of the many events we host.  What a fire cracker Anita is - lively and completely committed to mobile development that is user-focused and usable while nurturing the next generation of mobile developers. 

Deb Levine, a friend and colleague from San Francisco, is one of the pioneers in the field of mobiles for public health.  She runs ISIS, a nonprofit organization in California that is using technology for public health with a special focus on sexual health. She is well-known for being one of the first to use text messaging in the United States for educating urban youth about sex - answering their questions their concernsin 160 characters.

Patricia Mechael coordinates mobile strategy for the Millennium Villages Project at Columbia University. Patty is also a key stakeholder in the posse and a dear colleague.  In an interview last year with, Patty describes how women and men are using mobile phones differently:

When I did my research [in Egypt] it was really difficult to find female cell phone users, in general. I think in the mobile health sphere, we are actually going to be pushing the envelope on some of these things. A lot of community health workers, a number of the facility based health professionals that are working in Sub-Saharan Africa, and throughout the world are women. Putting the technology in their hands may have a very different result or outcome than putting it in the hands of a male community health worker, or a business person, etc.  

In an actual progression in Egypt, the women who did have mobile phones were often times highly skilled professionals who were travelling for work. So the husband prioritized the mobile phone for their wives, to make sure they could keep in contact with them. So that women in some ways could serve their dual roles, they could continue to serve their role in the household, as the mother, the wife, as well as their professional role.

There are some really neat studies on some of the dynamics of that. In India and other parts of the world, that kind of look at our mobile phones creating a burden for women or are they relieving things; creating more freedom for them. I think that they're doing a combination of the two.

In the Millennium Village in Kenya in the northeast part of the country, we're working with pastoral nomads. We've put mobile phones, through the partnership with Ericcson, in the schools. The school actually has gone from, in the last year, from two girls, and this was before the cell phones. They've gone through two girls to 50 girls staying in the school in the dormitory, etc. One of the sort of hypothesis is that now with the cell phone and families ability to stay in contact with their daughters, that we may actually be able to retain more girls in the school; or convince families to allow their girls to come for education, stay in the school setting, and not be, sort of, pushed and pulled by the pastoral, nomadic life that then disrupts their educational opportunities.

Yael Schwartzman, a computer scientists in Mexico, is another mobile pioneer. Her focus is the use of mobile apps in fair trade monitoring.  In an article on her project last year, she decribes her work: 

For the last three years I have been working with coffee cooperatives. These cooperatives are built in order to help coffee growers with their transactional costs and training so they know the best practices in coffee growing and also so that they can commercialize their products to places like Europe and the United States. 

The cooperatives that I have worked with have several certifications. First of all, they have an organic certification, which ensures that all their growing practices are done without the use of chemicals and maintaining the stability of the Earth. They also have fair trade certification, which ensures the producers are being paid a fair wage for their product.

I use mobile phones to help coffee growers achieve these certifications. Each of the cooperatives has their own internal control systems that used to be done with regular paper forms.  I develop mobile applications for them to do the inspections using mobile phones, which allows them to take pictures and record audio and view all this information in a web application, which makes it a lot easier and faster to do the inspections and reports, therefore lowering their costs.

More on Yael's organization and application is here at DigitalICS (pronounced Digitalix).

Holly Ladd is a woman who has been in this space for a while. She runs AED Satellife where she has pioneered the use of PDAs in health in developing country. She is now exploring in several projects in Mozambique, for example, howmobile phones and the mobile network can be used for public health data collection and patient data management We describer her work in depth in a recent report that is here.

And here are even more women in mobile for change to watch in 2009: 

Ritu Arora is a Ph.D. student at the University of Alabama at Birmingham where she is working on a project for Imagine Cup for which she is developing a user-friendly expert system for PDAs to address maternal health and child health.  

Katherine Vincent of the Regional Hunger and Vulnerability Programme ran a small pilot project recently where women farmer cooperatives in Lesotho have made amazing use of 10 cellphones given to them in 2006.  In a report from this year, she writes:

These women’s cooperative groups have greatly benefited from improved communications, both in terms of their farming activities and the reduced time and cost of staying in touch with each other.  Furthermore, through selling airtime by SMS they have used them as effective income-generating tools. The results show that, contrary to the arguments against using cellphones to deliver cash transfers, even illiterate vulnerable people are able to actively embrace  the technology, and their  vulnerability is not increased by providing them with a valuable asset.  

Jessica Collaco recently organized a mobile developer boot camp at the University of Swathmore; Mary Jane Marcus from InSTEDD is exploring how mobile phones can be used in grassroots community organizing focusing on women; Jenny Aker from the Center for Global Development is working in Niger on market information and literacy; Mira Slavova is developing an initiative to introduce mobiles and its business potential to market women in Liberia; Annika Andersson is involved in the Bangladesh Virtual Classroom, a project to use mobile for school administration such as student registration and attendance, as well as as self quizzes and feedback systems; and Gudrun Wicander is a PhD student where her research is looking at the use of mobiles phones for collecting statistical data from 15.000 primary schools in Tanzania.

We are so pleased and honored to be part of this community of amazing mobile women!  If you know of others, let us know in the comments! 

Photo Courtesy Regional Hunger and Vulnerability Programme

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