Mobile Apps for Development: Focus on Content By Users, Not Just For Users

Posted by Ignacio Mas on Mar 28, 2012

(This blog post was co-authored by Rafael Anta, a Technology Specialist at the Inter-American Development Bank, and Ignacio Mas, an independent consultant.)

Most applications for development (m-whatever) are based on giving poor people access to information that the provider of that information thinks people need.  There is little interaction and no user-generation of content in many first. Does it need to be like that?

There are two basic attributes of mobile communication. First, it is immediate. A person with a phone can communicate right here and right now,  the result of the expansive mobile network coverage and our ability to carry a network end-point (a.k.a. a mobile phone) with us wherever we go. Secondly, the communication is interactive - a two-way communications, with equal capacity for sending and receiving. Both these factors – immediacy and interactivity— involve users not just as consumers but as contributors of content. In fact, the most widely-used mobile channels are purely user-generated:  voice and SMS, some picture messaging, more recently Facebook and Twitter. 

These applications implicate us in one more sense: we are also marketers of our content. User-generated content involves a level of audience targeting and content tailoring that no studio executive will ever achieve. Our content fills the airwaves in ever-growing quantities, but any bit of it has scarcity value – at least for the sender and for the intended recipient. Content is king, but our content is supreme.

That is well understood in the social arena. User-generated content happens in the context of communities – the set of people for whom my user-generated content is relevant, and whose user-generated content I am curious about. I belong in various degrees to a bunch of social circles, some concentric, some overlapping, some I want to keep strictly apart.  Social networking innovations have been precisely about giving people tools to zoom in and out of various communities that they identify with. It may also be easier to assess the quality and relevance of information by and for a well-defined community, in which case it can be more readily trusted.

When it comes to applications for development, though, we tend to fall back on one-way communications and or external content. First-generation mobile applications do not engage people in the content creation process, and their interaction with content is limited to searching and filtering. Such is the case with mobile applications that let farmers get crop pricing information, make it possible for extension workers to send updates to farmers, or remind patients of when to take important pills.

What are the development-related mobile services that have gotten most attention and traction?  There’s the M-PESA mobile money service in Kenya: it’s all user-generated content (my transactions, my balance), it’s interactive (P2P payments, primarily), and it occurs in real-time (essential  to drive trust). There’s Ushahidi, a platform for crowd-sourcing information and displaying information in a visual and interactive way: it’s about engaging users as content contributors, creating communities through collaboration. Twitter and Facebook themselves have grown particularly rapidly in some developing countries, opening up new social marketing opportunities for small businesses and NGOs without access to traditional advertising media.Business networks, crowdsourcing and P2P – these features need to be at the core of second-generation mobile applications for development.

The starting point for developers need not be what information does the farmer/microentrepreneur need and from there think of who can supply it. Developers might instead ask what information people can and want to contribute and who else might be interested in that. A lot of traditional development work is based on the notion of local communities, be they savings-and-loan groups, farmer associations or local purchasing groups.

We need to think about how mobile phones (and more broadly the internet wherever it is available) can be used support more association and mutual support at the grass-roots level. If we succeeded with that, it would be a beautiful case of the new digital tools supporting the way things have always been done. What will online productive communities in developing countries look like? We’d love to hear from you if you are working on mobile apps for development purposes that are based on user-generated content.

Photo courtesy: Rede Jovem, Brazil


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