Mobiles in Service Delivery: Homelessness and HIV/AIDS

Posted by CorinneRamey on Sep 24, 2007

Programs all over the world have shown how mobiles can be an effective tool in providing services to homeless individuals, people with AIDS, and other marginalized populations. Here are a few of the most effective efforts to involve mobiles in innovative ways.

The stereotype is that homeless people don't need mobiles. Why bother with a phone when you can barely afford to put food on the table or don't even have a bed to sleep in? But several different projects have shown that mobile phones can be an important stepping stone in brealing a cycle of poverty. Most importantly, mobiles allow homeless people to get jobs. Employers aren't likely to respond to a resume that lists the phone number of the local homeless shelter, or worse, one without a phone number at all.

Profiles of homeless people in North Carolina and Florida both how show how essential mobiles have become for homeless individuals. Women interviewed for these two articles say that mobiles make them feel safer and more secure at night. A day laborer says that his mobile helped him to get short term contracts. And Cory Crocker, who works with homeless people through Covenant House Ministries, says of the phones, "It's absolutely become a lifeline. Some folks are only homeless for a very brief period of time, and that lifeline is hope."

Sometimes just having voicemail can be as good as having a phone. Community Voice Mail is a a tried-and-true program that has been around since 1991. Instead of giving people phones, CVM provides users with free, 24-hour voice mailboxes. The program has been overwhelmingly successful, helping homeless and unemployed people, victims of domestic violence, and other populations. You can see who uses CVM and other statistics here. Today, the program serves over 40,000 people and continues to grow - and is now looking into ways in which to use cell phones in their work.

Teenagers have benefited from mobile phone programs as well. A program in Australia, sponsored by the Vodafone Australia Foundation, provides pre-paid mobiles to teens between the ages of 13 and 18. The program allows them to keep in touch with case workers, employers, and support programs. One of the added benefits of the program, suggests Lareena Brown of the program Youth Off the Streets, is that these teenagers finally feel trusted. "For these kids, quite often because of their circumstances, they're not ever trusted with anything," she said to the Sydney Morning Herald. "So it's all part of developing responsibility, of being trusted with something of value."

AIDS is another issue that is being tackled through the use of mobiles. In India, an SMS help line has provided instant access to AIDS questions for thousands of HIV sufferers. A part of the Heroes Project, the helpline received 25,000 texts in its first month of operation.

Mobiles are also being used by health workers who treat AIDS. The Phones for Health initiative, sponsored by the US President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief and five mobile phone companies (Accenture, Motorola, MTN, GSM Association, and Voxiva), is a 10 million dollar plan to promote health networks in Africa. According to this article in

Phones for Health will allow health workers in Africa to use a standard Motorola phone equipped with a downloadable application to enter health data. The data will then be sent to a database using GPRS technology.

If GPRS is not available, then the software will use SMS technology instead to transmit the information. Once received, the data is then mapped and analysed by the system, and is immediately available to health authorities at multiple levels via the web.

Voxiva, mobile healthcare specialists, developed HealthNet, an information management solution that allows organisations to strengthen their capacity to manage major health programmes such as those combatting HIV/AIDS.

Mobiles have a tremendous capacity for use in the service industry, both to help homeless people, HIV/AIDS sufferers and the health workers treating the disease, and a myriad of other societal problems. As Peter Manzo says in the Stanford Social Science opinion blog, mobile phones have the capacity for involving low-income and poor people more effectively than the Internet. If you have other examples, post a comment.

Photo credit to Jonrawlinson

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