Conference Explores Use of Cellphones in Development

Posted by KatrinVerclas on Oct 13, 2008

Mail & Guardian

The rude honk of vuvuzelas rang through the halls of the Wanderers Club in Johannesburg as the MobileActive08 conference got under way on Monday. The conference brings together upwards of 350 IT professionals, NGOs and others from more than 40 countries to thrash out the role of cellphones in development.

Delegates from five continents were asked to blow the horns as a way of introducing South Africa's hosting of the Soccer World Cup, which, according to David Barnard from NGO Sangonet, was either a reason to attend the event in 2010, or stay away. Delegates also started to get to grips with the challenges of bringing social change using technology.

Thomas Mueller, from Child Helpline International, shared his experiences in setting up a free help service in Uganda. The service now receives thousands of calls every month from children in need of assistance, and local telecom companies carry the cost of the call.

Also in Uganda, Molly Bogan, a programme manager for an organisation called D-tree, told of its system, in terms of which a cellphone-based programme would guide primary healthcare workers through consultations with patients and then feed the results back into a database. Another delegate said had it not been for camera cellphones, Zimbabwe's election may have swung the other way.

The delegate said the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) had made sure that the election results pinned to the door of polling stations were snapped with a copy of that day's newspaper. These were then sent to MDC headquarters, which is one reason the party was able to obtain preliminary results within 36 hours.

Many delegates said, however, that access and cost challenges remain obstacles, dubbed the "mobile divide".