Wireless Technology for Social Change in the International Herald Tribune

Posted by admin on May 14, 2008

International Herald Tribune:

This article is a review of the UNF/Vodaphone report Wireless Technology for Social Change: Trends in NGO Mobile Use, written by Katrin Verclas of MobileActive.org and Sheila Kinkade.

Cellphones in a supporting role by Eric Sylvers

MILAN: Stories of cellphones' helping people in developing countries abound - some of them highlighted by the industry, in an effort to polish its image, and others by users themselves.

There are the women in Bangladesh and other countries who invest in a phone and then rent it to fellow villagers, making money for themselves while providing a key service for others. There are the fishermen in India who have increased their earnings by calling from their boats to various ports to see where their catch can get them the most money.

But what about countries with advanced economies? Might cellphones have a nontraditional role there? Could cellphones help young people in the inner cities of San Francisco, Chicago, New York or London deal with fears about sexually transmitted diseases and unwanted pregnancies, for example?

Yes, according to a report commissioned by the Vodafone Group Foundation and the United Nations Foundation that looked at ways in which nongovernmental organizations use cellphones. The Vodafone Group Foundation, which finances disaster relief and preparedness projects, and the UN Foundation, created in 1998 with a $1 billion donation by Ted Turner, have collaborated on several communications-related projects in the past.

The report, presented recently in Washington, London and Brussels, profiles 11 organizations that have used cellphone technology to accomplish their missions, which ranged from sex education to dispersing emergency food to stopping fights between elephants and farmers.

The report looked at 560 nongovernmental organizations and found that 86 percent of the people questioned use cellular technology in their work, with those in Africa and Asia more likely to use cellular networks than their colleagues in areas with traditional telecommunications infrastructure. Ninety-nine percent of the people surveyed said cellular technology had a positive effect on their work, with 95 percent citing time saving as the key benefit. Three-quarters of those surveyed said an important advantage of cellphones was that they made it possible to connect with people previously difficult or impossible to reach.

Cellphone coverage is working its way to the farthest corners of the globe - 80 percent of the world's population now lives within range of a cellular network - but it was in San Francisco, just up the road from where Apple designed the iPhone, that a small organization found a way to use cellphones to inform inner-city youths about the perils of unprotected sex.

This audience was hard to reach, according to Deborah Levine, executive director of Internet Sexuality Information Services, a nonprofit organization based in Oakland, California. So the group developed Sex Info, a service that lets people request information by anonymous text message.

For the price of a regular text message, users can ask questions and get immediate automated responses to queries. The responses include the names and addresses of clinics where people can be tested for sexually transmitted diseases and get counseling. More specific questions are answered by trained experts. The group publicized Sex Info in San Francisco beginning in April 2006, but a request by text message can be made from anywhere in the United States. A campaign to promote the services has just begun in Washington and it is scheduled to expand to Toronto this year.

In the first three months of this year, almost 4,500 requests for information were made to the service, according to Levine.

"Young people don't always know who they can talk to and - like this - they can get that information on their phone, which they are using all the time anyway," Levine said. "In most cases there is no cost for the users since many have unlimited text messaging plans with their mobile phone company."

Levine said that the program was the first of its kind in the United States but that it was preceded by a similar program in London begun in 2002 by the Brook Advisory Center, a British charity. Brook's service, which receives an average of about 100 text message queries per month, responds to questions about contraception, pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases.