Do Mobile Phones Answer All our Prayers? Guest Blogger Paul Currion on Mobiles in Food Relief

Posted by on Sep 05, 2007

Reposted from

Do mobile phones answer all our prayers? I’ve written about the role that mobile telephony can play in humanitarian assistance quite a few times now, without really talking about it directly. The one line I have consistently taken is that cellphone coverage is not reliable or secure enough to be used as the primary means of communication in an insecure environment.

Putting that to one side for a moment, however, it’s clear that mobile telephony really is the key communications technology for the poor - and that means it should be the key communications technology for the humanitarian community.


Feedback from Innovations in Mobile Data Collection for Social Action: "If this is the Future, I like it"

Posted by KatrinVerclas on Dec 17, 2009

After coming back from Amman, Jordan, where we co-hosted a workshop on mobiles, data, and social action, we heard from many of our colleagues who have been blogging about their experience. We also combed through the evaluations and tweet and other social media streams to evaluate this unique workshop. Here are some excerpts.

Robert Soden from Development Seed writes

Last week I got the chance to present some work we're doing on Managing News and SlingshotSMS at the Innovations in Mobile Data Collection for Social Action workshop in Amman, Jordan. It was an eye-opening event that brought together representatives from the Iraqi government's Central Organization for Statistics and Information Technology (COSIT)UNICEF Innovation, and several dozen of experts on the cutting edge of mobile technologies, data visualization, and mapping.

The workshop was organized by Mobile Active with the goal of bringing new technology to bear on the challenges involved in Iraq's efforts to meet the Millenium Development Goals. We focused on using mobile phones for data collection around child malnutrition and school attendance. The Iraqi government and UNICEF are looking to collect this information so they can better design and target their interventions.

Several participants have blogged elsewhere about the difficulties on the first day of bridging the jargon-gap between the technologists and the development workers. Yes, the geeks spoke too fast and focused too little on storytelling during the first day's Ignite Talks. True, the development folks could have communicated more effectively about the goals of the project or the context in which they were working. As someone who has tried hard throughout my career to straddle these worlds, I can attest to a few painful moments.

But that's not the story here.

When Development Seed was first getting started seven years ago, this sort of event would have been unthinkable. For me the chance to participate in passionate, intelligent, and creative discussions with high-level representatives of a government and the United Nations about how technology can be utilized to solve some of the world's most challenging development problems was amazing. Even better, many of the tools and strategies discussed will be piloted early next year and rolled out in the months following that. This workshop was the real thing. Real decision-makers working with leading technologists to design and implement a project that would be rolled out in the real world on a scale big enough to matter.

We had great discussions about strategies for verifying data, making mapping participatory, visualizing data, and incentivizing participation in crowd-sourced data collection projects. The range and depth of experience of the attendees ensured that the conversations were peppered with examples of previous work conducted across the Middle East, Asia, and Africa. COSIT deserves a lot of credit for their willingness to adopt these tools as well as their active and critical participation in the group discussions. The UNICEF Innovations team also deserves recognition for spearheading the development and deployment of these technologies in a famously slow-adopting UN system. If this is the future, I like it.

Cory Zue from Dimagi notes:

Imagine, for a moment, putting a member of the Iraqi Ministry of Planning next to an MIT researcher working on creating distributed micro-networks of peer to peer communication through cell phones. Now say: “You two – go work together for Iraq’s children!”

Does this sound like an impossible task? The Iraqi is concerned about the unique challenges facing their operations. How to build trust in a government among a skeptical population base. How to tackle the problem of daughters being forced into early marriages, and thus never having access to a proper education. How to reduce violent crime by getting kids off the streets. And how to make policy decisions without access to good data, and difficulty coordinating among ministries.

Meanwhile the researcher is thinking about network modeling, asynchronous communication channels, and extracting meaningful information from a vast, complicated space of data.

Neither person has any domain knowledge of what the other person does or is interested in. Throw in a language and cultural barrier on top, and how can these two people possibly be able to work together effectively?

Well this is exactly what happened at the Innovations in Mobile Data Collection for Social Action in Iraq and the Middle East (tumblr, netvibes) workshop last week in Amman.

The key to solving this seemingly intractable problem was, as it often is, the right people. See, it wasn’t just the technophiles and the Iraqis in the room. There was an incredibly broad spectrum of people ranging from the uber-techies, to the tech-for-dev crowd (like us and the Ushahidi guys), to the UNICEF crowd of devs and program managers, to the local and regional UNICEF experts, to the team of ministry officials from Iraq. What this meant was that there was a perfect bridge of communication between every different group, and information flew readily from end to end along this bridge. Everyone in the room contributed to this process.

During the conference’s excellent IGNITE talks, we got an overview of all the different projects being executed around the world, and a picture of how these projects succeed and fail and how they might be brought together began to emerge among the community. At the same time we got to see several of UNICEF’s programs, both tech and non-tech. The convergence of these ideas, with the goal of applying them to help Iraq’s children, was one of the primary objectives of the conference. The ministry officials were supposed to pick and choose from what they saw and decide how best to apply technology for the kids.

But it wasn’t working. The geeks were talking too fast. The translators, struggled with the excessive techo-babble and NGO-acronym-speak. The team from Iraq struggled to keep up. And the techies couldn’t understand what the the team from Iraq needed from them.

This was where the bridge came in. A group broke off from the main session with the goal of framing the discussion in a way that the Iraqi officials could relate to, and providing them an environment to communicate their needs that they were comfortable in. With this bridge in place, each party was able to reach that a-ha! moment where they understood how they could work together.


For the Iraqis it came after an excellent talk about the RapidSMS Malnutrition Project in Malawi by Merrick Schaefer, and then a second presentation (in Arabic!) from Jacob Korenblum on Souktel’s mobile offerings in the Middle East. After a vibrant Q&A session, several of the Iraqis approached me for a RapidSMS demo, and when they saw actual messages coming to and from their cell phones and then showing data on a map they got it. They started talking excitedly about how this could be used in their own programs, and I found it one of the most rewarding moments of the conference.

Likewise, in the last session of the conference the Iraqis presented their visions for potential systems they could build to help the Iraqi children. This time it was the geeks who lit up. A lively discussion of how to build the systems ensued, asking and addressing questions that spanned from the current state of cell phone coverage and costs in the region, to defining specific user and service models, to the unique-to-the-region questions around building the population’s trust and working in an environment where security is a huge concern.

Word visualization of the talks with the Iraqi officials

In this way we were able to expand our small tech-for-dev community’s core of interested parties to both the hard-core techies and the Iraqi officials, and successfully build the bridges of communication to bring the most unlikely of partners together.

We greatly appreciates the thoughtful, smart, passionate people who were able to come together for the three days in Amman to critically and constructively engage, share, and plan together. If this is the future, we like it, indeed. 


Photo: flickr user katrinskaya

Feedback from Innovations in Mobile Data Collection for Social Action: "If this is the Future, I like it" data sheet 3374 Views
Countries: Iraq


Posted by AnneryanHeatwole on Sep 02, 2009
Souktel data sheet 3516 Views
Organization that developed the Tool: 
Main Contact: 
Jacob Korenblum
Problem or Need: 

In many developing countries, labor markets are in chaos--not because there’s a lack of job opportunities, but because there are no good information networks to help job-seekers and employers find each other: Web access is low, public/private resources are few, and infrastructure is poor. As a result, many skilled workers get trapped in cycles of joblessness and hardship. However, a huge number of people in developing countries have basic cell phone access, even in rural areas. Recognizing this reality, Souktel has created a simple, phone-based JobMatch service--a software application that reduces unemployment and poverty by helping ordinary job-seekers get key job information on their phones.

Main Contact Email : 
Brief Description: 

Our solution is simple: from any phone, job-seekers create SMS "mini-CVs" that include basic data on their skills, location, etc. These are then sent by mobile to our central database--which hundreds of employers search daily, via web or phone. From their side, employers create similar “mini job ads” and post them on the same database—so that job-seekers can search these jobs from their own phones. The database also matches job-seekers/employers who have similar profiles, sending them SMS alerts with each other’s data.

Tool Category: 
App resides and runs on a server
Key Features : 
  • SMS-based querying of information databases
  • SMS-based user profile creation
  • SMS-based matching of similar user profiles


Main Services: 
Bulk SMS
Voting, Data Collection, Surveys, and Polling
Mobile Social Network/Peer-to-peer
Information Resources/Information Databases
Tool Maturity: 
Currently deployed
Windows Mobile
All phones -- SMS
Current Version: 
Program/Code Language: 
.NET Compact Framework
Organizations Using the Tool: 

Employers - Middle East:

  • Ernst and Young
  • Red Cross/Red Crescent
  • CARE International
  • Deloitte
  • YMCA of East Jerusalem
  • Education Development Center, Inc.

Institutional/Funding Partners - Middle East

  • US Agency for International Development
  • World Bank - Quality Improvement Fund for Higher Education
  • King Abdullah Fund for Development
  • Birzeit University (Palestine)
  • Najah University (Palestine)
  • Arab-American University of Jenin (Palestine)
  • Al-Quds Abu Dis University (Palestine)
Number of Current End Users: 
Number of current beneficiaries: 
Languages supported: 
Arabic, Kurdish, English, French, Somali, Spanish
Handsets/devices supported: 
Any handset.
Is the Tool's Code Available?: 
Is an API available to interface with your tool?: