We are all in the Long Tail of Mobile for Social Impact

Posted by KatrinVerclas on May 07, 2009

Ken Banks has a theory: The long tail theory of mobile applications for social development.  It goes something like this, paraphrasing him from his incendiary blog post:

Mobiles are the most rapidly adopted technology in history. But if mobiles truly are as revolutionary and empowering, then don't we have a moral duty in the ICT for Development (ICT4D) community to see that they fulfill that potential?

Banks says that indeed, we do have that moral duty, and I agree with him wholeheartedly there. 

But, he cautions, the "development community may end up repeating the same mistakes of the past."

So, what are those mistakes?  Banks supposes that there is a "problem of focus in the mobile application space," namely that too much attention is paid to what he calls "mega platforms/high investment and one offs" instead of "simple low-cost implementations."  I presume that with that he means FrontlineSMS the software and platform that he developed.

He dismisses what he calls "sexy, large-scale, top-down, capital- and time-intensive mobile solutions simply results in the creation of tools which only the larger, more resource-rich NGOs are able to adopt and afford."

Aside from being non-specific about what kinds of 'large-scale, top-down" mobile solutions he talks about, this not the universe I see.

Where I sit, we are all right now in the long tail -- NGOs large and small the world over.  

He is completely right, we do need a wide diversity of mobile solutions.  They do need to be easy to obtain, easy to install and use, and easy to build on, if one so desires.  

However, mobile solutions for social development need to be simple.  Why simple?  M-Pesa, by all accounts a revolutionary mobile solution and important and heralded in this field of social development, and its counterparts in the Philippines and other countries, are not simple.  Neither are some of the solutions like RapidSMS and Rapid Android coming out of UNICEF's Innovation Unit, or the many, many solutions that I see coming out of universities and from researchers al over the world.  Trixbox, a voice-over-IP open source platform that essentially is the same as the NGO-developed solution Freedom Fone, allows users to request information and news through a voice system or via SMS for a few thousand dollars. It is a complex system but easily usable for an end-user that will indeed will be deployed in a number of countries in short order for news and information services.

These are not simple pieces of software, but they are useful, used, and ideally, highly usable and easy to deploy.  They address a local need, and work within a local context.  Granted, there are limitations there--many of the NGO-developed applications are, in fact, not well documented, supported, or particularly easy to use. However, to reduce the need to "simple apps" misses the point. 

I also do not see that "large organizations miss the low-hanging fruit" as Banks categorically states.  The low-hanging fruit here is SMS and he poses that there are few tools available to take advantage of this ubiqitous mode of communication.

I believe this take is wrong on two counts:

1. There are plenty of tools available taking advantage of SMS in innovative ways - from large players like Google which operates free SMS groups for all sort of information services in India (which are used by thousands of NGOs), to small NGOs like Souktel in Palestine providing job information services via SMS to Palestine youth (and one of the only SMS gateways in and out of Gaza and the West Bank), to NDI that uses a $50 SMS application for systematic election monitoring, to yes, RapidSMS that uses SMS as the main mode of communication, albeit with a more sophisticated back-end requiring "the cloud." Mobilisr is a new enterprise-level open source SMS messaging platform piloted on South Africa as we speak, available soon to small and large NGOs alike. 

Save the Children, PACT, and many other large NGOs are looking closely at how they can use SMS in their work, some considering Frontline, others similar and related applications for health and social development programs. 

Additionally, there are many many other organizations providing health and other information services via SMS with all sorts of SMS bulk messaging tools, both commercial, homegrown, and open source (such as Kannel, for example).  

2. Secondly, and more importantly, while SMS is still the main form of communications for many parts of the world, this is rapidly changing. Even the poorest young people in townships in South Africa are accessing the Internet, as Tino Kreutzer is researching. In Nigeria mobile web use is exploding as well at astonishing levels, and the same is true for many other countries.  Certainly USSD messaging in the form of call-back messages is pervasive in Africa, and games and mobile apps proliferate all over the world, as revenue figures from the carriers show.  In other words, SMS applications are important and need to be developed (ideally locally) but we all need to understand very clearly what the actual usage patterns are and what functionalities people are using on their mobiles -- and how is that changing.

Lastly, I do not see the point of artificially dividing this field that is very much in formation with many small projects (whether they are run buy larger organizations or small ones) when there is a need for fewer silos and more collaboration and cooperation - in platforms, in ideas, in incubation, and in software.

Banks notes in passing the "emergence of home grown developer communities in an increasing number of African countries, for example, presents the greatest opportunity yet to unlock the social change potential of mobile technology."  

On that I could not agree more.  

So what do we need for that to happen?  Here are a few things:

  • Local investments - capital (where are the African mobile tech venture funds?)
  • More local capacity and alliances with local universities in various countries. An interesting model is Mobile Senegal, a project that comes out of Pace University.
  • Open platforms and open source software that local developers can build on, extend, and modify to as part of local business development -- such as what the members of the Open Mobile Consortium are after. 
  • A willingness of donors to fund and incubate local business and social enterprises developing mobile applications in Africa, Southeast Asia, and Latin America.
  • Less of a focus on (and funding for) white, western solutions of development NGOs large and small and a focus on building AppAfrica-like communities.
  • Better communications and collaboration among all of the players who are working in this space to make the tools and ideas available to everyone who wants them -- something we here at MobileActive.org are, of ourse, keenly interested in.

In summary, this is not a field where large-scale sexy solutions exist right now.  And it's not a field where projects should be pitted against each other. 

All of us, large NGOs and tiny ones, are experimenting and the solutions coming out of these experiments are all major works of progress that are largely not there with easy usability, comprehensive libraries, and out-of-the-box set-up.  

It would behove us to think of this field as a very dynamic ecosystem that can thrive best when there is a focus on bottom-up solutions and for those that are not, to be opensource so that can be adapted and adopted in multiple ways.  And that ecosystem, this dynamic, vibrant community of people all over the world building mobile apps for social impact on shoestrings and sheer ingenuity is something that I am very proud and delighted to be part of. 

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