Tuesday, 6 May 2008

Cellphones & community mobilization: crossing the digital divide

Since 2005, mobile phone links have empowered grassroots NGOs throughout the world. Because text-messaging (aka SMS) is free in many parts of the Third World (unlike North America), in networking it has become as important as voice. Video-to-satellite and GPS functions built into some cell phones important in human rights reporting.
For example:
Daily security alerts for development workers in Afghanistan. Co-ordinating monitors of elections in Nigeria, Zimbabwe, Sierra Leone, and the Philippines. Human rights campaigners in central Africa who are using the software to reach out to victims. Text and video is sent in by cellphone on Voices of Africa and iConnect. Small farmers in Uganda and India can get access to market info. In Indonesia, healthworkers use mobiles to fight avian flu. Stanford University has developed an updated version of the FrontlineSMS software, now available free on the portal Kiwanja.net

Ken Banks, the founder of FrontlineSMS and Kiwanja.net, writes:
My passions are technology, anthropology, conservation and development... The technology comes from well over 20 years in the IT industry, the anthropology from my degree at Sussex University, the conservation from the family gene and the development... from numerous projects and numerous trips to the African continent over the past 15 years, including a one year spell working with primates in Nigeria. I could never have planned it better than this, so perhaps it’s lucky that I didn’t. Fortuitously for me, these four interest areas turn out to be incredibly complementary from a professional stand point, and if I wasn’t so honest I would probably be telling people that it was all part of a big plan.

There has been a lot of talk in recent months (and years) about citizen journalism ‐ people reporting on news in their area ‐ but what is happening now, with software such as FrontlineSMS, is more citizen empowerment. The difference here is that with empowerment they not only report on their surroundings ‐ they are suddenly able to fully engage and influence the outcome.

The Network of Mobile Election Monitors, whose mission is to encourage the Nigerian electorate to participate in the electoral process, are a non‐profit group of young professionals in Nigeria advocating for social change through good governance. NMEM had the mission, NMEM had the passion and NMEM had the commitment and vision to drive this forward. NMEM also found FrontlineSMS, and they took the software and ran with it. With the exception of several emails and the odd 3 a.m. phone call (!) they have been pretty much alone in this venture.
[SDN: Stakeholder Democracy Network also monitored the Nigeria election -- Ed.] The story is really theirs. This is just the beginning.

See also:
Banks' FrontlineSMS group on Facebook, his Oct 2007 webinar video.
Shareideas.org created in response to Ndidi Nwuneli of LEAP Africa.
New Tactics in Human Rights.
Seeing is Believing: a teacher's guide to the digital revolution and its human rights impacts.

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