I Just Called to Say I’ll Help You…

According to UNESCO, the number of mobile phone accounts worldwide is approaching six billion.

Given that there are only seven billion people alive on the planet today that’s quite a statistic.  By late 2012, Africa alone will account for some 735 million subscriptions. The real question about this proliferation of mobile technology, is not how much gossiping or game-playing can be done on these phones but rather if there is any way this abundance of phones and connectivity can be put to good use.

It seems there are plenty of ways.

For example, mobile phones are being used as tools of collaborative learning in Chile, to reinforce new literacy skills for girls in Pakistan and to collect educational data in Argentina – and that’s just a tiny sample of how they are used.

I have a friend who travels extensively in South East Asia and he told me that one day he was speaking with an old man working in a field.  In the course of their conversation, the man used a word my friend didn’t understand.  The old man racked his brain trying to explain himself to my friend.  Suddenly, to my friend’s great surprise, the man whipped out his smart phone and searched online for the translation of the word.  Within seconds the man had what he wanted and he and my friend continued their discussion.

Many organisations – both commercial and humanitarian – are committed to finding ways to use mobile technology to augment the services they provide.  In a TED talk given by Paul Conneally, public communications manager for the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, he gives a comprehensive description of how mobile technology has begun to be used to help the victims of natural disasters.  It can – and has – been used to map areas.  To find and rescue people who are trapped. To send messages about injuries and get advice from medical personnel many miles away.

You may have seen this talk before (I posted it a few months ago) but it’s still very interesting as it outlines how the disastrous earthquake in Haiti inspired the development of a system called TERA (Trilogy Emergency Response Application).  This system has been used to help communities prepare for disaster.  As an early warning system to alert people to extreme weather conditions, for public health awareness campaigns and building awareness around gender based violence.

An evaluation of TERA in 2011 found that –

  • 74% of those intended to receive the data did, indeed, receive it.
  • 96% of those who received it found it useful.
  • 83% of recipients took action.
  • 73% shared the information they received.

According to Paul Conneally, all across the developing world technology is revolutionising societies.  “The grassroots is being strengthened through the social power of sharing and its challenging the old models, the old analogue models of control and command.”

But perhaps the most inspiring thing Paul Conneally talks about is a project undertaken by young people in a slum on the outskirts of Nairobi.  Under their own steam, these young people decided to use technology to make their community better and safer.  Known as The Voice of Kibera (named after the slum). They have created digital maps of their community with information on health centres, music sessions, security incidents, places of worship, schools, doctors, shops, markets etc – they also have their own news network on YouTube.  

The young Kibera locals who run this service are also actively encouraging the thousands of people who live in their community to contribute to this endeavour themselves using their mobile phones.  As Paul Conneally says about them,”They are telling their own story and by-passing the official narrative.”

If you have time, have a look at both videos – I think you’ll find them interesting and quite inspiring.




  1. It seems that every emerging medium goes through a period of flailing around, as people try to figure out what it’s good for. The early stages are usually unimaginative and pointless, but eventually it begins to dawn on us that the new technology can actually be used to improve lives. Your post illustrates this perfectly. Thank you, Trisha.

  2. That’s a good point, Charles, seemingly the printing press was used for all sorts of carry-on for years and years before anybody realised it might be useful for things like scientific journals. And you’re most welcome.

  3. This is what I love about so called third world economies… People are truly resilient and never waste anything… Plus the smart phone has added another layer to that conversation. 🙂

  4. How did I miss this one. This technology has also created millionaires in the region because of demand. I sometimes wish there’s a way to plough some of the profits back in the local economies. 🙂

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