SMS Storytelling

How often do you find yourself working on a problem or a project that applies to the third world?
In early June, Capulet had the opportunity to attend Mobile for Social Change, a two-day conference in Toronto at the MaRS Centre for Innovation. It was part of Net Change Week 2011, a weeklong conference for non-profits and tech enthusiasts.

We’re hoping to write more about what we learned at this conference throughout the summer months. For now, we’re going to focus on what was an obvious source of inspiration — the Mobile for Social Change component which featured some of the mobile technology projects going on in developing countries.

Here in North America popular mobile devices include the iPhone, iPad, Android, and Blackberry. Apps developed for these devices are designed to help us run our lives more efficiently. Often, they’re meant for our entertainment and enjoyment.

But most of the world doesn’t use smart phones. Instead, feature phones — simple flip phones that use SMS (short message service) instead of data plans — are what people in developing countries are using to communicate with one another. The device itself is inexpensive and users can pay as they go, topping up their minutes when they need them. This has developers looking at ways for communities to connect with each other via SMS. The needs of a farmer using a mobile device in Guatemala are going to be radically different than the needs of a marketing professional with a data plan in Vancouver. Developers are exploring how that farmer can receive daily market prices via SMS, or get the weather forecast for the next week.

An extraordinary example presented at Mobile for Social Change was a story about a Japanese medical aid worker who used SMS to log her daily activities and to keep a diary during the Japanese earthquake crisis. She sent messages to her blog via SMS using her Nokia feature phone. The blog itself lacks the bells and whistles of an interactive website, but the writing and quality of storytelling is remarkable.

In Brazil, a global project called Wikimapa is taking off in Rio de Janaero. Citizens are using SMS to log and send information about unmapped roads and bottom-up infrastructure. Organizers collecting this data are then building maps with it. People living in homes previously without an address can now locate themselves on a wikimap. In turn, the civic government can now account for families and households. This data informs civic policy, laws and emergency needs. And all of it is being done without data plans.

If you’re interested in these projects and mobile technology developments taking place in countries like Brazil, you can follow sites like Mobile Without Borders, 49 Pixels and — all offer examples of online communities interested in programs, wikis and campaigns that leverage citizen engagement in some of the poorest countries on the planet.

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