Rheingold's glimpse of the future is now—and is being promoted by a rising new crop of mobile activists like Katrin Verclas, cofounder of MobileActive.org, a Web site and community of about 8,000 people and NGOs from around the world. The group is meeting in Johannesburg this week to promote the use of cellphones for social change. About 80 percent of the world has cellphone coverage, Verclas says, and more than half of the global population has a cellphone—or access to one. "We're at a tipping point," Verclas told Cause Global.
Here are some of the mobile-for-good projects being highlighted at the MobileActive08 conference this week in South Africa:
Avaaz.org, the 10-month-old, Web-based, agit-pop protest movement (its name means "noise" or "voice" in Urdu, Hindi, Dari, Persian, and other languages) is kicking off a series of SMS (short message service) campaigns to get rapid signatures on petitions to fight climate change and the war in Iraq. Cofounded in January by MoveOn.org, Res Publica, and GetUp.org.au, Avaaz already has more than 3 million members around the world, and offices in Rio de Janeiro, Geneva, London, and Washington, D.C. Says Graziela Tanaka, an Avaaz coordinator in Sao Paolo, Brazil: “Cellphone videos and instant messaging has the affect of decentralizing old-media control over information. We think SMS and cellphone videos are the new way to mobilize people around the world. The Internet is still restricted in some countries. SMS is not. Everyone, or nearly everyone, has a cellphone.”
The Women of Uganda Network (WOUGNET) is using a "bulk SMS" service out of Cape Town to organize demonstrations against sexual violence, chiefly against girls 15 years and younger, and to share health information. The nonprofit sends out thousands of instant messages to a targeted list of members, simultaneously, to mobilize support for its various campaigns, without fear of interference by local governmental authorities or family members. According to WOUGNET's Nora Naiboka Odoi, cellphone use in many African countries is still largely controlled by the men in the family. SMS, she says, makes it easier for word about demonstrations to get out virally and bypass these constraints. Adds MobileActive.org's Verclas: “The cellphone in these communities is an empowerment tool, a way for women to reach out to each other as well as to get help in a violent situation."
Alo Cidadao! (Hello Citizens!) is a year-old text-messaging community news service that connects some 450 residents of the low-income section of Belo Horizonte, Brazil, with information about jobs, cultural events, classes, and health vaccinations. "People in this neighborhood are afraid to leave their homes," says coordinator Daniel de Araujo. "We are trying to help them feel less cut off and are encouraging them to re-join the mainstream by giving them knowledge about what's going on outside their doors." Each person who signed up for the service gets about 40 messages per month, Araujo says, and most forward these messages on to friends and family members.
The International Youth Foundation's BridgeIT project is using cellphones to boost the quality of education for 5th- and 6th-graders in the Philippines and Tanzania. Science and math teachers there can use their cellphones to download science videos and other content-rich material via satellite to a digital video recorder connected to a television set in the classroom. Videos focus on subjects such as space, ecology, geology, or human anatomy—all part of a special text2teach lesson plan. So far, the program, partly funded by Nokia, is being used by 938 schools in the Philippines and 200 in Tanzania.
M4G, which stands for Mobile for Good, is helping people in Kenya find jobs. For a video on the project, click here. More than 70,000 people now use the service, launched in 2003 and funded in part by the European telcom company Vodafone Group Plc. Some 60,000 have found jobs through the group's job service, Kazi560.
Next? Look for more people bartering their cellphone minutes for other goods and services in Mexico and parts of Africa, including the Congo.
The conference ends today.
(Photograph, Power Line Birds, by Patrick Herrera for istock.com)