Social mobile and the long tail

Erik Hersman at White African talked about it. The Economist also recently talked about it. And Tactical Tech are talking about it. Three commentators and a common theme, even if they don’t realise it. What am I talking about? Social mobile’s long tail, that’s what.

So, why the long tail? Well, it goes something like this. There’s no disputing that the mobile for good space is hotting up, with near-daily announcements extolling the virtue of mobile phones in promoting social and environmental good the world over. The problem is, despite the excitement we’re still struggling to scratch below the surface, meaning the majority of non-profits, particularly those in developing countries, can all but sit back in awe at the incredible things these little devices are doing. Solutions are tantalisingly close, but without the tools and a practical helping hand most of these NGOs remain passive observers. It’s these – the ones who aren’t yet able to do anything – that interest me the most. Let’s look at the graph.

We have three categories. Firstly, there are high-end high-cost solutions running SMS services across national or international borders, with little chance of replicability for your average grassroots NGO. These are represented by the red part of the curve and generally get the highest amount of exposure. Then we have lower-cost custom solutions, developed by individual (often mid-level) non-profits to solve a particular problem in a particular country or region, or to run a specific campaign. These have a slightly better chance of replicability for grassroots NGOs, are represented by the amber, and generally get a medium to high level of publicity.

Finally, we’re left with the simple, low-tech, appropriate technology solutions with great opportunities for rapid, hassle-free replicability among grassroots NGOs, represented in green (even better, take out the need to replicate altogether and actually give them the tools to do the work, a gap FrontlineSMS is working hard to fill). These projects generally get the lowest level of publicity, if any, since few have an international profile of any kind. Notoriously hard to communicate with, and with little or no money, it’s perhaps no surprise that most of the attention on the long tail is elsewhere.

In order for the mobile revolution to truly become a revolution, we need to be inviting infinitely more non-profits to the party. So much can be done, but so few are active. Going by my thinking, that means we need to be working on the green, because that’s where most grassroots NGOs sit, and that’s where help is needed the most.

As kiwanja’s nGOmobile competition seems to prove, social mobile is not about a lack of ideas or a lack of understanding, but a basic lack of tools…

(A fuller, expanded version of this Blog entry is available as a PDF here)

6 thoughts on “Social mobile and the long tail

  1. steph says:

    Hi Ken,

    wonderful figure. I was looking for something similar for long time.
    So i 100% agree with its content, and i also 100% agree on what you are saying on the challenges. I’ve the feeling that last 2-3 years, lots of success stories appeared demosntrating the power of mobile phones in Social Development. But those stories are just islands of success, and there is a huge gap between the current situation and the exploitation of the full potential of mobile phones by NGOs, and the availability of thousands of services. I agree also on the fact that the problem is not the lack of idea, for sure !
    That said, where we might diverge is on what to do. You are convinced that SMS is the way to move forward, and i believe that SMS is not appropriate because of the cost of launching and running a service. FrontlineSMS is a huge step forward, providing a free-to-use SMS platform. But having a gsm subscription, a computer running 24h a day is still a problem imho to have reliable services.
    I strongly believe the Web, the Mobile Web, is the way to allow people to easily and very cheaply develop and deploy applications without long term investment.


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