View from the front row

One of the best things about being a consultant, freelancer, wanderer or independent (choose whichever title you think best fits) is that I’m not tied to any one cause, NGO, company, community or website. Since I don’t actually work for any of them I can openly communicate, engage and contribute to many sites in many different areas and in many different ways. I quite like this. It helps promote my whole ethos of shared, open learning, and means that information and knowledge I pick up from one can often be equally shared with another (non-disclosure agreement permitting). Sometimes not being paid can have its advantages, too (although I do, occasionally, take on temporary consultancy work with some of them).

Right now, in the “mobile for good” space, we’re in the middle of very interesting times. We’re also, perhaps, at a crossroads. And the role that I’ve managed to carve out for myself, intentional or not, means that I consistently find myself at the centre of many of the current – and newer – initiatives. Take, for example, mobile communities and mobile portals (call them what you like). In recent months we’ve seen the launch, and re-launch, of numerous sites. Indeed, one of my FrontlineSMS-related plans involved the creation of one. I’ve since had a major re-think, although with users in over forty countries there is clearly a perfect opportunity to build a community of some kind. Building a truly vibrant community website around the wider social and environmental use of mobile is never going to be easy, and I would argue that no-one has yet managed to crack it (indeed, building truly active communities around anything can be a real challenge).

Right now I have a little experiment going on through Facebook. The Social Mobile Group is an attempt to bring people together who share an interest in mobile, from developers through to practitioners, bloggers, researchers, academics, writers and the general public. Since the Facebook structure was already present, it took ten minutes to create the group, and it now stands at around 1,150 members from a starting point of about 20 six months ago. I’m not sure where it’s going, but it slowly seems to be taking shape and it requires the minimum of effort. I’ve also tried to involve the members as much as possible, creating “Rotating Group Officer” roles which provides them with the opportunity to help grow and develop the group in their own way.

There are, of course, other sites out there acting as ‘mobile information’ points. Even the site has an element of this with the Downloads section, Mobile Database and Mobile Gallery, although this is not its primary purpose. Other sites include a mix of the old and the new, and it will be very interesting to see how they evolve over time, and how many cross over and blend into others. Last year I began to note down the number of sites I’ve either become involved in, or provided input into, or spoken to people about, in the mobile space. This is what I came up with:

Following a meeting of African activist organisations in Nairobi early last year (each either using mobile, or with an interest in using mobile, in their work), Fahamu plan to create a Pan-African Mobile Network to encourage the sharing of information between activist organisations working in this field. This is due for launch sometime in 2008 and is currently limited to a membership of approximately 40 individuals or groups who attended the meeting

W3C Mobile Web Initiative
Following on from their Bangalore workshop in December 2006, the W3C Mobile Web in Developing Countries initiative aims to create a Wiki containing information specific to the use of mobile in developing countries, and how the organisation should go about promoting access to the internet in developing regions via mobile phones. There are currently 58 subscribers to the wiki

The MobileActive site was one of the earliest attempts to create a community of mobile activists. It provides information on how to go about developing mobile campaigns, and has produced a number of useful Strategy Guides on the subject. MobileActive has undergone a couple of re-launches in the past couple of years and currently has 127 participants according to the NTEN Affinity list

A recent Vodafone/Nokia-supported initiative, ShareIdeas is an online community and Wiki for sharing ideas on how to use mobile communications for social and environmental benefit. Organisations which have used mobile effectively in their work are encouraged to submit their case studies to the site, and to share their experiences with other non-profit organisations. The site recently announced a membership in excess of 700 people

Mobile Advocacy Toolkit
Following on from their successful NGO-in-a-Box solutions, Tactical Tech are in the process of developing a Mobile Advocacy Toolkit and Wiki, designed to help non-profits interested in making use of mobile in their work. The Toolkit will provide a range of open source tools, and the Wiki information on how to go about using the tools, and how other NGOs have utilised the technology in their work. No subscriber data is currently available

The Social Mobile Group
The Social Mobile Group is an attempt to harness the power of the Facebook community to create a network of developers, practitioners, bloggers, researchers, academics, writers and the general public all interested in the use of mobile for social and environmental benefit. Although relatively new, the Group already boasts a membership in excess of 1,150 people

Although many of these sites – and others like them not listed here -have different audiences, approaches and objectives, the one thing that binds them together is their shared interest in the social revolution being brought about by mobile technology, particularly in the developing world. In a space becoming increasingly crowded, many communities are dominated by a small number of active members. Facebook groups aside, ShareIdeas seems to be the one to watch, with Tactical Tech and PAMONET soon to join the party.