Mobile community: The holy grail of m4d?

Last week I wrote a post on the difficulties of running a “mobile for development” – or m4d – project. I tried to make it challenging, and was hoping to stir up some discussion around the merits of mobile-initiated development projects versus development-initiated mobile projects. You can read that post here.

Unless you’re one of the bigger technology blogs – Mashable, TechCrunch, Scobleizer and so on – it’s hit-and-miss whether or not a post will get the traction you’re looking for. Apart from a couple of dozen tweets and a dozen or so comments, the post didn’t generate as much debate as I’d have liked. But it did get me thinking – if these kinds of discussion weren’t taking place here, then where were they taking place?

I’m regularly asked at conferences for hints on the best sites for people to post questions and stimulate debate around mobile technology, and I always struggle to give an answer. It seems crazy that, for a discipline which began to fully emerge probably about seven or eight years ago, there still isn’t a genuinely active, engaging, open online community for people to join and interact with each other.

In order to get a sense of which communities exist, I recently sent out a message to a number of ICT4D and mobile email lists I subscribe to, and posted the odd message on Twitter. Very few people could suggest anything. A few people mentioned email lists which dealt specifically with sectoral issues, such as health, but not specifically with mobile (although mobile was a regular thread in many discussions). Only MobileActive suggested MobileActive, which was a surprise considering its positioning as a global, mobile community with over 16,000 ‘active’ members.

Finding nothing was only part of it – many people clearly had different ideas of what made up community, too (I’d put this down to a challenge of definition). When I pushed out my call for sites, I specifically asked for those which were “open, active, collaborative and engaging”, things that I thought would be pre-requisites for anything worth being a member of.

According to Maddie Grant, a Strategist at SocialFish, a consulting firm that helps associations build community on the social web:

What makes a community open is when there’s “a lot more outside the login than inside”, so most of a community’s content must be at least viewable and shareable without logging in. To be active, most of a community’s content must be member (user) generated, not owner-generated, and must have some degree of conversation which includes comments, discussions and reviews

Going by these criteria I don’t believe we yet have a truly active, engaging, open mobile community. This seems a little strange when you consider the attention the technology has been getting over the past few years.

On the flip side though, it might not be so strange after all. As Jonathan Donner put it to me in a recent email, “Why should m4d have it’s own groups and community sites? Can’t we – or should we – just mainstream ourselves into ICT4D?”.

This discussion clearly has a long way to go. I just wonder where that discussion will take place.

81 thoughts on “Mobile community: The holy grail of m4d?

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  15. Wayan says:


    I agree, there isn’t an “open, active, collaborative and engaging” online community around m4D, but I think there are two simple reasons for that – no critical mass or real donor funding for it as of yet.

    Mobile applications for development – vs. mobile application development for commercial gain – is still in its infancy. I can think of only a dozen or so actual programs that either run on or engage mobile phones that are specifically designed for a social good. And the majority weren’t made with donor funding, but bootstrapped by their founders (FLSMS is case in point).

    So without its own critical mass to excite someone to start a community, or the deep pockets of a funder to sponsor one, there isn’t a m4D community – on or offline. What does exist are mobile application communities, like Mobile Monday, and ICT4D communities with a focus on mobiles, like the Technology Salon. But this void will be filled soon.

    infoDev is pushing hard into the mobile applications space, with a mandate to develop the social networks (on and offline) that connect mobile developers and the international development community. I expect others to follow suit soon – an Apps4Dev push within ICT4D that will soon see community building in m4D.

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  22. kiwanja says:

    @Wayan – Thanks for your comments, many of which I agree with. One of the big challenges with community is that you can put everything in place (the site, the branding, the positioning, etc) but if people either don’t see value in engaging, or are unclear what they’ll get from the site if they do, then you’re onto a loser. I really do wonder what people want from a mobile community site (as opposed to a site which primarily gives out mobile news, of which there are already many). I don’t believe anyone has been asked before, and it would be interesting to hear what they said if they were.

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  27. Partha Sarker says:

    Ken, not really M4D but Bytesforall Readers Forum has been one of the oldest (started in 1999) and active-engaging-open discussion forum on ICT4D issues in South Asia. Now we’re using the value of this network for some strategic purposes too. For example, Access to Information (A2I) program based in Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) in Bangladesh is using this forum to organize an online consultation on a strategy document that they prepared as part of ICT policy operationalization (the document is available at:; Thought you’d be interested. Please also let us know about the relevant M4D or D4M lists. Best wishes, Partha

  28. Casey Iiams-Hauser says:

    I just commented on the other post, but I’ll throw in my 2 cents here as well… This has always been tough, and it is something that keep we m4d people reinventing the wheel because we don”t know that someone one country over has just spent 4 months building a tool that we are just now trying to starts specs on. It seems like we just rely on chance communication between a few well connected m4d “hubs” and sometimes it works out. This is all based on something that happened to me last month when i found out that 2 multilaterals were starting to spec out something that my team had just designed, someone who knew about both connected us and now we are moving forward together, but it would have been a huge waste of resources if that chance communication hadn’t happened.

    I just ran into some questions about interfacing with OpenMRS with my project and so I hopped onto their website to find an active discussion running in IRC… I’m not much of a developer, but if someone could add a simple IRC chat window to… let’s say Mobile Active, maybe that would attract more people. I ended up having conversations that firstly answered my questions and secondly made me decide to jailbreak my iPhone to work here in Kenya. We need something like that for our m4d community to figure out what the hell we are all working on and what tools are out there. I think even the video game community has one up on us in that regard. Look at the forums for Civilization fansites… they have customs files to download and an active forum even though the last game was released 4 years ago (and yes, I’m a huge civ nerd 🙂 ) . Okay, back to work! If anyone decides to make a md4 IRC, I’ll be there soon!

    Best, Casey

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  30. kiwanja says:

    @Partha – Thanks for that. Any working community will no doubt have something m4d could learn from.

    @Casey – It sounds to me like a directory of who’s doing what, where, with what and with whom would be more useful here. I totally agree with you about the problems of reinventing wheels, and kudos to you for collaborating when you found a similar initiative (many projects speak about collaboration but don’t do it in practice). The InfoDev RFP might be worth keeping an eye on:

    I didn’t go into too much detail in my post, but incentive is a key driver in any community. People need to see value in joining, and then value in engaging (two separate things). We have a very active community around FrontlineSMS ( but that’s because it’s based around an increasingly popular piece of software, and we make it clear to users that that’s where they need to go to connect, share and ask. The willingness of users to respond to each other’s questions and comments has been inspiring, although I can’t tell you why they do it (that information would be hugely valuable).

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  35. miraj k says:


    doesn’t a ‘mobile community’ need to be situated inside the mobile ecosystem itself? yes, it can be ‘Mobile Web’ or even a “Mobile SMS/Chat” based community. but the problem is, compared to internet+www , mobile still is not an ‘open’ system. so unless the ‘walled gardens’ come down, a truly open, universally accessible mobile community would be tremendously difficult to build. but we do need to keep at that.

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  38. Wayan says:

    Before we get lost in tools to use in a community, I really like the question of “why?”

    As in why would people in m4D want to talk with each other? Who would they want to communicate with? What value would they derive from a community? How would a community benefit it’s members?

    Personally, I think there are a number of answers to all these questions that parallel the reasons people join any community. So an m4D community would not be unique in mission or structure to other online communities, just have it’s own unique topics and leaders.

  39. Chris F says:

    Perhaps there isn’t or never will be a single M4D ‘community’ as such. There’s so much going on, so many different views, so many different locations of work, that it would be difficult to ever build such a coherent community .

    Wouldn’t it be better to think of M4D as a ‘tag’ rather than a ‘group’? – A less coherent mass of blog posts, papers, organisations which loosely connect.

    Personally I find Christian’s great ICT4DFeed as the best resource to track this network

  40. kiwanja says:

    @Miraj – I’m not quite so bothered about the tools which are used – they’ve probably all been tried at one point or another, with similar ineffective results. What interests me is the “Why” and the “What”, the kinds of questions Wayan has raised.

    @Wayan – Great questions. Have any “mobile community” members ever been asked these questions? I suspect not. There seems to be a default assumption that mobile is big enough to have it’s own community, but with little to back that up.

    @Chris – I think you may be right. These are the kinds of questions and discussions that need to take place. My hunch is that there’s likely more of a need for some kind of “Directory” for mobile, rather than a community, and this would provide the kinds of information you highlight. But then again, maybe not… (P.S. I’m also a big fan of Christian’s work).

  41. Alex Anderson says:

    @Casey IRC would be great, at least for me. I’ve looked around freenode (where I’d expect to find channels on ICT4D or M4D) but I can’t find anything. Come and lurk in ##ict4d and ##m4d and we’ll see if they catch on :¬)

    There’s a freenode web client for people who aren’t on IRC otherwise here:

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  43. Kevin Donovan says:

    This is a great discussion.

    I also wanted to point out that infoDev is launching a number of mobile social networking hubs in various cities around the world:

    We hope these real-world hubs will be able to complement and inspire an online mobile community. If you or colleagues are interested, definitely get in touch with us!

  44. kiwanja says:

    @Kevin – I’d previously seen the mobile hubs concept, and will watch with interest. I’m not sure who’s part of the final decision-making process, but hopefully you have some people with a proven track record in running engaging communities helping you decide?

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