Mobiles reach out to Azerbaijan’s youth

Razi Nurullayev is Co-Chairman of the Society of Democratic Reform in Azerbaijan, and Executive Secretary of the Civil Society Coalition of Azerbaijani NGOs. In this guest post, he talks about the state of democracy and mobile technology adoption in Azerbaijan, and how FrontlineSMS is contributing to the work of non-profit organisations in the country

Mobile technology adoption in Azerbaijan is on the rise. Out of a population of approximately nine million people there are today well over four million mobile phones, making text messaging one of the fastest growing communications mediums available. While many internet users have email accounts, most are only checked once or twice a week. SMS is proving more direct and immediate, and as a result many civil society organizations have started using it to reach their potential members, clients, and target audiences.

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The Civil Society Coalition of Azerbaijani NGOs first heard of FrontlineSMS last year through the CIVICUS e-newsletter. We later began using it to reach our own members through news alerts, meeting requests and awareness-raising around human rights violations. FrontlineSMS has brought a real change to the way the Coalition sees and uses mobile tools, something we previously considered beyond us.

Prior to our adoption of FrontlineSMS we were communicating through mass email. Unfortunately this channel rarely reached more than half of our members due to either lack of email accounts among our members, or the late checking of messages. Now we don’t have to worry about email inefficiency, and can send out hundreds of text messages to members at once.

After quickly realising the wider potential for text messaging in our work, we decided to enter kiwanja’s nGOmobile competition last December with plans for a new “Count to 5!” campaign. As one of four winners we received a laptop computer, US$1,000 in cash, a Falcom USB modem and two Nokia mobile phones. The equipment was used to raise awareness and levels of activism among young voters in advance of our October 2008 Presidential Elections. Digital Development approached the US Embassy in Azerbaijan and received financial support to run the campaign. According to Mrs. Konul Agayeva, our Executive Director:

The Embassy were very interested in “Count to 5!”, and the ability of FrontlineSMS to reach potential young voters in a short period of time. This method of voter activism was something of a “technological revolution” in our country and has proved itself highly effective in this and our wider civil society and democracy work. Imagine, you sit at your desk with a cup of tea and control your project, and at the same time receive great feedback to what you’re doing, and see considerable impact. I highly recommend that this software be adopted by NGOs around the world

FrontlineSMS is now well-established in our work, and more and more NGOs in the country are beginning to pay attention to our mobile activism campaigns. Keep an eye on the Digital Development website for further details on what we’re up to!

About Azerbaijan
Azerbaijan – officially the Republic of Azerbaijan – is a country in the Caucasus region. Located at the crossroads of Eastern Europe and Southwest Asia, it is bounded by the Caspian Sea to the east, Russia to the north, Georgia to the northwest, Armenia to the west, and Iran to the south. The Nakhichevan Autonomous Republic (an exclave of Azerbaijan) borders Armenia to the north and east, Iran to the south and west, and Turkey to the northwest. The Nagorno-Karabakh region in the country’s southwest declared itself independent from Azerbaijan by the Armenian separatists in 1991, but it is not recognized by any nation. The capital city is Baku

And the winners are…

Most of my ideas come on trains and buses. nGOmobile was no exception. The 1645 Kings Cross to Cambridge train was responsible this time around, after I’d spent the day getting ‘processed’ by the American Embassy in London. It only seems like yesterday that we launched the competition, and yet here we are, five months and over seventy entries later, with the four winners.

It’s been a fascinating exercise. We have projects from Kenya, Uganda, Mexico and Azerbaijan looking to work with local communities to promote the protection and sustainable use of environmental resources; another planning to launch an SMS-based service for rural communities allowing them to ask a range of water-based questions on topics such as sanitation, hygiene, water harvesting, and water technologies; one seeking to help rural Central American and Mexican communities solve problems of deforestation, poverty, malnutrition, unemployment and the marginalisation of women; and another seeking to help grassroots and politically excluded people understand their human and legal rights, and to engage them further in the political process.

nGOmobile is a text message-based competition aimed exclusively and unashamedly at grassroots non-profit organisations working for positive social and environmental change throughout the developing world. Non-profits were asked to send in proposals on how they sought to use mobile technology, with the top entries getting laptops, modems, phones, software and cash to enable them to implement the work.

It was tough turning down so many other amazing and worthy entries, and the hope among all the Judges is that we can scale this further and provide further prizes and opportunities when we re-run the competition in the coming months. Mobile World Congress has been a great platform to announce and profile the winners, and there is widespread interest in what nGOmobile is trying to achieve. For a project which only took five weeks and $20 to set up – I couldn’t get anyone to donate the URL – it’s a great example how it needn’t take months and cost thousands of dollars to get a project up and running. Rapid prototyping is a strong theme in all my work.

Last night I introduced the four winners to each other, and they’ve already started sharing their stories and experiences via email. In the next couple of weeks we will profile these projects in more detail on the competition website, and begin to plan ahead. It’s very early days, but the potential positive social and environmental impact of nGOmobile is there for all to see…