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…

Fuel, food and cellphone credit

According to a report yesterday in the New York Times on the continuing crisis in Kenya, “fuel, food and cellphone credit are in short supply”. Who would have thought, even just a couple of short years ago, that in a time of humanitarian crisis cellphone credit would be uttered in the same sentence as ‘essential’ fuel and food items?

Many people have long argued that communications, and access to information, ought to be basic human rights. Maybe their time is coming.

Consequences

Imagine, for one moment, that the recent Kenyan elections went peacefully. That voting went smoothly, results were counted on time and in an orderly fashion, and there was general calm. Then, following declaration of the winner, local NGOs make their own announcement – of widespread corruption, ballot-box stuffing, destroyed votes. Their proof? Thousands of text messages sent in from monitors, spread around the country, keeping a watchful eye on events. All hell breaks loose, and we see riots and widespread violence on an unimaginable scale.

This isn’t quite what happened, but it could have been.

My knowledge of Kenyan politics is limited – I’ve only been to the country once in early 2007- although I do have a number of politically active Kenyan friends. But despite my amateur status I, like everyone else, never expected this. Hundreds dead, a hundred thousand fleeing their homes, tribal violence and accusations of genocide. Years of progress in one of Africa’s most stable countries reversed in an instant, and no end in sight.

For a while there was interest in Kenya in repeating the use of my FrontlineSMS system, which helped monitor the elections in Nigeria last year. That election was relatively peaceful, despite widespread accusations of corruption. Although FrontlineSMS didn’t feature, the whole subject does raise some awkward questions. The very work that I do, despite being thousands of miles away from where it is usually applied, does have consequences. And very real ones at that.

I’ve been thinking more and more about this over the past few days. How would I feel, or anyone come to that, if they developed technology whose ultimate use lead to this level of violence and loss of life? This didn’t happen in Kenya, but it could have.

A few people have spoken to me about this over the past couple of days. Interestingly, while I was concentrating on the negative, they were thinking more positively. If something like FrontlineSMS had been used, they argued – and more reliable exit polls published as a result – wouldn’t that have helped reduce the ‘shock’ of the result, for the opposition at least? After all, much of the initial violence was sparked by disbelief at the result, where early polls had indicated a strong lead for the opposition candidate. Could something like FrontlineSMS have allowed results to be trickled out to the public more slowly, reality-checking anticipated results on both sides?

Election monitoring with mobile phones is still in its infancy, and there are a number of different schools of thought. Some organisations concentrate on equipping official monitors with the technology, while I believe more strongly in engaging citizens in the process. A mixture of the two is probably most likely the way forward – it doesn’t need to be one or the other. But what NMEM did in Nigeria was a breakthrough. According to White African:

“This type of election monitoring is ground breaking in Africa. I wouldn’t be surprised if it continued to be a case study for future monitoring efforts around the continent – it perfectly showcases how technology can be used to circumnavigate government and organizational inefficiencies by going directly to the people”

And the consequences of this kind of monitoring? Well, I remain convinced that mobile technology has a significant role to play in spreading democracy and improving the democratic process, and not just in developing countries. Indeed, the positive impact of mobile phones in this area – and many others – has been well documented. But with all things technology, we need to be aware of the negatives.

Even mobile phones, as great as they are, have some.