Pocket power: how mobile tech is dialing up social change around the world

It was at Net Change Week 2010 that I was truly converted. During Professor Iqbal Quadir’s presentation, he spoke of the democratizing potential of a device we in Canada often take for granted―the mobile phone. Bangladeshi-born, Professor Quadir knows how important it is to provide communications capability to millions of people.

Traditional communication technology tends to service cities first, and, generally only extend to rural environments when infrastructure is cost-effective. This has meant that for many of the world’s poorest communities, the benefits of communications technology have been inaccessible. The development of mobile technology has allowed millions of people access to communications capability for the first time. As Professor Quadir articulates, “Concentration of resources is connected to stagnation and social and economic degradation. Dispersion is connected to progress.” Communications = information = decision-making capacity = democracy.

During the past five years or so, people working for economic and social progress have taken that lesson much further. The convergence of those working for social change and those working on technology solutions has enabled some exciting transformations.

At the bleeding edge of this progress is Ushahidi: a non-profit tech company that specializes in developing free and open source software for information collectionvisualization and interactive mapping. “Ushahidi” means “testimony” in Swahili, and the website was initially developed to map reports of violence in Kenya after the post-election fallout at the beginning of 2008. Since then, more than 45,000 users have accessed the technology.


With this experience behind them, developers at Ushahidi began working on new applications that could collect information and map anything ranging from unsafe conditions following the earthquake in Haiti to medical services following the tsunami in Japan to tools on how to navigate around flood zones in Brisbane, Australia. All this information can be provided through their CrowdMap platform, which anyone with a cellphone can download in two minutes.

A new network called Crisis Mappers leverages the Ushahidi platform. Crisis Mappers uses mobile and web-based applications; participatory maps and crowdsourced event data; aerial and satellite imagery; geospatial platforms; visual analytics; and computational and statistical models to power effective early warnings to trigger rapid response to complex humanitarian emergencies. On the Net Change Week 2011 site, you can see co-founder of the International Crisis Mappers Network, Jen Ziemke, speak during our SMS4SOS event. Crisis Mappers has been mobilized during events like the Libyan revolution and other democracy movements across North Africa.

While it may seem that this technology is only applicable to disaster zones or developing countries, the reality is is that these same technologies are being used here in Canada. Worth noting is the YWCA Siren app that was presented as a case study during Net Change Week last year. The Safety Siren is available in both English and French and offers users a unique utility siren which can be activated by either pressing the safety button or by shaking an iPod or iTouch. The app also offers Canadian health and safety information geared toward young women.

Broadening this particular application, the team at Guardly has developed a mobile personal safety system designed to help you connect to your trusted safety network during an emergency.

Another locally developed app is M2Men, led by a team at Toronto Public Health. M2Men is a free iPhone application and text-messaging service that helps men access a wide range of information about sexual health and locate health resources in Toronto.

These technological developments are as crucial as they are diverse in their function. Never before have people been able to access information so quickly. Never before have people been able to provide tech know-how in so many meaningful ways. This convergence is not just exciting. It is changing the world in real time.