/ 14 October 2008

Waking up to the potential of mobile applications

Mobile applications and cellphones seem to be the flavour of the month. Voice is not the only game in town and developers, NGOs and companies are waking up to the potential of leveraging their service, idea, project or survey through cellphones.

Hundreds of NGO representatives, businessmen and software developers are hunkered down at the MobileActive08 conference in Johannesburg this week, thrashing out ideas and finding out what others are up to in the industry. Encouragingly, there’s been talk of collaborating on projects or sharing resources — why build something from scratch if it already exists?

Part of the buzz around cellphones and the power they have to bring about social changes is due to the pervasiveness of the medium and the greater affordability of handsets, calls and data transfer. Competition among providers has also helped to drive down costs, according to Katrin Verclas, an organiser of the conference.

MobileActive08 is a marketplace for ideas: software developers have come to tout their latest applications, many involving data collection that harnesses the near ubiquitous use of cellphones.

One such application, which could have perhaps been used during South Africa’s xenophobia crisis earlier this year, is Ushahidi — a crisis-mapping engine — which allows anyone to submit information through SMSs, email or the web.

“We are here in Nairobi, locked in the houses by police with guns. They have killed our 10 people,” runs one of the entries on the web form, submitted via SMS.

Ushahidi — which means “testimony” in Swahili — is an open-source platform that was built and deployed in Kenya during the violence around the elections at the beginning of the year. It’s a way of aggregating information from the public and is designed to be used as a tool in crisis response.

Users submit information about an event, such as a murder, looting, a death or a rape, and this is then displayed using a map and a timeline. The system will also then SMS back to users informing them of the incident in their area.

There are verification concerns, however, and the potential for abuse remains a cause for concern.

A number of other applications involve providing assistance to rural farmers. A farmer may seek information about his crop, or has a health-related question. He phones a number and leaves a message. Someone then listens to the message and inputs it into a database, and the answer is then sent back to the farmer.