Nimbus Blog, Social Change

Mobile technologies for social transformation – Part 1

It’s nearly a year now since I started my journey into mobile technologies for social transformation. I have found it both fascinating and frustrating. What I find incredible is the mind boggling amount of money which is invested in ICT for development projects around the world each year. The World Bank group invest around US$800 million a year in specific loans and guarantees for ICT use and development. In addition, a further US$1.5 billion a year is spent on projects with ICT components in development and USAID is suggested to spend something like a further US$100 million. In the mobile phone sector, according to GSMA, around US$10 billion per year is spent in Africa alone improving ICT infrastructure and networks.

I said it’s also been a frustrating journey over the last year. It seems society in general and the NGO/development community in particular have been slow to see the mass of possibilities in applying technologies to social transformation. Of course, there is practical deployment of ICT in Development and more specifically some great innovative mobile phone technologies, such as frontline SMS and Ushahidi. These open source solutions are being used widely in pilot projects to gather data and to speed up the relay of information. However, technology can facilitate so much more and must be seen as a catalyst for social change. What’s been most fascinating for me to explore is how mobile technology can be a facilitator in lasting behavioural change.

Heather Cole-Lewis and Tracy Kershaw produced a very interesting report entitled “Text messaging as a tool for behavioural change in disease prevention and management”. They looked across a wide section of research studies in western healthcare, where text messages had been used for patient reminders and, specifically with smokers, where patients were linked to a “quit buddy”. This has improved adherence dramatically, in some studies achieving 100%. Another study, which was presented at this year’s World HIV AIDS conference in Vienna, looked at mobile phone delivered counselling for HIV behavioural interventions. The study found that regular coaching and mentoring conversations significantly improved behaviours. Enhanced condom use was observed over an 18 month period together with a reduction in the frequency of sex while drinking or using drugs, and a resultant reduction in new Chlamydial infections.

It has become clear to me that just as peer pressure and social influence can draw young and vulnerable people into a downward spiral of negative behaviour and a sense of hopelessness, so too can peer mentoring and positive social influence help people to turn their lives around. Nowhere has this been better demonstrated than through the Rlabs project in Cape Town, South Africa. This is the best case study to date which brings together peer mentoring and mobile technologies for behavioural change and does so with great effect.

You can get a flavour of what they have been up to on their blog @ In my next blog I will talk more about Rlabs’ incredible journey and their plans for global expansion.

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