Nimbus Blog, Social Change

Mobile technologies for social transformation – Part 2

Community Informatics is an emerging discipline which aims to use and study ICT in group settings especially for groups who are excluded from mainstream communication systems. Over the last decade the main research for Community Informatics has been via Living Labs. First adopted by the European Union at the Lisbon conference in 2000, Living Labs are seen as a way to encourage local regional growth and connect localities into modern technology and to encourage innovation and new ways of using that technology.

The JamiiX software, which we will be launching in the UK on the 5th October, was developed in such a project. The reconstructed Living Lab (Rlabs) grew out of a collaboration between Cape Peninsula University of Technology, Impact Direct Ministries and the Bridgetown Civic Organisation.

The Rlabs Case study

There is a recognised problem with drink and drug abuse in South Africa. In socially deprived areas immediate help for drug users and their families is a problem. In Cape Town, Impact Direct Ministries (IDM) and RLabs provide a drug advisory service using mobile phone technology. It is staffed by trained volunteers and is available to drug users, as well as their friends and families.

The importance of family and community care in the case of drug users

The Community Intervention Centre in Cape Town, South Africa, has called drug addiction the family illness. In fact, it has been noted that “relatives suffer bio-psycho-social stresses as a result of living in a drug user’s environment which may impact on physical and mental well-being and lead to the development of problems both for themselves and other family members”.

Research supported by WHO found that poverty and single parenting alone were not the strongest factors involved in adolescent negative behaviours, it was “differential exposure to stress and association with deviant peers”. Thus, individual therapy by itself is not sufficient to change behaviour; a community of contacts, which includes family members, needs to be formed. This method is known as co­operative counselling. The researcher’s conclusion was that “[t]here is a growing evidence base for behavioural, community reinforcement, family and social network approaches to involving relatives as adjuncts to substance misuse interventions; and for the effectiveness of interventions for relatives in their own right”

The high labour costs of co-operative counselling mean that it has rarely been available to many families in countries where health care is expensive.

Access to substance abuse counselling services

Services that families can access in times of crisis and with ease are a feature of life-changing behaviour. Access to counselling via mainstream services may historically be available in two ways:

  • Firstly, by booking an appointment with a counsellor means that help is available on an individual basis. Given that face-to-face counselling takes place with both parties being at a certain geographic location, the cost can include transport, time taken for travelling and the cost of the counselling session itself. According to Cape Town Drug Counselling Centre (CTDCC), the cost of counselling starts at R185 per session, with some facilities requiring a minimum of six sessions. As drug abuse is a problem in many lower-income groups in South Africa, the cost may make this service non-viable.
  • Secondly, by using a Helpline, which is available for discussion with one person on a 24-hourly basis. The advantages of Helplines are that they are confidential, do not require an appointment and are easier to access. However, in very poor communities, the cost of a call to a Helpline may still be prohibitive. Also, following the research that co-operative counselling is a more effective model for drug abuse, a single call may not lead to long-term change.

Drug Advice Support Technology

In Developing countries more people are connected by mobile phones than landline telephones. The technology that RLabs piloted, now known as JamiiX, offers a support and advice service via mobile instant messaging (MIM). Most people will access JamiiX using a mobile instant message application called Mxit. The MIM application allows instant online text and data exchange between Mxit users, as well as with Windows Live Messenger, Twitter, and Facebook on their mobile devices. The application uses Java software and can be installed and run on most GPRS/3G enabled mobile phones at no cost. However, any data sent is billed by the local service provider. The cost of data is 1 cent per message in comparison with SMS rates between 35 and 80 cents, and this inexpensive method of communication has attracted 20 million users in South Africa, mainly between the ages of 12 and 25 (Mxit Lifestyle, 2009).

JamiiX offers a wider portal of entrance at the point of need, by the creation of innovative, distributed technology that facilitates communal messaging support. DAS gives one counsellor access to multiple conversations that are managed by the system. The JamiiX system can therefore be classified as a multiple counselling platform, as the client or family can access the advice and help, independent of location.

The uniqueness of the JamiiX system is that it was developed by a local community-based organisation, IDM, in collaboration with community members and RLabs. Using the Living Labs methodology to develop and implement the system, it allowed for a more community-driven methodology that offered systems support during the DAS pilot project.

Evaluation of the DAS pilot project

  • Pilot project showed that DAS had 9193 subscribers.
  • Of these, 1211 are relatives of drug users. The sisters of drug users were the most frequent active subscribers, followed by other members of the nuclear family. As the service is primarily aimed at drug users, the involvement of the family has added another dimension to the service.
  • The number of subscribers seeking offline support or counselling after using the service during the pilot project was 403. These where drug users that would probably not have sought out help had they not first been able to build a rapport with a counsellor.
  • Advisors have the capacity to help more people (n = 27) in a two-hour session than advisors at Helplines (n = 4).
  • The DAS system aggregates the conversations for the advisors, allowing them to respond to the requests more easily and quickly.
  • When an advisor does not have the necessary experience or skills to deal with a case, it can easily be transferred to someone with the necessary skills.
  • The advisor receiving the reassigned conversation can view previous conversations with the client, so questions need not be duplicated.
  • The advisor can refer a person in need to any other organisation, and maintain a help directory of available services.
  • The service proved to be particularly useful for families of drug users, and they were offered family sessions and help if required (see Figure 2 below)

DAS also proved to be a cheaper service, as there was no need for purpose-built or rented premises, there was a decrease in communication costs to the individual and the organisation, and there was a reduction in staff costs as clients passed through the system at a faster rate.

In gangsterism ‘respect’ is paramount and any sign of weakness will be quickly noticed. Therefore, the discreet and confidential nature of mobile counselling cannot be underestimated as a means to reach difficult groups. DAS face-2-face counselling has a success rate of ex-users remaining clean over 70%, compared to government run schemes that experience results in the 20%-30% range. This success is partly attributable to the initial relationships that where built during the period of mobile counselling, ensuring that firm foundations of trust were established even before face-2-face sessions commenced.

Find out more about the Rlabs project on their blog @ In my next blog I will talk more about the role of behavioural change ideas to assist in building a sustainable individual and social transformation.

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