Tag Archives: SMS

Mobile in East Africa

An interesting study on mobile applications in East Africa. It looks at whats limiting applications fully taking off, with conclusions aimed at recommendations for donors. Mobile Active notes:

While mobile phones are the main channel for information in East Africa, with mobile penetration covering over 40% of the population, sustainable, scalable mobile services for social and economic development are limited. The report is supported by secondary data, statistics, and field work carried out in Kenya, Rwanda and Tanzania, along with numerous interviews, meetings and discussions with key stakeholders in EastAfrica. Major trends in mobile usage, barriers for increased use of m-applications, as well as opportunities for scaling are discussed.

Perhaps one of the most interesting innovations it reveals is how the Kenyan M-PESA money sending service M-PESA is being used to send money (in the form of airtime credit) between Kenya and Uganda. A Kenyan Safaricom sim card automatically roams on the Ugandan UTL network, allowing the transfer of credit between the two. Mr Michael Joseph, the Safaricom Chief Executive Officer, later commented the operation: “M-Pesa does not officially operate there [in Uganda]. We are investigating. It’s quite strange” (Telecom Africa 2009).

What does this mean for future remittance activities? Will expanding roaming agreements mean migrant workers can send home remittances cheaper than Western Union, and more directly than the Hawala network?

They also outline examples of mobiles for governance (without defining what they mean by governance). The report outlines aspirational examples of what mobiles could do to strengthen accountability, transparency (presumably with the aim of increasing more responsive political system). It goes on to give examples of how mobiles have supported service delivery such as water, electricity and basic health services.

For me, good governance is politicians and civil servants responding the needs and demands of their electorate. Driving this has to be the political will amongst both to recognise that their constituents needs come first – and not serving their political masters further up the chain as is so often the case.

The report is available here (pdf).


Echoes in the Public Sphere

The new ‘social’ communication of facebook, twitter and SMS social networks have been heralded as the new dawn of a global public, a market square of ideas in which all could participate. To listen to some, it seems to promise all the failed efforts of the 70’s to bring about ‘New World Information and Communication Order’ in which the voices of the unheard could speak with the many. But is this really true?

When Marshall McLuhan coined the term the ‘global village’ he imagine a world where everyone communicated, with everyone. Clay Shirky’s book ‘Here Comes Everyone‘ updates that vision for the modern internet age, painting a picture of global collaboration, protest (eg against the Catholic Church) and coordination. Indeed, in his second book Cognitive Surplus he suggests that the global attention of the always connected could yield a trillion hours of productive engagement.

But recent trends suggest that while increasing numbers may be connecting, this isnt quite the great global conversation we might imagined, nor is it leading to the revolution we might have imagined. Indeed, many of the examples of new media ‘revolutions’ are not all that they seem:

  • From Foreign Policy Magazine: But it is time to get Twitter’s role in the events in Iran right. Simply put: There was no Twitter Revolution inside Iran. As Mehdi Yahyanejad, the manager of “Balatarin,” one of the Internet’s most popular Farsi-language websites, told theWashington Post last June, Twitter’s impact inside Iran is nil. “Here [in the United States], there is lots of buzz,” he said. “But once you look, you see most of it are Americans tweeting among themselves.”
  • From International Herald Tribune: My impression is that these new media today play a role identical to that played by Al Jazeera satellite television when it first appeared in the mid-1990s — they provide important new means by which ordinary citizens can both receive information and express their views, regardless of government controls on both, but in terms of their impact they seem more like a stress reliever than a mechanism for political change. We must face the fact that all the new media and hundreds of thousands of young bloggers from Morocco to Iran have not triggered a single significant or lasting change in Arab or Iranian political culture. Not a single one. Zero.

Clearly, there are many examples – from the Phillipines, Kenya, and of course Barack Obama’s election – where cellphones have been used to unite people with similar views in ways previously unimaginable. But thats the point. These are people who already care about corruption. In fact, though everybody may be connecting, we’re actually having the same conversation, only magnified. Our views arent being challenged and perspectives only reinforced. Ethan Zuckerman’s excellent TED talk demonstrates how narrow our world view is, pointing to arresting graphics of global TV content – and how its dominated by coverage of the US, a little of the UK and the broader ‘Western world’. Other continents are mere mentions, usually only when wars are fought. And the voices of the unheard are heard by only a very very few. Its worth watching in full:

This means that our world view, and perspectives on our global village, remain limited. Cass Sunstein, co-author of Nudge and Obama’s internet czar, writes in his book On Rumours how the dominance on the internet of social networking and blogging creates what he terms ‘ an echo chamber’ of ideas, where prejudices are exacerbated, to the extent, he argues in the Telegraph, that ‘if you want to be an extremist, hang out with people you already agree with’.

The point is that for most, the new media isnt bringing about a more vibrant public sphere. A healthy public sphere, as outlined by German philosopher Jurgen Habermas, is a free market place of ideas to be freely debated by people prepared to change their point of view. In this public sphere extreme perspectives would be perceived for what they are – extreme and certainly not the norm.

Instead our ‘imagined community‘ shaped by television, the internet and SMS serves up what we choose, and in the main we tend to choose information that confirms what we already thought, and reinforces our prejudices through connecting us to people who share the same prejudices. The new public sphere seems increasinly not a market place of ideas but a series of ghetto’s in which reveberating opinions are reinforced, driving out the possibility of change.

Our task must be, as Zuckerman outlines in his talk and the Global Voices initiative, to bring the voices of the unheard into ghetto’s and help the echoes reverberate in new spheres.

SMS Newspapers

MobileActive has a good piece on  how the Namibian, an independent newspaper with 27,000 sales a day, launched SMS pages – pages in the newspaper dedicated to printing submitted messages.

MobileActive notes that the SMS program originally started as a way for readers to respond to a small number of articles – the editors placed a mobile phone logo beneath certain stories in the paper and invited readers to text in their responses to it. The program grew so popular that the paper now dedicates two pages of the paper three times a week and a section of their website to publishing SMS responses. The messages cover everything from direct responses to articles to more general quality-of-life comments.

Carmen Honey, sub-editor for the Namibian sums up the goal of the SMS Pages as: “To give as many readers as possible, whoever and wherever they are, a chance to take part in the democratic process by sharing their views at the lowest possible cost.”

As mobile phone penetration expands, traditional media will increasingly find convergence opportunities with new media. Radio stations running call-in programmes, newspapers printing SMS messages. What other examples of convergence will emerge?

Twitter returns to SMS

Twitter aims to become one of the largest volume SMS programmes in the world. As Twitter expanded, the number of SMS became too expensive to continue offering as a free service. It currently processes close to a billion SMS based tweets per month.

But Twitter aims to reach beyond this with the acquisition of cloudhopper that according to Twitter’s blog provides a ‘messaging infrastructure company that enables Twitter to connect directly to mobile carrier networks in countries all over the planet’.

What I find interesting about this is that it suggests that Twitter has plans, and increasingly the capacity to offer its service where smartphone and internet access is limited, relying only on SMS. This massively increases its potential in the developing world.

Pakistan’s TV, Facebook and cellphone Wars

The last few months have been tumultous for for TV, websites and cellphones in Pakistan.

First, is Hamid Mir Taliban a supporter or not?

The Guardian’s Declan Walsh and Pakistan media reports were reporting last week with the news that Hamid Mir, host of Geo TV’spopular show Capital Talk, was taped phone telling the kidnappers of Khalid Khwaja, a former intelligence officer, to continue holding and interrogating him.

Although Mir told the Guardian “They took my voice, sampled it and manufactured this conspiracy against me”, Pakistani journalists said it sounded real and urged a fuller investigation.

Ayesha Siddiqa (of the excellent account of the Pakistan Army’s dominance of Pakistan industry Military Inc) has a good overview and background to the story here.

Its particularly interesting because Geo TV has been one of Pakistan’s success stories with the most popular, and professional news gathering. It produced an anti-extremism film Khuda Ka Liye, and recently launched one of the most high profile Pakistan – India dialogue projects – Amaan Ki Aasha. Geo is also  regularly used by various foreign governments to get their message to the people of Pakistan. Geo also re-broadcasts Voice of America programmes.

Will the truth of charges against Mir come out? Will they, should they, influence decisions to use Geo as a tool to communicate with the people of Pakistan?

Secondly, both Facebook and Youtube were banned in Pakistan by the government seeking to prevent access to blasphemous images of the prophet Muhammad (pbuh). Facebook was banned (and then unbanned) for hosting the Facebook group calling for drawings of Muhammad (pbuh). A day later Youtube was banned for containing depictions of Muhammad (pbuh). People also reported restrictions on Flickr, Wikipedia and Blackberry use.

Finally, Assemblies Khyber Pakhtunkwa (nee North Western Frontier Province) and the Punjab have called for a ban on cellphones contracts that allow free SMS and late night calls in order to ‘protect the younger generation from moral degradation’ (Ive argued elsewhere that these packages do support a cellphone fuelled sexual revolution in a country where communication between genders is highly regulated). Although these calls are unlikely to enter law, they clearly reflect high levels of concern.

Cellphone Tools (1) – Freedom Phone


Another cellphone tool just released today. Freedom Fone’s has its origins in Zimbabwe, and is developed by The Kubatana Trust. The ‘elevator pitch’ is:

Freedom Fone is innovative telephony software, which takes the fastest growing tool for round-the-clock personal access to information – the mobile phone – and marries it with audio voice menus and SMS.  It provides a new far-reaching communication medium – for information activists, service organisations and NGO’s – to deliver vital information on demand, to communities who need it most.

Key Features:

  • Freedom Fone is free open source software.
  • The telephony based applications – audio voice menus, voice messages, SMS messages and SMS polls – are easy to manage via a user-friendly, browser based interface.
  • Delivering information with audio overcomes barriers associated with literacy and language and enables users to move past the 160 character limitation of an SMS.
  • Freedom Fone has been designed to connect to GSM (mobile) networks and run using low cost and low powered equipment.
  • No internet is required for the users and callers alike.
  • There are no geographical or community size limitations to implementing Freedom Fone.
  • The leave-a-message functionality opens the door to two-way communication, which means Freedom Fone can be used as a platform for citizen journalism.

Particularly interesting is its integration of voice with SMS – overcoming the literacy barrier. Ill be doing a few more posts on cellphone tools, looking at Frontline SMS, Ushahidi and others to compare features and utility.

English lessons through mobiles

In Bangladesh, the BBC World Service Trust is delivering English language lessons through SMS:

BBC Janala (‘Window’) has turned the mobile phone into a low-cost education device by offering hundreds of 3 minute audio lessons and SMS quizzes through people’s handsets. By simply dialling 3000, almost anyone can learn with new classes each day ranging from: ‘Essential English’ for beginners, to ‘How to tell a story’ for those more advanced.

With 39% of callers returning to the service, BBC Janala has outperformed the majority of other value added mobile products in Bangladesh which typically achieve a 5% return of customers.  The beginner’s content is experiencing a 69% repeat rate. To date 1,030,583 lessons have been accessed, with users engaging with Janala’s interactive services – including audio quizzes, English story recording and direct feedback – an additional 130,000 times.

In insecure environments, such tools offer useful ways to reach out to audiences and provide useful services directly. This could work in Afghanistan, in Somalia, Sudan and so on.