Saturday, August 04, 2007

View from the front row

One of the best things about being a consultant, freelancer, wanderer or independent (choose whichever title you think best fits) is that I'm not tied to any one cause, NGO, company, community or website. Since I don't actually work for any of them I can openly communicate, engage and contribute to many sites in many different areas and in many different ways. I quite like this. It helps promote my whole ethos of shared learning, and means that information and knowledge I pick up from one can often be equally shared with another. Sometimes not being paid can have its advantages (although I do, occasionally, take on temporary consultancy work with some of them).

Right now, in the "mobile for good" space, we're in the middle of very interesting times. We're also, perhaps, at a crossroads. And the role that I've managed to carve out for myself - intentional or not - means that I consistently find myself at the centre of many of the current - and newer - initiatives. Take, for example, mobile communities and mobile portals (call them what you like). In recent months we've seen the launch, and re-launch, of numerous sites. Indeed, one of my FrontlineSMS-related plans involved the creation of one. I've since had a major re-think. Building a truly vibrant website around the social and environmental use of mobile is never going to be easy. I would argue that no-one has yet managed to crack it (indeed, building truly active communities around anything can be a real challenge).

Right now I have a little experiment going on through Facebook. The Social Mobile Group is an attempt to bring people together who share an interest in mobile, from developers through to practitioners, bloggers, researchers, academics, writers and the general public. Since the Facebook structure was already present, it took 10 minutes to create the group, and it now stands at around 325 members, an increase of 300 in the last month. I'm not sure where it's going, but it slowly seems to be taking shape and it requires the minimum of effort.

There are, of course, other sites out there acting as 'mobile information' points. Even the site has an element of this with the Downloads section, Mobile Database and Mobile Gallery. Other sites include a mix of old and new, and it will be very interesting to see how they evolve over time, and how many cross over and blend into others. During my train journey back from the US Embassy yesterday, I began to note down the number of sites I've either become involved in, or provided input into, or spoken to people about, in the mobile space. This is what I came up with:

Following a meeting of African activist organisations in Nairobi earlier this year (each either using mobile, or with an interest in using mobile, in their work), Fahamu plan to create a Pan-African Mobile Network to encourage the sharing of information between activist organisations working in this field. This is due for launch sometime in 2007

W3C Mobile Web Initiative
Following on from the Bangalore workshop (December 2006), the W3C Mobile Web in Developing Countries initiative aims to create a Wiki containing information specific to the use of mobile in developing countries, and how the organisation should go about promoting access to the internet in developing regions via mobile phones

The MobileActive site was one of the earliest attempts to create a community of mobile activists. It provides information on how to go about developing mobile campaigns, and has produced a number of useful Strategy Guides on the subject. MobileActive has undergone a couple of re-launches in the past year or so

A recent Vodafone/Nokia-supported initiative, ShareIdeas is an online community and Wiki for sharing ideas on how to use mobile communications for social and environmental benefit. Organisations which have used mobile effectively in their work are encouraged to submit their case studies to the site, and to share their experiences with other non-profit organisations

Mobile Advocacy Toolkit
Following on from their successful NGO-in-a-Box solutions, Tactical Tech are in the process of developing a Mobile Advocacy Toolkit and Wiki, designed to help non-profits interested in making use of mobile in their work. The Toolkit will provide a range of open source tools, and the Wiki information on how to go about using the tools, and how other NGOs have utilised the technology in their work

The Social Mobile Group
The Social Mobile Group is an attempt to harness the power of the Facebook community to create a network of developers, practitioners, bloggers, researchers, academics, writers and the general public all interested in the use of mobile for social and environmental benefit. Although relatively new, the Group already boasts a membership in excess of 325 people

Although many of these sites - and others like them not listed here - have different audiences, different approaches and different objectives, the one thing that binds them together is their shared interest in the social revolution being brought about by mobile technology, particularly in the developing world. Charles Darwin's work on natural selection equally applies to this virtual world - some of these sites will survive in their current form, others will evolve (some through choice, some through necessity) and others will step aside for new ones to take their place.

Those able to reach critical mass, engage their communities sufficiently, create a vibrant buzz, give people the information they need in the form they need it and figure out a viable financial sustainability model will have the best chances of success. None of this is ever easy.


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