Wireless Technology for Social Change: Trends in NGO Mobile Use

Mobile Technology for Social Change

Adele Waugaman from the United Nations Foundation sent me a fascinating new report into how mobiles are changing the way in which we advocate for political change, prevent outbreaks of communal violence, deliver food aid, help save forests, mediate effectively in human animal conflicts and other uses.

The report is pretty lucid and clear and there’s not much to say about it save to highly recommend that you read it if you are interested in or working on mobiles and their potential for economic, social and political betterment. I wouldn’t expect anything less from Katrin Verclas, who is a co-author of the report. 

What’s particularly nice about the report is the diversity of case studies. It may be the work I do leading to self-selection, because I generally only ever read about the use and potential of mobiles in peacebuilding, human rights protection and strengthening, conflict mitigation and humanitarian aid. This report has all of that but so much more – it fascinating for example to read about how mobiles helped in the conservation of trees in Argentina.

I guess one criticism of this report is that at the end of the day, governments will clamp down on all communications if they are embarrassed by it. There are many ways of doing this, not all as blatant as Myanmar last year. Governments often use the same ICTs that activists use to control and curtail political and social activism. Disinformation and misinformation campaigns using ICTs driven by the State that name and shame political activists as terrorists and curtail their communications have more an impact today, in a world where we are so dependent on electronic communications, than ever before. Private enterprise is often supinely pliant in the face of State repression. And when mobile telephony is arbitrarily shut down, the affected areas become black holes and potentially very dangerous for those who lives depend on being contactable.

So while mobile advocacy and activism is growing, is also behooves mobile activists to think of other complementary media to use if and when Government’s (or other powerful groups) shut down their primary communications networks. Over reliance on and blind faith in any one technology can, if suddenly bereft of it, lead to highly undesirably outcomes.

Redundancy and strategic complementarity cannot be emphasised enough.

Wimax in Africa

WiMax and other wireless, large footprint, broadband internet access technologies interest me for one very simple reason.


Telecoms infrastructure (towers, switches, cables, microwave and transmission equipment) are about the first things to be attacked, pilfered or sabotaged in areas of violent conflict. Broadband internet and web access through ether offers communities living in the throes of violence a chance, through PC’s, mobile devices and other wireless capable devices to access and more importantly, contribute content to the internet and web.

Now an ITU standard, WiMax isn’t the only large footprint broadband communication technology out there, but it’s certainly got a boost in terms of UN backing. Intel, which lobbied hard for this, has lost no time in touting the technology’s potential to connect millions across Africa (that favourite destination of  corporate America’s social conscience):

Africa needs to embrace wireless broadband as a potential solution to the digital divide, the chairman of Intel Craig Barrett has said. It’s cheaper, easier and more efficient to communicate wirelessly,” he told the BBC News website. Less than 1% of Africans have access to broadband and only 4% use the net. The International Telecommunications Union has predicted that the Intel-backed Wimax system could become the dominant mobile standard in Africa. The continent’s geography and political barriers have made it difficult to roll out wired broadband.

Read the article in full on the BBC website here.

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