Out of Thin Air: Text Messaging for Change at Pop!Tech

by Adele Waugaman

Abundance and scarcity — this dichotomy is increasingly framing the most important global challenges of the day, particularly in the midst of the ongoing global financial crisis. So, it was with great interest that I attended the Pop!Tech conference last week bringing technology to bear on that theme.

Pop!Tech was packed with mobile innovators with cool projects. For instance, Erik Hersman is working on Ushahidi.com, a project using “crowd-sourced” data to populate maps of violent outbreaks in volatile environments. Ushahidi was recently used in Kenya during the post-election violence. And Ken Banks presented FrontlineSMS, which provides free software that can be downloaded from the web to harness the power of text messaging to power work of NGOs and humanitarian groups. Already FrontlineSMS has been used by UNDP in Aceh as part of the post-tsunami reconstruction efforts and in Malawi to power a healthcare network, among other projects.
.Given my work with the United Nations Foundation & Vodafone Foundation Technology Partnership and our focus on using mobile technology to increase access to health information in the developing world, the Pop!Tech Accelerator Initiative using mobile phones to address South Africa’s HIV/AIDS epidemic also caught my attention.

A compelling case of the often harsh juxtaposition between abundance and scarcity can be found in South Africa–a country of 48 million people, of which some 1,000 die each day from HIV/AIDS related complications. The magnitude of the HIV/AIDS crisis is amplified by the relative scarcity of trained nurses. And their jobs are made more difficult by the fact that currently only 5% of South Africans get tested, and, of those, many come to health clinics only once the disease has progressed to advanced stages.

Enter Project Masiuleke. “Project M,” as it’s called, is designed to increase the number of South Africans who get tested and receive the country’s free antiretroviral (AVR) treatment, all through the touch of a button–in this case, on a mobile phone. 90% of South Africans today have access to a cell phone.

Using text messaging, Project M alerts South Africans to available services, like free testing and counseling services. Project M aims to keeps its constituents engaged through a series of steps from awareness-raising to home testing, counseling, and treatment reminders for those who report they’ve tested positive.

In South Africa and across the developing world, the rapid expansion of mobile phone usage means that in facing resource constraints like access to healthcare, innovative uses of mobile technology can play a significant role in bridging that gap. At Pop!Tech, it was clear that the innovators are ready to do so. The next step is multi-sector and multi-national cooperation to help further drive and expand mobile innovation for social change.