Sure, mobile phones hold the promise to save the world’s poor and downtrodden. Grassroots organizations around the world are using the devices for everything from election monitoring, to reporting gender-based violence, to creating mobile payment “layaway” systems to help farmers buy new tools. And in parts of the world where few people have Internet connections, or even computers, mobile phones are leap-frogging the laptop as the connection medium of choice.
But building such applications requires know-how and technical expertise. Enter Katrin Verclas, who five years ago set up MobileActive.org as a hub for people around the world who are building tools for mobile phones that make a difference.
MobileActive doesn’t build applications itself. It’s both an online and offline meeting place for people working in this space. For example, it can link someone in India working on a project to help slum dwellers find job opportunities through SMS messages with someone working on a similar project in another part of the world. “People who work with mobile technology in this social-change world have huge hearts [and] are really smart,” Verclas says. “As a result, this amazing community has formed of people being amazingly willing to share their successes, as well as failures, so there’s a lot of creative progress.”
MobileActive’s interest in what doesn’t work, as much as what does, is one of its innovations. Last year it hosted a “FAILFaire,” where NGOs gathered to talk about projects that had run aground. With organizations speaking openly about what went wrong, and not sweeping their disasters under the rug, the idea was that they could collectively move forward faster and ultimately have greater impact.
Verclas got the idea for MobileActive while working as the executive director of NTEN, a professional association of non-profit-based IT people. Before that, she spent six years as a program officer at the Proteus Fund, where she focused on the use of technology in civic and democratic participation and in government transparency. Her work has been recognized with both a Knight News Challenge grant and a TED fellowship.
MobileActive says 2010 was a tipping point–a year in which mainstream organizations finally grasped the power of mobile phones. But the need for tools remains urgent, Verclas says, and the potential is huge. “Mobile technology, because it is so ubiquitous, is having an impact that is as significant as the invention of the alphabet.”