Text messages from your Web Working Future

If you’d like to see a bit of your future as a mobile worker, you could do much worse than a quick read of a new report just out with a title that doesn’t do it justice: Wireless Technology for Social Change: Trends in NGO Mobile Use (PDF).

The report, a joint effort by the United Nations Foundation and The Vodafone Group Foundation, cites example after example of how the most ubiquitous electronic device on the planet – the mobile phone – is changing your future.

Non governmental organizations across the planet are tapping mobile technology to do things that may come as a surprise to you or your company, and they are doing it for pennies on the dollar compared to past efforts. Whether it’s monitoring elections in Kenya, or air pollution in Ghana, mobile phones are reshaping what non-profit organizations can and will do.

Sex, toys, fish and cows

Txt “1” if ur condom broke will get your attention, at least that’s what the San Francisco Public Health Department hopes with its text message service for teens, SexInfoSF.org. With infection rates for sexually transmitted diseases ratcheting up and with 85% of San Franciscans between the ages of 12 and 17 owning a mobile phone the service makes sense, especially since it’s cheap ($2,500 a month).

“We wanted to design a program that would reach young people with the technology they use most often,” said Jacqueline McCright, community-based STD services manager at the Department of Public Health. Similar programs will probably launch this year in Washington, D.C. and Toronto, Canada.

Text message infolines aren’t just for teens; it can also be for parents worried about toxic chemicals in toys. HealthyToys.org can respond to your SMS query with the testing results of over 1,200 toys sold in America, or a list of toys that have been tested and found to not contain unhealthy levels of everything from lead and mercury to arsenic to PVC.

Nor are infolines particularly limited to developed countries; in fact, the report states with 3.5 billion cell phones in use worldwide and broadband connectivity still a long way off for most people, mobile-driven services are a cheap and technology easy way to get the word out. An example can be found in South Africa where a woman standing at the fish counter of her local supermarket can send an SMS and find out if the fish she’s considering buying is legally and sustainably harvested to “the Craigslist of Bangladesh,” CellBazaar. This is where among other things, a farmer can shop for a cow by age, location and the number of teeth on their mobile..then with another SMS he can be connected directly with a seller.

Either end of a disaster

Where were you at 5:04 PM October 17, 1989? I was in our flat in San Francisco being bounced off the walls that suddenly were moving and cracking during the Loma Prieta earthquake. During that pre-mobile phone time in a disaster phone service was intermittent at best. Crazy rumors and wild fears were rampant. As this report points out…when the next disaster hits, mobile technology is going to be first means of communication. Not just for victims and loved ones, but for relief efforts as a whole.

Telecoms Without Borders, like other “without borders” humanitarian organizations, goes where the disaster has occurred. This time equipped with satellite phones, mobile phones and routers instead of medical supplies or food. In 2006 and 2007, the organization responded to 17 emergency situations from Peru to the Democratic Republic of Congo, creating temporary telecommunication centers to help reunite families and speed relief efforts.

There’s a quotation attributed to science fiction author William Gibson: “The future is already here – it is just unevenly distributed”. It’s looking more and more like that future is going to be arriving one SMS at a time.