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Mobile Networks and Cloud-Hosted Services

Together they can revolutionize aid to the developing world.

Two technologies are revolutionizing service delivery for social-mission organizations, enabling them to expand their reach to more people, in more places than ever.

We live in a time of global revolution: a revolution enabled by technology and, as with all revolutions, driven by people. It’s not a socio-political revolution like the Arab Spring or the Occupy/99% movement; though those movements have been substantially enabled by technology.

This revolution is more mundane, yet deeply transformational. It is driven by two key technologies: Mobile Networks and Cloud-Hosted Services.

These two technologies give organizations — governments, giant international Non- Governmental Organizations (NGOs), social enterprise entrepreneurs, community organizations, and even individuals — the ability to:

  1. Communicate readily with field staff, volunteers, and the beneficiaries of their services, however remote
  2. Scale their services to national and global levels.

This technology-enabled ability to “talk to everyone, everywhere, without a ton of technical expertise, and for not a lot of cash” is literally changing everything for people who live and work where there is little of the big infrastructure (power, wire-line phones, wired-Internet, highways, plumbing of the “developed” world.

(Photo credit: Jorge Just, UNICEF)

Paper and the Bad Old Days (they’re still here)

Much of the world runs on paper. Paper doesn’t need power. It doesn’t need software security upgrades. It’s available everywhere. But it’s a terrible way to collect and analyze the data you need to run your organization.

In 2008, as CTO of Inveneo I worked on a project with the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Sierra Leone Ministry of Health and Sanitation (MoHS)— here's a blog post about the project’s kick-off trip. The project was simple: replace the paper forms used in hospitals with an open source health statistics package. Not only was statistics gathering via paper slow, expensive, and frustrating, it was wildly inaccurate—an analysis of ministry data showed far more babies received their 3rd vaccination shot than received their 2nd shot. Think about it. How can a baby get the 3rd of something without getting the 2nd? Vaccination data, at least, was bogus.

Paper plus Landcruisers to carry the paper to headquarters is state-of-the-art in many parts of the world. And I’ll be honest—our project in Sierra Leone did not fully solve the problem. We replaced paper with data files, but a staffer from the ministry still had to ride a motorcycle around the entire country collecting files on a USB stick to bring them to HQ!

Last year, I travelled to Madagascar to work with Human Network International an NGO that provides communications services to other NGOs. One of HNI’s clients manages a network of over 200 private medical clinics to provide sexual and reproductive health services. They told us that they had never—ever—successfully collected a complete monthly report on the services they had provided. Think about that a moment. Imagine running a business, running it for years, and never once knowing accurately and completely, what you had done in any given month.

The good news is that with HNI’s help and the amazing ubiquitous infrastructure provided by Madagascar’s mobile phone companies (MNOs in industry-speak), this has changed. Monthly reports are rolling in, complete and accurate.

Now this organization is having crazy thoughts—like communicating directly with their patients to provide them critical health information and to hear directly from them about the care they are receiving. It sounds so simple, but it’s revolutionary: entire populations of people who have been lucky to receive any health services at all will be able to demand the quality of service they deserve.

Half a Revolution: Ubiquitous Mobile Networks

Remember the medieval concept of “aether,” an invisible element that fills every corner, every crack of the entire universe? It’s real. We’ve built it here on earth. It’s called the “mobile phone network,” and it covers the entire planet, almost. According to an International Telecommunications Union report from 2008, in 2005 82% of the earth’s population lived in range of a mobile network signal. The same report predicted that by 2011 90% of the world would live in the aether of a mobile network. Here is the section of the ITU’s ICT Regulation Toolkit that quotes the research.

I spent some time searching for newer figures, and Google failed me. But I suspect we’ve achieved far greater coverage than the report from 2008 predicted. Smarter, better-informed, better-looking people than I have told me that today somewhere between 95% to 98% of all humanity live in range of a signal. The vast majority of these networks carry data as well as voice. Some are slow (GPRS), some are fast (3G/4G), and all offer SMS. So in some form, data transmission (“the Internet”) is also ubiquitous.

Not everyone has a phone. The ITU report says that in 2006, “only” 50% of the world’s population had a mobile phone—which is still stunning—but that data is 5 years old. More recent data shows an accelerating trend to universal phone ownership. Phone Count mashes up various data sources and estimates we are 90 days (as of this writing) from “everyone connected” day.

PhoneCount is overly optimistic. We are some distance from universal ownership. Often, “access” means one phone in a family, controlled by a man. There are stubborn pockets of unconnectedness, but, even noting these caveats, this is a revolution: for the first time in human history, (nearly) everyone can communicate, ''in real time'', with voice, or data, to (nearly) everyone else.

The Other Half: Living in a Cloud

Phones are great. But phones alone are half the story. The other half is hidden away in dark, cool, warehouses in Oregon Ireland, and Singapore. Stuffed with servers, these warehouses are what the marketers call the “Cloud.”

Why should anyone care? Two reasons:

  1. Scale. Servers mean scale. 200 hundred doctors voice-calling headquarters with monthly updates may be a pain, but manageable; 1000 doctors is not. How does Facebook handle 800 million customers with only about 3000 employees Servers!
  2. It’s someone else’s problem. Most mission-driven organizations have very few information technology experts. Many of them have none. So unlike Facebook (with their thousands of tech geeks) they can’t build or run their own technology.

I think this is good. A Malagasy reproductive health NGO should spend its time being experton reproductive health in Madagascarnot learning Linux Ruby, PHP, Java or any of the rest of that technical mumbo-jumbo. Unsexy Cloud server farms are run by technology companies that handle some very complicated (and to be honest, pretty sexy) technical problems so that you and I can access the power of the Cloud without being particularly technical ourselves.

I’m not suggesting that mission-driven organizations aren’t capable of being technology experts; I just don’t think they should have to.

The Reach of the Cloud

But wait, you say, is the Cloud available in the developing world? No, not everywhere. But it is everywhere the Internet is, and it’s growing quickly.

As recently as 2009, there was no direct Internet backbone connectivity to East Africa—all traffic went through expensive, slow, satellite links. Since 2009, new undersea cables and land-based fiber-optics networks have brought massive capacity to East Africa. Kenya’s wildly successful mobile money service M-Pesa lives in the Cloud, running on servers hosted in Europe by Rackspace

With Cloud-hosted services, technically expert companies (and non-profits) can offer scaled services (not technology) to mission-driven organizations. This is the key: they offer services not gadgets. Gadgets have to be learned, operated, and maintained. The care and feeding of technology is expensive and difficult. Services are em someone else’s problem!

Mobile+Cloud = Service Explosion

The combination of Mobile and the Cloud as a platform for scaled services (run by someone else) is a launchpad for massive innovation: (nearly) any organization can offer scaled services to (nearly) anyone.

ThoughtWorks’ Social Impact Program is very proud to have contributed to the development of several Mobile/Cloud services for mission-driven organizations. Below are brief descriptions of a few of these projects.

  • Simpa Networks — how does a company make solar power available and affordable to people in rural India when the upfront cost of solar equipment is 3 to 5 times a family’s annual energy budget (typically spent on kerosene and candles)? Low-upfront-cost pay-as-you go power backed by a Cloud/Mobile payments system!
  • CycleTel ™ — Georgetown’s Institute of Reproductive Health wants to bring their fertility-awareness family planning method to India. How do they scale this method, currently available to North American women in the form of physical beads to millions of Indians? Mobile (SMS) backed by Cloud-hosted servers.
  • RapidFTR — Initiated by New York University’s Interactive Telecommunications Program and UNICEF Innovation RapidFTR is an open source project that “Helps aid workers collect, sort and share photographs and information about children in emergency situations so they can be registered for care services and reunited with their families.” RapidFTR combines Smartphone clients with a server infrastructure that can be deployed in the Cloud so that people managing an emergency don’t have to wrestle with technology when they have more pressing problems. It can also be run locally if connectivity is unavailable.
  • DataWinners/Mangrove — collaboration with Madagascar-based Human Network International (HNI) and Columbia University’s Modi Research Lab, Mangrove is an open source framework for building mobile-data collection systems. DataWinners, built on Mangrove and operated by HNI in a Cloud-hosted service, provides mission-driven organizations with mobile-data collection capabilities through a zero-technical-skills- required self-serve web application.