How smart devices are helping NGOs

As the world becomes more interconnected and tech-savvy, communities are becoming increasingly reliant on smartphones. Even in much of the developing world, owning a smartphone has become commonplace. It’s not just a fun electronic gadget — it’s often a lifeline.

Smartphone ownership in developing nations has risen exponentially, with nearly 40 percent of those populations reporting owning a smartphone and regularly accessing the internet. An overwhelming majority of citizens living in these countries report owning at least some sort of mobile device, if you take into account standard (non-smart) cell phone technology, according to the latest findings from Pew Research.

This advancement in connectivity has been huge for NGOs working on humanitarian relief projects in the developing world. These groups, often with the help of the tech industry, have capitalized on the accessibility cell phones allow. They are constantly working to develop new projects that rely on the stability of the cellular phone system.


Here are just a few of the many ways cell phone technology has advanced humanitarian relief efforts:


Providing information more efficiently

SMS texting, one of the most basic features on a mobile device, has become essential for humanitarian workers in crisis zones. Take the Ebola outbreak in western Africa for example: Researchers, using the surveying platform GeoPoll, were able to collect telling information on the well-being of communities affected by the pandemic.  

Limiting face-to-face interactions can be imperative for workers safety, especially during a public health crises like the Ebola outbreak. Beyond that, SMS survey services are able to contact respondents when an area becomes entirely inaccessible. When forced Ebola quarantines in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea impeded workers ability to travel, weekly phone surveys conducted in these areas were able to measure the economic impact of the outbreak, specifically on the agricultural industry. Collected data assisted agencies such as USAID in discovering which communities had been hit the hardest and helped assess the long-term effects the virus would have on the region’s economic stability.

GeoPoll, and services like it, have successfully collected actionable data that provides key information about the socioeconomic functioning of developing nations. From tracking food security in Ebola-affected areas to assessing the political climate in South Africa, direct SMS texting administers on-the-ground analysis that can help organizations predict and cope with crises.


Connecting those in need with those who can help

Humanitarian groups have been eager to take advantage of global connectivity. Social media, paired with increased global access to data networks, has created an international community in which a young girl documenting life in the war-torn city of Aleppo can reach over 350 thousand people worldwide with one tweet. This type of connectedness creates direct lines between those suffering due to humanitarian crises with those eager to help even if they are oceans apart.

One of the many companies capitalizing on this concept is Kiva. The non-profit based out of San Francisco works to alleviate poverty by opening direct lines of communication between small business owners in need of support with those willing to provide loans. Armed with just a smartphone and access to the internet, citizens of more than 80 countries have the opportunity to grow a business with the help of donors thousands of miles away.

Kiva has been especially successful in conflict zones, where it partners with NGOs on the ground to fund local entrepreneurial initiatives. In areas of instability caused by internal fighting or political corruption, funding business ventures can be close to impossible. Kiva has created a communication network that safely supplies loans to those affected by local violence, encouraging development from El Salvador all the way to Pakistan.  


Tracking migration patterns

Organizations have increasingly tapped into the benefits cell phones provide when it comes to tracking human migration. They have found that where traditional survey methods fail, mobile phone data can succeed.

One of the groups at the forefront of migration-tracking data collection is the Flowminder Foundation. Their most recent case study focuses on Bangladesh and the country’s increase in climate change-related migration. Flowminder argues that mobile tracking allows for a better understanding of behavior during severe weather events as it is able to more precisely pick up on individual actions that non-mobile surveys tend to miss. Based on their findings, they are then able to redevelop future disaster preparation plans that are better suited to the area and, ultimately, save lives.


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