The Report

UN harnesses mobile technology for the global good

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Will young people in developing nations share data about social conditions in exchange for access to free music?

Shell executive Herbert Heitmann hopes mPowering Action will help his company and others better direct corporate giving programs so they are more effective.

As of this past autumn, there were a recorded 6 billion mobile subscriptions worldwide. That’s only 1 billion fewer mobile phone users than there are people on the planet, a pretty far reach.

While some of us might be weary of public relations campaigns geared toward this “mobile generation” (aka Gen M), it is increasingly obvious that if you want to reach a global audience, one of the best ways to do so is via cell phones.

Many view that easy access to Gen M primarily in a marketing or commercial context: How can we get our XYZ product into the hands of this on-the-go group of youngsters? How can we learn about mobile spending habits? How can we make lives more convenient and enjoyable? And so-on.

But others hope to harness the attention of young cell-phone-toting people across the globe on behalf of the greater good.

Important social role

There's a great case for doing this. Mobile phones are proving critical in developing nations, where they play a role in education, communication, access to resources, keeping track of weather for irrigation and farming, staying informed on market prices, transferring money, connecting with authorities -- as well as all of the benefits provided by mobile maps apps.

Developing countries are driving tremendous growth across the mobile sector: China and India (at 80% of the population with access) account for about a billion subscriptions each. What's more, mobile phone adoption over the past decade in Africa has been staggering, with more than 65 percent growth in 2011 alone. Among the approximately one billion people on the continent, there are a projected 700 million-plus SIM cards (different from unique users).

The reason for this dramatic adoption is pretty simple: Mobile phones make a lot of sense in places that lack modern infrastructure, say, than landlines or dial-up connections. Communications were a problem until mobile phones arrived, and now they are pretty close to ubiquitous in some regions.

Plenty of startups are targeting that opportunity, many of them with a social twist.

There’s Ushahidi, a place to do real-time mapping of elections or disasters; mPedigree, a mobile service that helps patients check whether medications are authentic or expired; Farmerline, an app that tells farmers where they can get the best price for their goods; Magpi, a service that helps public health officials streamline the way they collect data to know what problems affect the population. There are ways for communities to stay in touch, like Mxit and FrontlineSMS. And MIT NextLab is designing technology for the next wave of cell users: among other things, it is focusing on the battle against illiteracy in Indian villages, facilitating a logistics app for Colombian truck drivers and helping local health reporters in Mexico.

Aside from these noble purposes, you can’t overlook the entertainment value of mobile tech, their role in disseminating new music, games and even celebrity gossip. That's a key element of a new app from the United Nations Foundation (along with corporate and artistic partners including Royal Dutch Shell and Timbaland), called mPowering Action.

A story for a song

The idea is pretty simple: the mPowering Action app enables the UN Foundation to collect valuable data about the youth of the world and the challenges they face, in exchange for giving them access to free music.

Its creators hope that the app will ultimately provide young people with increased access to education, health resources and jobs -- all through their phones. And, of course, by enabling them to stay better connected with each other across international borders.

“I definitely think this [mPowering Action platform] will be useful. One of the main challenges we have faced over the years has been an inability to track or coordinate the different actions at the various levels that people take after a global process like the Global Youth Forum," says Samuel Kissi, a UN Youth leader from Ghana and on the International Steering Committee of the ICPD’s Global Youth Forum in an email. "People are sometimes at a loss as to how they can contribute to making all the discussions and agreements a reality. An even bigger task is to learn about what others are doing and to see how one can learn from that."

Here’s how it works: young people download the app and receive free music when they enter information about their location and the issues that affect them. Essentially, they have to tell a story to download a song, many of which are being created specifically for this platform. The mobile app will also allow users to search for nonprofits near them, find people like them around the world, and get more involved in their own communities. The data will be recorded and analyzed: NGOs and corporations will be able to track progress of their CSR initiatives, and donate goods or services that address problems identified by mPowering Action users. The point is to encourage action in healthcare, education, reproductive rights, energy use and resource management and employment.

“We want to ask them what they care about instead of telling them what to care about,” says Jeff Martin, CEO of Tribal Brands Inc. and Tribal Technologies Inc., launch partners of mPowering Action. “The second part of the experience is to unite them with people they wouldn’t have known about who have the same story, so they recognize they aren’t alone.”

Better guidance for CSR initiatives

The third motivation is to introduce users to corporations and NGOs that might be able to solve their particular problem. Say safe cooking is a concern. When that issue is mentioned within the app, a company like Shell that already runs a cookstove donation program can take action by donating more to that region and directing the user to where they can get one. On the flip side, the app can help these organizations track the effectiveness of their charitable giving efforts. Shell's Clean Cook Stove Initiative is an example of a program that today has virtually no source of feedback, and that could benefit from the new platform.

“We have no idea if it's reaching the right sources to have an impact,” says Dr. Herbert Heitmann, executive vice president of external communications for Royal Dutch Shell. “This platform will show us where it's successful and unsuccessful, and all in all it will be more impactful.”

mPowering Action launched the week of the Grammy Awards in Los Angeles with a star-studded party. Timbaland and Justin Timberlake were on hand to raise awareness and inspire other artists and corporations to join their cause. The first exclusive track for the platform is from Timbaland and Agnes Monica, and other musicians and producers like DJ Avicii will contribute work, with more to be announced soon.

The app is available on major smartphone platforms, through text, and through the Web and Xbox for those without phones, making it so no one has to buy a new device to use it. You can already download the mobile edition from the Apple App Store, with an update planned for April 6.

"It needs to be easy, fun and not restrictive," Martin says. "The more stories, the more action, the more music. The key for us to measure what's important to them so we can all participate in a dialogue."

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Beth Carter

Contributing Editor

Beth Carter is a freelance journalist based in San Francisco. She has worked for Catalyst magazine, the New York Times Syndicate, BBC Travel and Wired. She holds degrees from the University of Oregon and New York University. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure